Farewell, Manas!

October 22, 2013

(Vladi­mir Pirogov/Reuters)

In another milestone of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. officials confirmed last week that they intend to vacate Manas Transit Center near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, by July 2014. Propelled in equal measure by cost (nearly $60 million annually for rent alone) and diminished need (as the U.S. will scrap or destroy in place a greater share of its equipment than previously believed), this decision will clearly shape America’s future posture in Central Asia.

I’ve asked Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York, for his thoughts on Manas’ closure. His books include “Base Politics: Democratic Change and the US Overseas” (2008) and “Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia” (2012).

Last week United States Defense officials confirmed that they would be leaving the Manas Transit Center, an air base and logistics hub located near Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek. The announcement to relocate most of its Afghanistan-related operations from the small Central Asian state to a facility in Romania follows the Kyrgyz government’s decision earlier this year not to renew the base’s lease which is scheduled to expire in July 2014.

For nearly 12 years Manas has hosted refueling tankers and served as a transit point for nearly all US troops entering and exiting Afghanistan. But as US defense officials prioritized Manas’s logistical role, the base inevitably become entangled in local strongman politics – surviving two revolutions in 2005 and 2010 – allegations of elite corruption in base-related supply contracts, and Moscow’s growing regional assertiveness.  Most damaging to US standing in Kyrgyzstan was the late rule of the increasingly repressive Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2005-2010). As Bakiyev clamped down on political opposition and journalists in Manas became a symbol of US acquiescence to the regime, with a now infamous Wikileaks cable by the US Ambassador referred to the much maligned President’s son Maxim Bakiyev as “smart, corrupt and a good ally to have.”

In the winter of 2009 Bakiyev also engineered a brash base-bidding war between Moscow and Washington. At a press conference held with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, Bakiyev announced that he would close the base,  but just a few weeks later, after receiving an initial payment from Moscow, he went ahead and renegotiated the current lease with Washington, renaming the facility a “Transit Center” and increasing the annual rent paid by the United States from $17 million to $60 million. When Bakiyev was toppled after violent protests in April 2010, the backlash against the US presence, predictably, was intense, though Kyrgyz officials honored the 5 year bilateral accord.  Kyrgyz officials were especially concerned that DOD had funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel contracts to a series of mysterious offshore contractors with no significant corporate history. Though a US Congressional investigation in 2010 failed to establish any direct ties between these mysterious fuel contractors and the former ruling family, it did uncover a fuel smuggling network in which the contractor, Russian and Kyrgyz officials colluded to falsely certify that fuel sourced from a Siberian refinery was destined for civilian use (in violation of Russian export laws).

In the post-Bakiyev era, the base’s image never recovered, even though, to their credit, US officials took several steps to improve the base’s public image and role within Kyrgyzstan’s political economy. They created a base website for detailing the Transit Center’s mission and public outreach, while the Embassy transparently displayed the quarterly lease payments it provided to the Kyrgyz government, helping to keep these funds in the Kyrgyz public budget. Intriguingly, Maxim Bakiyev, living in exile in London, was charged by the US Justice department with insider trading, only for the request to be dropped in July 2013 just a few days before his extradition hearing.  With its damaged reputation, US officials watched Moscow over the course of the last year step up its pressure on Bishkek through a slew of bilateral accords in the security and economic spheres designed to promote exclusive Russian patronage over the Central Asian state. It is surely no coincidence that the Kyrgyz Parliament’s vote to terminate the lease occurred a few days after President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Bishkek.

Several comparative and theoretical lessons can be drawn from this seemingly quirky and isolated case. In my 2008 book about comparative US overseas basing relations I explored how Kyrgyzstan’s volatile domestic politics followed a historical pattern in which populist political elites in overseas base hosts, especially in post-authoritarian periods, tied US bases to a previous unpopular authoritarian regime in order to extract more quid pro quo from US negotiators or even evict the United States altogether.

Most recently, I examine in a forthcoming co-authored article (with Daniel Nexon of Georgetown University) for the journal Perspectives on Politics (“The Empire Will Compensate You:” The Structural Dynamics of the US Overseas Basing Network) how increasingly difficult it is for US planners to secure basing and access rights in this era of global information flows and hostile satellite news coverage, accusations of US double-standards and hypocrisy, and the rise of competing regional patrons that can offer more substantial and targeted support to local officials than their US counterparts. Despite popular and scholarly assertions that the US has established a global “empire” of bases, the Kyrgyz case actually demonstrates that Washington exercises far less control or influence over the domestic politics of its overseas base hosts than did the empires of old. The US military is complying with Kyrgyzstan’s request to leave, just as in recent years it had to in Uzbekistan, Ecuador and Iraq.

Jason Lyall is Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University. His work examines wartime dynamics of violence, including how civilian casualties and development aid shape the attitudes and actions of civilians and insurgents during civil wars. Posts reflect his personal views.
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