Back to base

Published : Mar 27, 2009 00:00 IST



ON February 20, Kyrgyzstan served the United States a 180-day notice for eviction from its key air base at Manas international airport in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, after the Kyrgyz Parliament voted overwhelmingly to shut down the base. With this, the Pentagon will lose its only remaining military outpost in Central Asia.

The Manas base was established in December 2001, along with another one in Uzbekistan, to provide air support for the U.S.-led military operation to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan. After Uzbekistan shut down the U.S. air base at Karshi-Khanabad, Manas has been the only logistic hub in Central Asia for hauling troops and supplies for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Its 14,000-foot (4,267-metre) runway, originally built for Soviet bombers, has been servicing U.S. C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and KC-135 air refuelling tankers. According to the U.S. Defence Department, the air base handles about 15,000 passengers and 500 tonnes of cargo every month.

Kyrgyzstan cited inadequate compensation for the use of Manas and widespread public discontent over ecological damage caused by the U.S. military presence as reasons for closing the airbase. The U.S. initially paid $2 million a year to use the base and raised the rent to $17 million in 2006; it also funded other assistance programmes, worth over $100 million, in Kyrgyzstan . However, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev complained that the U.S. was not paying enough rent for the Manas base. He said the Kyrgyz government had failed to reach understanding with Washington on the issue.

For all the importance of the rent question for impoverished Kyrgyzstan, its decision to close the base has more to do with the Great Game between Russia and the U.S. for dominance in energy-rich Central Asia.

When the U.S. opened its bases in Central Asia, it insisted that it was neither seeking a permanent military presence in the region nor pursuing a containment strategy targeting Russia. We dont want U.S. bases in Central Asia, then Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones said in February 2002. Our goal with the Russians is to make sure that they understand we are not trying to compete with them in Central Asia, [that] were not trying to take over Central Asia from them.

However, before long Washington changed its mind. It decided that the bases in Central Asia established in 2001 to support the war in Afghanistan would be preserved as training sites and as staging areas that U.S. forces could use in emergencies, The Washington Post reported in March 2004 citing Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Douglas J. Feith. The Pentagon went on to try and enlarge its foothold in Central Asia, holding talks with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on opening U.S. bases on their territories and drawing up plans to expand the Manas air base.

Russia could not but see these plans as encroachment on its historical sphere of interest. In late 2003, Russia opened its own air base in Kyrgyzstan, several kilometres from the U.S. base at Manas. In 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by Russia and China, which also unites Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, called on the U.S. to set a deadline to pull out its bases in Central Asia. Shortly afterwards, Uzbekistan ordered the Pentagon out of the Karshi-Khanabad base.

Now Moscow has taken advantage of the global economic crisis to push the U.S. out of its last stronghold in Central Asia. President Bakiyev announced his decision to evict the U.S. base after talks with Russian leaders during his visit to Moscow in early February. Russia offered Kyrgyzstan over $2 billion in aid and investment, which exceeds Kyrgyzstans two annual budgets and provides a lifeline to its economy, which is tottering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The Western media accused Russia of trying to undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan as the U.S. embarked on a surge in the war against the Taliban, with President Barack Obama ordering the dispatch of 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. However, Moscow countered the charges by offering the U.S. a supply route to Afghanistan across Russian territory.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed a few days before the Kyrgyz leader made his bombshell announcement, Russia granted a U.S. request for overland transit of non-military supplies to Afghanistan. Shortly afterwards, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan gave their consent to U.S. transit. The first railway train with U.S. supplies travelled from Latvia on the Baltic Sea through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan in the last week of February. The U.S. embassy in Latvia said 20 to 30 trainloads a week could go to Afghanistan if the route proved a success.

The new route will ease U.S. dependence on transit through Pakistan, which has recently been disrupted by growing Taliban attacks. But it will also create U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) dependence on Russia.

Kyrgyzstans eviction of the U.S. base and Russias offer of overland transit to U.S. cargo were part of one and the same message Moscow sent to Washington: it is willing to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, but the help will come on Russias terms. Central Asia will stay in Russias orbit.

A day after Kyrgyzstans decision, Russia further staked its claim to dominance in Central Asia when a summit in Moscow of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russia-led defence pact of seven former Soviet nations, agreed to establish collective rapid reaction forces. The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the 15,000-strong joint force would be as combat-ready as NATO forces in order to ensure security for the CSTO zone of responsibility, which includes the whole of former Soviet Central Asia. Significantly, the decision to turn the CSTO into a full-fledged military alliance came less than six months after Russia reasserted its supremacy in the Caucasus by thrashing U.S. ally Georgia, recognising the independence of Georgias breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and moving to set up military bases in the region.

Following the agreement on U.S. non-military transit, Moscow let it be known that it may also allow the Pentagon to ship its military supplies to Afghanistan across Russia and was even willing to provide Russian transport aircraft to ferry U.S. cargo. Firm control of Central Asia and the transit routes to Afghanistan gives Russia leverage to push its interests elsewhere halting NATOs eastward expansion and rolling back the deployment of U.S. missile defences in its backyard.

The Obama administration has vowed to reset relations with Russia, but there is strong suspicion in Moscow that it may again be taken for a ride, as in 2001 when President Vladimir Putin wholeheartedly supported the U.S. war on terror agreeing to the establishment of U.S. bases in Central Asia and the shutting down of a key Russian electronic spy centre in Cuba and got nothing in return. The closure of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan shows that this time Moscow is prepared to do business with Washington on a quid pro quo basis.

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