Perhaps with an eye on obtaining a higher rent, Kyrgyz leaders are sending mixed signals concerning the future of an American military facility in Kyrgyzstan beyond 2014, the year the bulk of US and NATO forces are supposed to be out of Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has reiterated that foreign troops should leave the Manas Transit Center, the American airbase near Bishkek, after the planned drawdown in Afghanistan is completed in 2014. However, his Defense Council Secretary, Busurmankul Tabaldiev, maintains that Kyrgyzstan has a vested interest in a stable Afghanistan, and is willing to assist the United States beyond 2014 “taking into account Kyrgyzstan’s interests, its security, and public opinion.”
Tabaldiev was speaking after a meeting on April 2 with the head of US Central Command, Gen. James Mattis. Meanwhile, Atambayev met with US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake on the same day. The Manas Transit Center is a vital cog in the US supply line serving Afghanistan. The base also serves as an entry and exit point for thousands of troops every month.
Amid a flurry of recent diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Bishkek, Atambayev has expressed a desire to transform Manas into a “civilian transport hub,” sources tell EurasiaNet.org. “We just don’t know what Atambayev means by a ‘civilian transport hub.’ It would not be commercially viable,” a senior US diplomat said before the Bishkek meetings involving Mattis and Blake took place.
The diplomat noted that President Atambayev’s position on Manas “has not left him a lot of wiggle room” should Kyrgyz authorities decide later that a military component at the facility is not objectionable.
Many political analysts believe that the Atambayev’s ‘civilian transport hub’ idea is an opening gambit in what could prove protracted negotiations centering on the dollar value of an extended Manas lease. In 2011, the Kyrgyz government received $149.1 million in direct payments for hosting the US-led base.
In one previous instance, the United States agreed to a significant rent hike in order to forestall Kyrgyz government attempts to evict American forces from Manas.
The US diplomat who spoke to EurasiaNet.org suggested that Washington would consider paying more in Manas rent, but any such decision would be made only after US officials settled on details concerning the scope and pace of the Afghan drawdown. Speaking to local media after his meeting with President Atambayev, Secretary Blake said the future of the “American presence” in Afghanistan would be clearer after a NATO summit to be held in Chicago in May.
Senior political representatives of other NATO allies privately suggest that Kyrgyzstan is coming under “extreme pressure” from Russia to close the Transit Center after 2014, and that the United States is struggling to devise a positive way of counteracting Moscow’s weight. “The Russians are very helpful now, of course. But as soon as the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes they want the US out of their back yard,” the source said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.