Once Kyrgyzstan succumbed to Russian pressure and unceremoniously evicted the United States from its base at Manas, media attention turned to the question of alternatives. A careful discussion of possible alternatives to Manas requires that a distinction be made between routes for non-military logistics, and facilities from which military missions can and do take place.
When these two issues are separated, it becomes clear that alternative solutions for the shipment of non-lethal item bound for Afghanistan have been found. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are all cooperating with the United States in the opening of a new supply network. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav021909b.shtml The fact that Russia is also participating in this northern supply network suggests that Moscow wanted to make a geopolitical point with the Manas eviction. The Kremlin wanted to ensure that Manas never developed into a permanent US hub in Central Asia, while at the same time showing the leaders of Central Asian states who's still the region's dominant player. Whether or not this message has been properly received remains unclear. But outside observes of the US campaign and the Central Asian scene need to properly understand Moscow's motives in this episode.
There has been a lot of media speculation about possible alternative sites for a US military base in Central Asia. This author has heard of four such examples to date. One view being bandied about suggests that the Manas case is not closed, and that the United States could retain its military presence in Kyrgyzstan -- if Washington were to enter into a grand bargain with Moscow. Under such a scenario, US leaders would make concessions, such as abandoning its anti-missile defense plans for Central Europe, or NATO enlargement for Ukraine and Georgia, in return for Moscow's consent to the continuing presence of US forces at Manas. This is highly unlikely as no US administration, Democratic or Republican, would surrender its options to Moscow in such a fashion. To do so would be to explicitly acknowledge Moscow's hegemony over the CIS. Thus, talk about a possible bargain on Manas is probably nothing more than disinformation, or a Kremlin attempt at keeping pressure on the Obama administration.
A second view, reported in the Turkish press, is that the United States may use bases in Turkey to substitute for Manas, particularly at Trabzon. Apart from the unlikelihood of the US seeing this option as appealing, it seems highly improbable that the Turkish government would assent to such a base, given the current state of Turkish-US relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Turkey was widely hailed as a turning point, in which bilateral ties turned away from the mutual tension that characterized much of the Bush administration years. But there's still ways to go before relations are restored to pre-Iraq War II levels. Public hostility in Turkey toward the United States remains strong.
A third alternative that is floating around is a potential US base in Tajikistan. This too seems to be beyond plausible. Despite Dushanbe's unhappiness with Russia on several fronts, the Tajik government is economically on its knees. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav012109b.shtml Even though Moscow has reneged on many of its earlier promises of assistance to Dushanbe, the Tajik government simply can't afford to alienate the Kremlin. It's worth keeping in mind that not only Russia, but also China, Iran and possibly some neighboring Central Asian states would put the squeeze on Dushanbe, if it seemed that Tajik President Imomali Rahmon was seriously considering making a base available to the Americans.
This leaves the fourth possibility, Uzbekistan. The country's president, Islam Karimov, has long been a master at bouncing back and forth between the West and Moscow to gain security benefits from each side. Thus, he has been able to keep a base open at Termez for use by Germany and NATO personnel, while still being considered a strategic ally of Moscow's. US personnel are allowed to use the Termez base only under strict conditions where they function exclusively as part of a NATO operation. Reportedly, US soldiers can fly via Termez, but only on German aircraft. Therefore, it is unlikely that Termez can become a substitute for Manas. While Karimov clearly intends to keep his Western and American options open to the greatest possible degree, it is also clear that with regard to military bases, those options are inherently limited.
Thus, it would seem at present that there is no viable alternative to Manas for the United States in Central Asia. As a result, refueling operations will likely have to shift to bases in the Gulf region. This will add costs to the war effort and mean additional wear-and-tear on air crews. But these added burdens are clearly not enough to drive the US out of the theater. As long as non-military cargoes can traverse Central Asian states and Russia too, it appears that the logistical chain through Central Asia is sustainable.
Even so, it is necessary for the Obama administration to learn from this episode. Washington cannot accept a situation where Russia can bully, bribe and coerce the nations of Central Asia into going along with the Kremlin's nefarious intentions. It must be a hallmark of US policy to enhance the freedom of local governments, providing them with the ability to make their own unfettered decisions on security matters. To enable this, Washington must be prepared to invest heavily in Central Asian states. While at present there are no military alternatives to Manas in the region, an intelligent and far-sighted regional US policy must come to understand that if Central Asia is to be secure, it must be able to stand on its own two feet and not rely on Moscow's crutches.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.