February 19, 2009
Kyrgyzstan Approves U.S. Air Base Closure, Threatening Afghan Supply Chain
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Kyrgyzstan's parliament has approved a government order closing the Manas air base, used by the United States to transport supplies and troops to Afghanistan.
The air base is a key staging post for the reinforcement and supply of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Each month some 15,000 U.S. soldiers pass through it on the way to and from the conflict zone, along with 500 tons of supplies.
Its importance to the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan has grown significantly in recent months, as Taliban insurgents have shown themselves capable of interrupting the main road supply route from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.
Now, after the February 19 vote in the Kyrgyz parliament, it looks as though the lease on Manas will be lost. According to reports, the United States will have 180 days to leave the base once President Kurmanbek Bakiev signs the bill and the government issues an eviction notice.
Bakiev has said that he wants the Manas base closed because the United States is not paying enough for its use.
The draft passed in parliament with 78 votes in support, two against, and one abstention.
Despite the overwhelming approval for the base closure, there was also opposition. Bakyt Beshimov, the head of the parliamentary group of the Social Democratic Party, read a statement warning against driving the United States away.
"In 1999 and 2000, Kyrgyzstan came under attack by terrorists from Afghanistan. At the time, thanks to joint efforts, we managed to repel threats to the security and stability of Central Asia," Beshimov said in his statement in parliament. "But this threat remains on the agenda of various extremist and terrorist organizations, whose aim is to install religious fanaticism in the region, reshuffle the political cards, and change the form of government.
Beshimov continued: "In this difficult time, weakening the system of regional security opens the way to extremism and terrorism. Led exclusively by the national interest of Kyrgyzstan, we believe the decision to evacuate the Ganci [Manas] air base is premature."
Eleventh Hour Talks
A last-minute solution to the problem cannot be ruled out. The AFP news agency quoted Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbaev as saying that Kyrgyz and U.S. diplomats remain in daily talks about the air base.
But Sarbaev said that "not one suggestion" has come from the U.S. side. He did not say what sort of increased payment his government might be seeking for the lease of Manas.
Kyrgyz officials have previously denied that their stand toward the United States is being influenced by Moscow. Nevertheless, President Bakiev announced his decision to evict the United States after the Russian government of President Dmitry Medvedev promised an aid and loan package worth $2.1 billion.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Russia appears to playing the issue both ways. On the one hand, Gates said, Moscow is sending the United States positive signals about supporting its mission in Afghanistan, while on the other hand it is "working against us" on the question of the Manas base.
Kyrgyzstan's move to close the base has prompted the United States to explore establishing new Central Asian supply lines to Afghanistan, as it moves to build up forces to battle the Taliban militants.