UNITED STATES AIR BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Just before Christmas 2001, Peter J. Ganci Air Base was opened up next to Manas airport, outside Bishkek, the main civilian airport in Kyrgyzstan. The base was tent city for 2,000 soldiers, half of them Americans. The facilities included a small power plant, air-conditioned tents, a hospital, two large kitchens, wide screen televisions, an Internet café, and massive tents with weight lifting and recreation equipment. Later $10 million was spent to replace the tents with more substantial structures.
The base was set up as a staging area for troops and cargo going into or out of Afghanistan. During the early stages of Afghanistan war in 2002, FA-18 fighter jets and French Mirages took off for daily sorties over Afghanistan while the bombing campaign was underway and KC-135 tankers and Spanish, Dutch and Danish cargo planes delivered supplies. Over the years Manas airbase was used to ferry tens of thousands of troops in and out of Afghanistan each year and also hosted planes used for the mid-air refueling of combat aircraft. Its presence was vital to U.S.- and NATO-led coalition military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Russia gave its consent to Washington and its NATO allies to use Central Asia as a staging post for the Afghan war after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The base at Manas airport pumped much needed millions into the Kyrgyzstan economy. Each take off and landing earned the government $7,000. Gravel, jet fuel, consumer goods and travel tours were provided locally. However, local people complained that the soldiers didn’t spend much money outside the base and noise from the jets caused their chickens to stop laying eggs. Much of the $50 million that Kyrgyzstan received in aid in 2004 went towards supporting the base. Much of that money ended up in the hands of Akayev family members. See Corruption.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The Diplomat: “The Transit Center at Manas was especially important for U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts in Afghanistan, as it was the first and last stop for soldiers entering Central Asia en route to fight in Afghanistan. Additionally, it was home to a logistics and refueling operation run by the United States Air Force for the war in Afghanistan. The base at Manas...transported 5.3 million military servicemen from 26 countries in and out the Afghanistan conflict theatre. It became especially important as a transportation hub after 2005, when the United States was evicted from its other base in the region, in Uzbekistan. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The Diplomat, June 10, 2014]
Orozbek Moldailiev, head of SEDEP Research Center, a political think tank in Bishkek, told the Los Angeles Times: “When the U.S. base came, many people immediately began to accuse Kyrgyzstan of having betrayed its allies. Then when the Russians came in as well, some began to fear hat a conflict between Americans and Russians on the territory of Kyrgyzstan was invertible...In truth, it’s not just a small profit, it’s a huge benefit for us. Kyrgyzstan is not only milking two cows, it is also deriving a profit from China. So for most of us, the Cold War has gone from being ‘either-or,’ to ‘and-and.’”
Closing the United States Air Base in Kyrgyzstan?
The American base at Manas airport from the outset was designated as temporary: closing down after the war in Afghanistan was over. Everyone thought the American would be in Kyrgyzstan longer than that. Russia and China put some pressure on Kyrgyzstan to ask the United States for a deadline to withdraw from its base. The Kyrgyz government question the base’s necessity. After Akayev was ousted in March 2005, there was some doubt as to whether the United States would be able to keep its air base in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. base in Uzbekistan was closed down in 2005.
On a visit to Bishkek in July, 2005 U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld was given assurances that the United States would be allowed to keep the base. Maj. Gen. Ismail Isakov, the Kyrgyz defense minister, said, “The base in Manas will stay as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires.” Around the same time, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said, “Afghanistan has had presidential and parliamentary elections. The situation there has stabilized. So now we may begin discussing the necessity of the U.S. military force’s presence. When and how it will happen, time will show.” At that stage the Kyrgyz bases was used by a dozen or so KC-135 refueling jets and C-130 cargo planes and was home to 1,200 American and South Korean military personnel.
