STUTTGART, Germany — The top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asian affairs was in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday as part of a U.S. effort to extend the soon-to-expire operational lease at Manas air base, a crucial transit hub for military operations in Afghanistan.
Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake Jr.’s visit follows reports in Russian media that the former Soviet state has no intention of renewing the U.S. lease of Manas, which is slated to end next year.
“Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has said repeatedly that the agreement on the Transit Center at the Manas Airport in Bishkek will not be extended after its expiration in 2014,” presidential press secretary Kadyr Toktogulov toldthe Interfax news agency.
“Kyrgyzstan is currently working with its partners, among them Russia, the U.S. and other countries, on establishing a civilian transportation hub at the Manas Airport, which should start operations there after 2014,” Toktogulov told the Russian news agency.
Russia, which has long been leery of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, also has bases in the country.
Atambaev has vowed to close the U.S. military section of the Manas facility when the current lease, which includes $60 million in annual U.S. rental payments, expires in July. However, the U.S. continues to press for an extension.
Blake, in an interview with Voice of America shortly before his three-day tour through Central Asia, said during his visit to Kyrgyzstan he intended to discuss extending the lease at Manas.
“Manas is a very important logistics operation for the United States, but also the center through which almost all our troops pass to go into Afghanistan,” he said.
Blake’s visit comes nearly one year after a similar trip by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who in March stopped in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek for talks focused on how to maintain a continued U.S. presence.
If the transit center were to shutter, it could complicate matters as the military presses ahead with its drawdown in Afghanistan. Most U.S. troops entering and leaving Afghanistan travel through Manas. In 2011, some 580,000 U.S. and allied personnel traveled through Manas, which also functions as an important refueling center.
While the transit center has been key to U.S. military logistical efforts, maintaining the facility hasn’t been without challenges. In April 2010, military flights from Manas into Afghanistan were suspended following violent political upheaval in the country, which disrupted the movement of NATO troops. And in 2009, the U.S. nearly lost access to Manas when Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to evict the U.S. and close the base by August. After negotiations, a new deal that tripled rental fees was struck, allowing the U.S. military to continue operating at Manas.