From top: Nearly all US troops going to and from Afghanistan transit through the airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.; Barracks, or top-secret intelligence gathering facilities?; Wing commander headquarters.
Over the past year, the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has expanded its programs of outreach to the local community and to Kyrgyzstan's military and government, strengthening the base's role as a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government.
Most of what the base (officially called the Transit Center at Manas) does has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. Its two main missions are serving as a transit and processing point for nearly all troops entering and leaving their tours in Afghanistan, and as a base for aerial refueling aircraft. Those are functions that can't as easily be carried out in Afghanistan itself. Most troops arrive to Manas on chartered civilian aircraft, which can't land in Afghanistan because of the security situation there. (At Manas, they transfer on to military aircraft for the rest of the trip into Afghanistan.) And the U.S. and NATO have maxed out Afghanistan's existing airport space with attack aircraft, as well as smaller transport planes and helicopters, requiring larger planes like the refueling tankers to be based outside the country.
As a result of Manas's sole focus on Afghanistan, there isn't any inherent connection between the base and Kyrgyzstan, other than the high-level negotiations that take place between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, rent and so on. And there remains a great deal of suspicion among Kyrgyz people and government officials about what exactly it is that goes on at Manas (suspicion enthusiastically fueled by Russian media). That, in turn, has fueled recurrent drama over the base's continuing presence in Kyrgyzstan; current President Almazbek Atambayev has frequently threatened to shut the base down.
As a result, the base frequently invites outsiders on to the base to show what really goes on there, an effort that on Tuesday included kindly inviting The Bug Pit for a tour of the base and a conversation with the base's commander, Col. James Jacobson. One frequent source of conspiracy theorizing, he said, is the appearance of the barracks for the roughly 1,200 troops and contractors stationed at Manas. The windowless buildings, lined up in rows (pictured above) can look like some sort of secret intelligence-gathering facility.
"From the outside, when we bring people on to the installation, it looks like it's some classified operation," Col. Jacobseon said. "So when we're driving around, I say, 'Pick a building.' And they personally can walk into any building they want and see that it's a laundry room, a shower, a TV room, dorm rooms... And then when they leave, they think 'OK, I get it now, it's not any secret stuff.'"
To more actively build relations between the base and Kyrgyzstan, base officials have set up a 20-person Theater Security Cooperation team, which carries out training of Kyrgyzstan military and government officials, as well as cultural exchanges and humanitarian missions like visiting orphanages and renovating schools. While the base has done this for several years, until recently it was the responsibility of a single officer and whoever else from the base that officer could get to volunteer, and so was "ad hoc and personality dependent," Col. Jacobson said. While that worked when the one officer was especially energetic, it led to peaks and valleys in the level of cooperation. "That gives the perception that we're not a reliable partner," he said.
So the base proposed, and the Department of Defense approved, the creation of a dedicated 20-person staff. "What you saw last year... was a desire to take this out of being a secondary job for a lot of us on the wing staff and to make it a primary responsibility for that group of 20." Recent military-military cooperation events involving Manas-based troops have included training on vehicle maintenance and cargo operations. (Some would appear to be of dubious utility, like how to get out of an overturned MRAP mine-resistant vehicle, or deployment logistics, given that Kyrgyzstan's military doesn't have any MRAPs and doesn't deploy anywhere. But they can hope...)
All of the base's outreach efforts, including the military-military cooperation programs, are subordinate to the U.S. embassy's existing programs, Col. Jacobson said. "The unifying theme is advancing partnership with Kyrgyzstan in support of broader U.S. objectives, which makes a lot of what we do an augmentation to the U.S. embassy's current programs. We just provide an additional set of resources and manpower," he said.
One of the sticky issues on the base's relations with Kyrgyzstan is the issue of the fuel contracts, which for years were carried out under shady middlemen companies that involved family members of Presidents Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. After the 2010 revolution that overthrew Bakiyev, the new government has sought to change that arrangement, and as of October, the fuel is now supplied by a Kyrgyzstan-Russian joint venture, Gazpromneft-Aero Kyrgyzstan. For all the faults of the previous arrangement, it at least reliably delivered fuel, something that wasn't certain in the case of the new JV. But Col. Jacobson said the transition has been seamless: "I'll happily say publicly that GAK is outstanding. They've delivered every day, as advertised, as requested."