In February 2009, the Kyrgyz Parliament voted to close the U.S. base in Manas — then the only U.S. air base in Central Asia. Bakiyev suggested the base be closed because the U.S. refused to pay a higher rent for it. The U.S. was initially stunned by decision. An effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to re-establish a major presence in Central Asia was seen as a behind-the-scenes force in the decision. Two billion dollars in Moscow loans to Kyrgyzstan were tied to the U.S. base’s closure. The Kyrgyz government said the decision was final and moves to shut down the base began in June 2009. Washington later agrees to pay $180 million a year to Kyrgyzstan to keep the base open. The previous rental fee for the base was $60 million a year. [Source: Reuters]
U.S. Pays $180 Million to Keep Kyrgyz Base Open
In June 2009, the United States has agreed to pay $180 million to Kyrgyzstan to keep open the U.S. air base there, which was used to supply troops fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Olga Dzyubenko of Reuters wrote: “The United States has been bargaining with Kyrgyzstan to keep the Manas air base open since February when the former Soviet republic announced its closure after securing pledges of $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia. The decision to keep the base open marks a victory for Washington as it seeks to more than double its presence in Afghanistan by year's end to fight the Taliban insurgency."The reason for entering these agreements was the general situation in Afghanistan and around it," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev told parliament's defense committee. "Obviously, we cannot ignore potential threats," he said. [Source: Olga Dzyubenko, Reuters, June 23, 2009 ><]
“Under the deal, the United States will pay Kyrgyzstan about $180 million for keeping the Manas base. The annual rent for the base will go up to $60 million a year from $17.4 million currently. Washington will also provide $67 million to upgrade Manas airport, $20 million for a joint economic development fund and $32 million to fight drug trafficking and terrorism.It was not clear whether the base would be used for military or non-military cargo to Afghanistan, though Kyrgyzstan will not check the U.S. planes at the base, according to the document. "We applaud the decision by the Kyrgyz Republic to continue to play a key role as the international community broadens and deepens its commitment to bringing stability and security to Afghanistan and the region," said Michelle Yerkin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Bishkek. "These arrangements provide for a transit center at Manas international airport that provides logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan," she said. ><
The base, which serves as a key refueling point for aircraft used in Afghanistan, is important to Washington because supply routes through Pakistan have been attacked by militants. The surprise decision to close the base — announced in by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Moscow alongside Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev — provoked speculation that Russia was trying to use the issue as a bargaining chip in U.S. relations. Russia has denied being behind the decision, though Moscow has made no secret of seeking to check U.S. interests in the former Soviet Union, which it regards as its sphere of influence. The Kremlin says it is ready for cooperation with Washington on fighting the Taliban and Afghanistan is likely to be on the agenda when U.S. President Barack Obama visits Moscow in July. Russia's Foreign Ministry released a terse statement saying that the new Manas agreement "was the sovereign right" of Kyrgyzstan.
Obama has embarked on a massive build-up of forces in Afghanistan in a bid to quell the growing Taliban insurgency and troop levels are expected to rise to 68,000 by the end of 2009. "The reported decision gives the United States another option for re-supply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan," said Colonel Christopher Langton, Senior Fellow at the International Institute Strategic Studies. "It provides the United States with a greater ability to supply U.S. forces," he said. Kyrgyz deputies said the deal was signed on Monday and that parliament was likely to vote on its ratification this week.
Russia Angry at Kyrgyzstan 'Dirty Trick': Keeping the U.S. Base Open
Russia was angry the decision of the Kyrgyzstan government to allow the U.S. air base to remain open and calling it a “transit center” for the transport of non-lethal military goods to Afghanistan. AFP reported: “The agreement effectively reversed an earlier decision in which Kyrgyzstan had ordered the Manas airbase to close -- a decision that was widely believed to have been made under Russian pressure. “The news about the preservation of the base was an extremely unpleasant surprise for us. We did not anticipate such a dirty trick,” the Foreign Ministry source told Kommersant. [Source: AFP, June 25, 2009 <+>]
“The source said that Russia would give a “corresponding response” and dismissed the base's new description as a “transit center”, saying that Manas would essentially remain a U.S. military base. “Renaming the base a center is a cosmetic alteration. The real nature of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia has not changed, which goes against the interests of Russia and our agreements with the Kyrgyz government.” The comments were much harsher than Russia's official reaction, which said Kyrgyzstan had the “sovereign right” to make such a decision. <+>
“Bakiyev announced the decision to close the base in February during a visit to Moscow -- on the same day that Russia unveiled a generous aid package to his impoverished country. In the package, Russia agreed to settle an estimated $180-million debt owed by Bishkek to Moscow, extend Kyrgyzstan a grant worth $150 million, and loan it two billion dollars more. Russia has consistently denied playing any role in Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the base. But the base's presence had long irritated Moscow, which sees it as an intrusion into its former Soviet domains in Central Asia.” <+>
U.S. Military Plane Crashes in Kyrgyzstan
In May, 2013, a U.S. military tanker-refueling plane crashed in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The plane, a KC-135, was en route from the Transit Center at Manas to Afghanistan on a combat aerial refueling mission, The crew of three perished in the mishap. Associated Press reported: “The search for survivors was complicated by the harsh terrain of soaring mountains and deep valleys. The crash site is near the village of Chaldovar, about 100 miles (160km) west of the Manas air base. Pieces of the plane, including its tail, lay in a grassy field bordered by mountains; the air was infused with the heavy stench of petrol. [Source: Associated Press, May 3, 2013]
Witnesses said the U.S. tanker airplane caught fire and broke apart in the air, according to local officials. "At about [3:20 p.m. local time], we received information that a U.S. fueling plane disappeared off the radar," Azamat Mambetov, an official with Kyrgyzstan's Emergency Situations Ministry said. "Shortly after this news, we got a telephone call from a resident of an area about 40 miles west of Bishkek that a big explosion was heard in the local mountains." [Source: Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2103 \+/]
