Kyrgyzstan Threatens To Close U.S. Base
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
MOSCOW, Feb. 3 -- The president of Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday that his government had decided to close the last remaining American air base in Central Asia, a move that could present a significant setback to U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan and to open new supply routes that would allow NATO to reduce shipments through a dangerous corridor in Pakistan.
Speaking after a meeting here in which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to extend $2 billion in loans to the impoverished former Soviet republic, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said the decision was prompted by U.S. refusals to pay more for the base and by growing public hostility toward the American military presence in his country.
The announcement came as the Obama administration prepares to deploy as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and it appeared to catch the Pentagon off guard. Senior U.S. military officials in Washington said they had received no official notification from the Kyrgyz government about closing Manas Air Base, which was established in late 2001 at the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. One official described Bakiyev's statement as "posturing" and an attempt to extract more money.
In remarks broadcast on Russian television, Bakiyev said that the decision to close the base was made "just days ago" and that the government planned to issue an official order denying U.S. access to the facility soon.
"We have repeatedly raised with the United States the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood," he said.
Bakiyev also cited the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz truck driver by a U.S. soldier during a security check in late 2006. Kyrgyzstan has demanded the soldier's immunity be revoked and is seeking to prosecute the soldier, but the Pentagon has resisted.
"How can we speak of independence and sovereignty if we cannot enforce the law on the territory of our own country?" Bakiyev said. "All this has given rise to a negative attitude to the base in Manas."
Located outside Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the base has largely been used as a transit point for U.S. and European troops and nonlethal supplies into Afghanistan, and as a parking lot for the large refueling aircraft used in the Afghan conflict. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are currently based there. After Uzbekistan expelled U.S. troops from its territory in 2005, Manas became the only U.S. air base in the region. The flight to the Bagram Air Base near Kabul can be made in as little as two hours, compared with six to eight hours from Saudi Arabia.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, visited Kyrgyzstan last month as part of a regional tour in which he obtained permission to move more supplies for NATO troops through Russia and Central Asia instead of the main route through western Pakistan, which has been under attack by Taliban guerrillas.
Russia and China have called on the United States to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Central Asia, but Petraeus said he had received assurances from Kyrgyzstan that Russia was not pressuring it to close the base, and others have suggested the Kremlin might drop the issue as a gesture to the Obama administration. Petraeus told reporters during his Bishkek visit two weeks ago that the possibility of closure never came up during his talks with government officials, and he characterized his meetings as "quite reassuring as to the future partnership."
In the news conference, Medvedev said the decision to shut the base was Kyrgyzstan's alone. He added that Russia and Kyrgyzstan remained "open to coordinated action" with the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan despite the base closure, but he did not elaborate.
Under the terms of the current lease agreement, the United States would have six months to vacate the premises if such an order were given.
Bakiyev has been seeking more money from the United States for use of the air base, and the timing of his announcement seemed designed to highlights his nation's economic needs. Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid, and also to write off $180 million in debt and build a $1.7 billion hydropower plant.
U.S. payments to Kyrgyzstan currently total $150 million a year, of which about $63 million is rent for the Manas base. "We hope to continue those discussions because Manas is vitally important to our operations in Afghanistan," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Morrell added, however, that "we can continue without it, obviously."
"There is obviously a long-term political dimension here that's in play vis-à-vis Moscow," a senior U.S. Central Command official said yesterday, with Kyrgyzstan "trying to play one bidder off the other. The United States is caught in the middle, seeing who is going to be the highest bidder. We don't know yet whether this is simply a card being played in the negotiating process or they are going to ask us to leave."
The Manas base is "pretty inexpensive from the U.S. point of view when you consider what it gives us in terms of access in the region," the official said. "I don't know what price the United States is willing to pay . . . but at the same time I don't know whether we're willing to be held hostage."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report from Washington.