After months of talks over continued U.S. access to a military base in Kyrgyzstan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday won formal agreement from the new Kyrgyz leadership for open-ended use of the airfield for continuing military operations and humanitarian programs in nearby Afghanistan.
Rice and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the deal at a joint news conference here after what a senior State Department official described as difficult negotiations between the two countries.
Kyrgyzstan is now requesting additional payment for services and facilities provided to the roughly 1,000 troops who have been based here since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, plus an accounting of funds paid to the Kyrgyz government that was ousted in March in what was known as the Tulip Revolution, the official said. Washington now pays between $40 million and $50 million per year.
U.S. officials had no immediate response to the Kyrgyz request. But as part of the deal, the United States has agreed to dispatch a technical team to Bishkek, the capital, to discuss the past payments, large chunks of which some Kyrgyz officials say were pocketed by the family of their country's former leader.
[En route to Afghanistan Wednesday morning, Rice announced that she would stop later in the day in Pakistan for talks with the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on additional U.S. and international aid for the country following Saturday's earthquake.]
The agreement with Kyrgyzstan comes after neighboring Uzbekistan ordered U.S. troops and aircraft to leave a base at Karshi-Khanabad, known as K-2. It also follows a statement July 5 by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- made up of Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan and its Central Asian neighbors -- asking for a date for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Central Asian bases on grounds that operations in Afghanistan were winding down.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld then visited Bishkek and won an oral agreement from the Kyrgyz defense minister to allow a continued coalition presence at the Manas air base in the capital. But State Department officials said those discussions were not formal and did not specify how an eventual withdrawal might be determined -- or by which party. In addition, a new government had recently been formed in Bishkek.
The new agreement stipulates that Kyrgyzstan recognizes the need to "resolve urgently" the military and political challenges in Afghanistan and to contain the sources of terrorism. It says that the Kyrgyz Republic, as the country is also known, accepts the important contribution of the international anti-terrorism coalition located at the Manas base in strengthening regional stability.
As a result, Kyrgyzstan will "continue to take part in these and other joint efforts of the international community to contend with modern day challenges and threats to security," the agreement says. "We support the presence of coalition forces in the Kyrgyz Republic until the mission of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is completed, a mission supported by the United Nations."
At the news conference, Bakiyev said any future decision on the withdrawal of U.S. and other coalition forces would be made jointly by the two countries.
The senior U.S. official, traveling with Rice, told reporters that the agreement would not make up for the loss of access to K-2, located in a country that shares a border with Afghanistan. That base was also used to truck humanitarian goods to the Mazar-e Sharif area of Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan does not share a border with Afghanistan.
"You run a less efficient operation if you lose K-2," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The months of maneuvering over U.S. access to the Manas base reflects the wider competition among the United States, Russia and China for influence in Central Asia. Predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic with a population of about 5 million people, also hosts a base used by Russian troops, about 20 miles outside the scenic capital. Officials in Moscow and Beijing have made no secret of their unease over the open-ended U.S. military presence since 2001.
During the first stop of her tour of Central Asia and Afghanistan, Rice has repeatedly tried to reassure Russia that the United States is not trying to supplant its presence. "We expect the Russians to have strong relations with these states. There are economic ties, there are political ties, there are linguistic ties that are very strong," she told reporters traveling with her en route to the region Monday.
On her stop here Tuesday, Rice spent most of her time discussing local reforms, which she has portrayed as the most extensive since the region's states gained independence through the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.