The Los Angeles Times reported: “A local official told a Russian news agency that residents were reporting that the crash site was engulfed in flames. "According to eyewitnesses' accounts, the plane caught fire and broke in half while still up in the air," Bolot Shershenaliev, a senior emergency ministry official told the Rossiya 24 television channel. "They even said that they saw parachutes, but no parachutes have been found." \+/
“The crash was the third in less than a week involving aircraft used by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. On Monday, seven civilians were killed when a U.S.-contracted cargo plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Bagram air field, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. On Saturday, four U.S. airmen were killed when a military turboprop plane crashed in southern Afghanistan.” \+/
U.S. Vacates Manas Air Base in 2014
In June 2014, the United States vacated the air base outside Manas airport, signaling the end of the U.S. military presence in former-Soviet Central Asia that had lasted more than a decade. Olga Dzyubenko of Reuters wrote: “In a move aimed at pleasing its former overlord Russia, parliament in Kyrgyzstan voted a year earlier to give Washington until July 11 to vacate the Manas Transit Center, which has served U.S. operations in Afghanistan since 2001. The base moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and handled tens of thousands of cargo shipments and refueling missions. "We were known as the gateway to Afghanistan on freedom's frontier," Colonel John Millard, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and Manas base head, said. "We offloaded more than 1 billion liters of fuel to 136,000 coalition aircraft ... We like to say we fueled the fight." [Source: Olga Dzyubenko, Reuters, June 3, 2014 ==]
With the U.S. planning to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and to pull out the rest by the end of 2016, the importance of Manas to Washington would have been greatly diminished. Russia initially gave its consent to Washington to use Central Asia as a staging post for the Afghan war. But Moscow later became increasingly wary of foreign military presence in the region it considers its sphere of influence. After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev promptly assured Russia the Manas base would be shut. ==
Over 13 years, Manas was the main staging post for troops of 26 countries on their way in and out of Afghanistan, and provided mid-air refueling of combat aircraft. "We literally moved 98 percent of all ISAF and coalition forces into and out of Afghanistan," Millard said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. As its remaining contingent of around 300 soldiers prepares to leave Manas, the U.S. government will hand over accommodation facilities, special airport vehicles, a new fire department and other equipment worth a total of around $30 million to Kyrgyzstan. ==
What the Closure of Manas Air Base Means
Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The Diplomat: “The closure of the Transit Center is seen as beneficial in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz parliament voted in 2013 to give the United States until July 11, 2014 to vacate the base, choosing this option over the $60 million a year rent that the U.S. paid Kyrgyzstan for the base. The resurgence of Russian influence in the region was the key factor in the departure of the U.S. from Manas. Upon being elected in 2011, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev assured Russia, increasingly wary of American influence in its backyard, that he would shut the base. Indeed, the Russian media seems a lot more interested in the base’s closing than the Kyrgyz media, since Russia views the departure of American forces as geopolitically significant to its goals of reestablishing itself as the sole dominant power in Central Asia. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The Diplomat, June 10, 2014 *-*]
“More than geopolitics, economic factors have been instrumental in Kyrgyzstan’s decision. Kyrgyzstan, like neighboring Tajikistan, is largely dependent on Russia’s economy and relies on its market for exports and for remittances from guest workers. Its location and the positioning of its infrastructure in the direction of Russia, a legacy of the Soviet Union, make alternatives difficult and costly. In 2012, the Russian government agreed to write off over $500 million in Kyrgyz debt after the country agreed to host a Russian base for 15 years. *-*
“Even more tempting is membership in Russia’s new pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), for which Kyrgyzstan has few other alternatives given that it cannot join the European Union (EU) or other regionally based trade blocs (unlike Ukraine). Kyrgyzstan has indicated it will join the EEU soon. The EEU, which aims for closer economic integration among its member states, boasts a market of 170 million people and a GDP of $3 trillion. While there is a debate over whether China will be the chief economic player in the region, it is likely that Kyrgyzstan will join the EEU, however diluted it ends up becoming, because of its close political links to Russia. *-*
“For the United States, the closure of Manas, coming on the heels of the announcement to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan to 9,800 soldiers, makes it increasingly clear that it does not have a clear, long-term plan to engage with the region, which ranks low on its list of geopolitical priorities. In effect, it is conceding the region to Russia and China. Even if the United States remains involved in Afghanistan and its soldiers remain there for the long run, there is little to indicate that this would lead to further U.S. involvement in Central Asia. Afghanistan is increasingly becoming associated with and integrated into South Asia rather than Central Asia in its military, economic, and cultural patterns and the nexus between it and Central Asia has lessened as a result. In any case, the closure of Manas, other than reducing its influence in a region where it already had little to begin with, is not a major loss for the United States. The U.S. has moved its operations to a cheaper base in Romania, while refueling services are likely to be moved to the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. *-*
“The shift in American priorities and interests is important in understanding why the Kyrgyz government has decided to bet on Russia in the long term, at least relative to strengthening its ties with the U.S. While the United States may or may not be a major player in Central Asia in the future, Russia is a neighbor whose influence in the region is there to stay. From the perspective of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states, this predictability makes Russia a safer, long term bet. The closure of Manas combined with the departure of most American soldiers may cause the deterioration of stability in Afghanistan, shifting the burden of maintaining security in Central Asia, especially Tajikistan, to Russia. While this is an unwanted burden, it would also draw Central Asian states closer to Russia, so Russia may feel that it is a net beneficiary of such a situation. With the twin incentives of security and trade, Russia is likely to regain its dominant position over Central Asia for a while, or at least until it is challenged by China.” *-*
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016