By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The United States had plans to spend up to $100 million to enlarge loading areas at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan to support Afghanistan operations before the Kyrgyz president announced that he would close the facility to U.S. and coalition forces.
The Army Corps of Engineers issued a pre-solicitation notice on Oct. 9 for potential contractors for a project to expand aircraft parking areas at the base and provide a "hot cargo pad" -- an area safe enough to load and unload hazardous and explosive cargo -- to be located away from inhabited facilities. The hot cargo area was to be capable of supporting "the full weight and turning radius of C-5 aircraft," the largest Air Force transport plane, according to the notice.
The proposed construction, which would have taken close to a year to complete, was seen as part of the planning to support the increase of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the stepped-up fighting against the Taliban and other forces there. But in an indication last year that plans for the base might be in trouble, the formal request for contractors' proposals, due to be distributed in late October, was not issued.
Kyrgyzstan officials have said they want the base closed, but lawmakers there said Monday that the parliament will delay voting on it until Russia provides $450 million in loans and aid it promised when Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev made the base announcement Feb. 3. "We have decided to wait until the Russians send the money," Communist Party deputy Absamat Masaliyev, a member of the parliament's coordinating body, told the Associated Press.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that negotiations are ongoing and that the Pentagon is exploring options for keeping the base open, suggesting the possibility of higher payments to Kyrgyzstan authorities. "We're looking at whether, given the importance that Manas plays and the likely growing importance of Manas, whether there is something we ought to do differently in terms of compensation," Gates said. Still, he said, "we're not prepared to stay there at any price."
"Manas is important, but not irreplaceable," he said. Asked about Russia's pressuring Kyrgyzstan to close the base while also offering to help the U.S. military with logistics in Afghanistan, Gates said Russia has sent "mixed signals."
The future of the base came into question just weeks after Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, paid his first visit to Kyrgyzstan and the facility. He came away after several days of talks with the country's leaders believing that the base would remain open.
He told reporters on Jan. 19 in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, that his meetings were "quite reassuring as to the future partnership." He said the possibility of closing the base never came up during the talks .
The Manas base, outside Bishkek, has been used to transfer primarily nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan as well as to provide hangars and a base for tankers used to refuel aircraft taking part in fighting there. It also serves as a transit point for U.S. and European troops going to and coming from Afghanistan.
In 2008, according to news releases from the base, U.S. KC-135 Stratotankers flew 3,294 refueling missions to 11,419 aircraft over Afghanistan. French tankers and Spanish transports also operate from Manas. More than 170,000 coalition personnel flew in and out of Afghanistan, along with 5,000 short tons of cargo, including uniform items and spare parts and equipment.
U.S. operations began at Manas Air Base in December 2001. According to Radio Free Europe, the United States paid $2 million a year to use the base for the first five years. In 2006, the price was raised to nearly $20 million, and the United States funded other programs for the country that reached $100 million.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.