Kyrgyzstan and the United States have agreed to keep the Manas Air Base in operation, albeit under a different name.
A statement issued by the American Embassy in Bishkek hinted that despite the air base's reclassification, little will change in the way the facility functions. "Logistical operations in support of the mission to bring stability and security to Afghanistan will continue," an embassy representative told EurasiaNet on June 23. "We applaud the decision by the Kyrgyz Republic to continue to play a key role, as the international community broadens and deepens its commitment to bringing stability and security to Afghanistan and the region."
In February, the Kyrgyz government broke the US lease at Manas and gave American forces six months to vacate the premises. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Under the terms of the new agreement, reportedly signed on June 22, Kyrgyzstan will receive $60 million per year in rental fees. That's in addition to some $117 million earmarked for an upgrade of airport facilities, economic development, anti-narcotics initiatives and anti-terrorist training, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev revealed. Previously, Washington paid $17.4 million per year in rent. The new pact expires in 2010. US and coalition forces have been using Manas as a hub for Afghan operations since 2001. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Publicly, the Kyrgyz government is saying that the US military can continue to use Manas only as a resupply center for non-military goods. But observers in Bishkek believe that coalition forces will also continue to fly refueling operations out of Manas for combat aircraft on missions over Afghanistan.
Mars Sariev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, suggested the only changes at the base will be cosmetic in nature, such as a new name. The facility, according to Sariev, is being restyled as the "Transit Center at Manas International Airport."
"They are just changing the format of the base, but the essence of it will be the same as it was before," Sariev said. "It will still be a base for military and non-military goods."
Paul Quinn-Judge, the Bishkek-based Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, said he could not envisage the US agreeing to anything without the refueling component. "The United States would be very unhappy if their Stratotankers were not allowed operate out of Manas. One would have to assume they want to keep the air base open for other operations," he said.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration in Bishkek came under increasing pressure in recent weeks to reverse course on the Manas base closure. In early June, US President Barack Obama addressed a letter to the Kyrgyz administration in which he called for closer cooperation between the two states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In mid-June, Afghan President Hamid Karzai also lobbied Bakiyev to keep the Americans at Manas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Back in February, Bakiyev's original decision to terminate the Manas lease came just hours after Russia offered Kyrgyzstan a $2.15 billion aid package, prompting many Central Asian political analysts to see a quid-pro-quo connection between the two developments. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since February, Russia's economy has been battered by the global economic crisis, a fact that may have prompted Bakiyev to reevaluate the wisdom of basing Kyrgyzstan's financial future on the Kremlin's fiscal goodwill. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some Russian media outlets reacted petulantly to the announcement of a new US-Kyrgyz pact. "The USA Does Not Have a Vestige of Respect for Russia," a headline posted on Pravda.ru fumed.
Kabai Karabekov, an MP with the governing Ak Zhol party in Bishkek, insisted that the new pact for Manas did not contravene anything that Moscow, or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), had already endorsed concerning the transit of non-military cargo to Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The thing is that after the Kyrgyz Parliament [annulled] the Manas Air Base agreement with 12 countries, our partners in the CSTO, including Russia, along with some other countries, agreed to open transit routes for non-military goods through their territories. Russia in its turn agreed to the transit of military goods from Spain, Germany and France. Our country, as a member of the CSTO, agrees to the transit of non-military goods and agrees to have a transit center at Manas," Karabekov told EurasiaNet.
"We have to realize that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is getting worse and worse. We can't be standing aside from the CSTO and the situation in Afghanistan itself," Karabekov added.
"If the Taliban grow, and if they start pressing people, everyone will be coming to Central Asia," he continued. "Our border services have to work on an enhanced mode these days. Even our Interior Ministry's special troops have been sent to Batken to take care of the border situation. It is our contribution to stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, which obviously influences our national security in a big way."