Kyrgyz unrest casts uncertainty on U.S. presence at Manas
U.S. operations at Manas affected by Kyrgyz unrestKyrgyz forms interim government backed by the armySTUTTGART, Germany — Military flights from Manas air base into Afghanistan were suspended following violent political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, disrupting the movement of NATO troops and raising questions about the status of the U.S. military at the strategic logistical hub.
U.S. troops have been restricted to the facility, Manas spokesman Maj. Rickardo Bodden told The Associated Press, and humanitarian missions and other trips that would normally take troops off the base have been suspended. Military flights were grounded late Wednesday and for much of the day Thursday, but Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said “limited operations” had resumed.
If the opposition completes an overthrow of the Kyrgyzstan government, the U.S. will be forced to once again negotiate a new deal with different power brokers to keep this crucial transit point in operation. The current one-year lease expires in July, but though opposition leaders have previously expressed objection to the U.S. presence, there has been no talk of eviction and experts say such a move would be unlikely. Manas operates at the Bishkek airport, less than 20 miles northwest of the city
On Thursday, opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, the former foreign minister, told the AP there were no plans to review the current agreement.
“Give us time,” Otunbayeva said. “It will take time for us to understand and fix the situation.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. deplored the violence and urged all to respect the rule of law, according to AP.
“[We at] Manas have taken all appropriate measures to continue to support operations in Afghanistan,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Rickardo Bodden, a public affairs officer, told AP Thursday. He refused to elaborate for security reasons.
Last year, 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, a major hub that transported 50,000 troops in March alone.
The U.S. military’s yearly rent was raised from $17 million to about $63 million, AP noted, and the U.S. is also paying $67 million for airport improvements and navigation systems and another $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.
Annette Bohr, an expert in Central Asia at the Chatham House in London, said regardless of who is in power, it is unlikely that the military base will be shuttered. In the end, it comes down to money, and the poor Central Asian nation desperately needs more of it, she said.
“When all is said and done, there is so little money,” Bohr said. “It is a country with very little economy. They depend on that source of income.”
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a national security expert at the U.S. Naval War College, said following last year’s near closure of Manas, the U.S. government has likely been busy looking for alternatives in the event of another shift in policy by the Kyrgyzstan government.
“We need to look at Georgia, which has made offers. There’s been talk of Azerbaijan in the transit of supplies,” Gvosdev said. “There’s always the option of reopening talks with Uzbekistan. I wold assume we should be reexamining all options in terms of basing.”
Still, it appears that Manas is likely to remain open even with a new government there.
“I think what plays to our advantage is that we have shown we’re not really interested in playing local politics and we pay the rents on time,” Gvosdev said.
The U.S. also could strengthen its position by providing assurances that Manas will only be used for operations in Afghanistan and not Iran, where Kyrgyzstan has economic interests, he said.
In early March, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, visited Manas and conducted meetings with the President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has since fled the capital. During his stop, Petraeus visited U.S. military humanitarian assistance projects and participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for a $700,000 women’s crisis center.
Now, it appears that U.S. military has different political leadership to contend with after an opposition coalition on Thursday proclaimed a new interim government. The interim government said it would rule until elections are held in six months, AP reported. The country’s armed forces also have joined the opposition and will not be used against protesters, according to the AP.