By Sarah Schafer
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 20, 2009
MOSCOW, Feb. 19 -- The Kyrgyzstan parliament voted Thursday to close a U.S. air base that the Pentagon had hoped to use to expand NATO operations in Afghanistan and reduce the need to ship supplies through a dangerous corridor in Pakistan. But U.S. officials said they had not given up hope on a deal to keep the base open.
[Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Friday signed the bill to cancel the lease agreement for Manas Air Base, the Associated Press reported. The government can now issue an eviction notice, giving the United States six months to vacate the facility.]
The 78 to 1 vote to close the base came as the Obama administration was preparing to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and was scrambling to find alternatives to the base or persuade Bakiyev to reconsider.
Bakiyev announced plans to shut Manas Air Base during a visit to Moscow this month after Russia pledged more than $2 billion in loans and aid to Kyrgyzstan's battered economy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking to reporters in Krakow, Poland, said that the administration was considering offering more money to Kyrgyzstan to keep the base open and that negotiations were continuing. But he and NATO officials said the base was not irreplaceable.
Russian analysts said the Kremlin was trying to force the United States to negotiate with Moscow on the issue instead of directly with Kyrgyzstan. The Kremlin is trying to reassert its control over Central Asia and reduce U.S. power in the region, they said.
"The Russians are eager to start changing the rules of their relations with the United States," said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "What Moscow is after is the tacit recognition that Central Asia is Russia's strategic area, so that the next time the U.S. wants to do something militarily with the people in the region, it will first come to Moscow."
Both the Kremlin and Bakiyev have denied that the decision to close the base was linked to the aid offer from Moscow. But the Russian government has publicly called on U.S. forces to leave Kyrgyzstan in the past, and analysts and U.S. officials say it is unlikely Kyrgyzstan acted without pressure from the Kremlin.
"I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways," Gates said. "On one hand, you're making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, you're working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us."
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Russian parliament's international affairs committee, criticized the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, saying it relies too much on military intervention and not enough on socioeconomic measures.
"This signal must be heard in Washington," he told the Interfax news agency. "Kyrgyzstan's decision is not an anti-American demonstration but proof that the counter-terror operation in Afghanistan has exhausted itself."
Bakiyev has said the decision to close Manas was prompted by U.S. refusals to pay more for the base. U.S. payments to Kyrgyzstan currently total $150 million a year, about $63 million of which is rent for the Manas base.
He also cited growing public hostility toward the base, which the U.S. established outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in late 2001, at the start of the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan.
In late 2006, a U.S. soldier fatally shot a Kyrgyz truck driver during a security check. U.S. officials say the truck driver had threatened the U.S. serviceman with a knife. Kyrgyzstan has demanded that the soldier's immunity be revoked and is seeking to prosecute him.
On a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said an investigation into the killing had been reopened.
The Manas base is used primarily as a transit point for U.S. and European troops and nonlethal supplies headed for Afghanistan and as a place to park refueling aircraft. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are based there. It became the only U.S. air base in Central Asia after Uzbekistan expelled U.S. troops from its territory in 2005.
Up to 75 percent of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan travel through Pakistan, but security there is a growing concern. The Pentagon is searching for an alternate land route and has received permission from Russia and Kazakhstan to transport nonlethal supplies by rail. It also worked out a similar agreement with Uzbekistan this week.
U.S. military officials met with officials of Tajikistan on Thursday to explore the option of shipping nonmilitary supplies through that country, another former Soviet republic now grappling with a foundering economy.
Alexander Golts, a specialist on the Russian military and deputy editor of Ezhednevny Zhurnal, said the Kremlin has an incentive to help keep Manas Air Base open because Russia is also worried about the security situation in Afghanistan.
"America is solving this problem for us, and it's totally illogical from the point of view of real Russian interests to make obstacles for the Americans," he said.