Kyrgyzstan's parliament OKs closing Manas base
February 20, 2009
The Kyrgyz parliament voted overwhelmingly Thursday to shut down a vital U.S. air base, creating potential problems with President Barack Obama’s plans to quickly send more troops to Afghanistan.
The 78-1 vote by the parliament approved a government proposal to shut Manas Air Base, through which some 15,000 passengers pass through each month on their way in and out of Afghanistan.
The base is also home to tanker aircraft that refuel warplanes patrolling the skies and providing close air support over the battlefield.
Once the law is signed by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the U.S. military would have 180 days to cease operations at the base, according to U.S. and Kyrgyz officials.
Maj. John Redfield, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Florida, referred questions regarding the vote to the U.S. State Department. And he said that the military’s Transportation Command would be better suited to talk about supply routes.
Still, Redfield said military leaders have been working on solutions to the issue and continue to do so.
"We don’t put all of our eggs into one basket," he said. "We always have options."
Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. military has other options should the base close, but did not elaborate on them.
"I’m comfortable that these options will support us very well if we get to that point," he said.
Closing the base — an action pushed by Bakiyev — has variously been described by analysts as a brazen attempt by the Kyrgyz to get more money from the United States, and as a regional power struggle between the U.S. and Russia.
Bakiyev’s announcement in February that he wanted the base shut down came a day after Russia pledged more than $2 billion in aid and loans to Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. Bakiyev has flatly stated that the United States refused to increase the amount it paid the Kyrgyz government to operate at Manas.
In January, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said the U.S. government paid around $63 million a year for Manas.
Russia also maintains an air base in Kyrgyzstan, though the Russians pay no rent.
Top U.S. officials have criticized the Russians’ role.
"I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him to Poland on Thursday. "On one hand, you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, you’re working against us in terms of that airfield which is clearly important to us."
Manas is currently home to around 1,000 U.S. troops, along with 100 Spanish and French servicemembers. In addition, there are some 650 contractors who work on the base, according to the U.S. Air Force.
"Once all the procedures are over, an official eviction vote will be sent and after that the United States will be given 180 days to wrap up operations at the air base," the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said in a statement after Thursday’s vote.
According to state news services, Bakiyev would sign the law "within the next month."
If the base closure is finalized, the U.S. military will have to shift much of the air operations supporting the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the main land supply route through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass has been targeted by repeated attacks. The military has said that around 75 percent of its supplies for Afghanistan – including 40 percent of its fuel — is shipped via Pakistan.
Petraeus was in Uzbekistan this week, ostensibly to discuss renewing the U.S. presence there. The Uzbeks shut down a U.S. support base in 2005 after the American government joined an international condemnation of the Uzbeks’ human rights record.
One of the new routes, beginning in Latvia and winding its way through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will soon be tested with its first shipment of non-military supplies, officials have said.
The U.S. already has multiple transportation options and routes in play. Many air missions originate in the States and pass through places such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany or Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Ramstein is known as the military’s largest transportation hub overseas.
The Air Force also has various operations in several other countries in the region, including Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
Stripes reporter Kent Harris contributed to this report.