WASHINGTON — For the last six months of the Afghanistan war, U.S. military personnel and cargo headed into and out of Afghanistan by air will transit through Romania rather than Kyrgyzstan, the Pentagon announced late Friday.
The United States will abandon the Transit Center at Manas, located near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, when a lease on the facility expires on July 11, 2014. Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Council in June voted not to extend a lease for the air base through the end of the war.
Instead, the flights will now be routed through the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase on the Black Sea, Pentagon officials said. Known as Forward Operating Site MK, the site provides garrison support for up to 1,350 rotational forces and is now manned by five military members and 20 contractors, officials said.
Romania did not agree to host the air refueling flights currently run out of Manas, however. Those operations will be moved to a facility in Southwest Asia, officials said.
Although the Romanian base is more than three times as far from Afghanistan as Manas, officials said the increased distance would make little logistical difference, and that MK’s proximity to the Black Sea coast would be a benefit.
The agreement came out of a Friday meeting at the Pentagon between U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in an emailed statement.
“Secretary Hagel and Minister Dusa finalized an agreement for Romania to support logistics into and out of Afghanistan, including both personnel and cargo movement,” Little wrote. “Secretary Hagel praised this agreement, which is particularly important as the U.S. prepares to wind down transit center operations at Manas, Kyrgystan next year. Secretary Hagel highlighted this agreement as a further testament to Romania’s steadfast commitment to the ISAF mission and its commitment to regional and international security.”
The Manas airbase has been key to U.S. operations in Afghanistan since late 2001, and some 1,500 military personnel work at the base, which has been threatened for closure by Kyrgyzstan for years.
In 2009, the Kyrgyz government voted to expel American operations from the airbase, but U.S. negotiatiors were able to extend the lease by tripling yearly payments to about $60 million.
Dennis Deletant, a visiting professor of Romanian studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said pro-U.S. sentiment is strong in post-communist Romania, which has been eager to demonstrate its support for NATO and U.S. military operations.
Most Romanians see instability in Afghanistan as a fertile ground for terrorism to spread and threaten Europe, and support U.S. goals there, he said.
“It is therefore no surprise that the U.S. has opted to use the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, situated in south-east Romania 16 miles northwest of Constanta, the country’s principal port on the Black Sea, for transit of people into and out of Afghanistan,” Deletant wrote in an email Friday to Stars and Stripes. “In 2003, it became one of four Romanian military facilities that have been used by U.S. military forces as a staging area for the invasion of and ongoing counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq, operated by the 458th Air Expeditionary Group, and it has become one of the main operating bases of US Army Europe's Joint Task Force East, a rotating task force initially to provided by the US 2nd Cavalry Regiment. As of October 2009 the US had spent $48 million upgrading the base. Since 2009 the US operates a Permanent Forward Operating Site (PFOS) which has 78 buildings and uses the land of a former Romanian Infantry Brigade base.”
The base is also alleged to have been one of the “black sites” where terrorist suspects were interrogated in the CIA’s network of extraordinary rendition facilities, Deletant said.
Little said Hagel in the meeting Thursday with Dusa also praised Romania’s decision to host the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system, as well as a planned purchase of 12 F-16 fighter jets from Portugal.