For many travelers to Kyrgyzstan, the first and last thing they see is a distant outpost of the Afghan war.
Parked before the passenger terminal at Kyrgyzstan’s main airport, outside Bishkek, a dozen or more dark gray jets marked “US Air Force” stand on any given day. They can make it to Afghanistan in a little over an hour. Most are KC-135 “Stratotankers” – gas stations in the sky – which fly round-the-clock refueling missions for NATO warplanes. The fatter, high-wing aircraft are C-17s used to ferry troops, as well as non-lethal equipment like mail and vehicle parts, in and out of Afghanistan.
To one side of Manas International Airport, beyond some barbed wire and a row of poplars, the base operating these planes hums quietly. The Manas Transit Center, as it’s officially been called since 2009, is as essential to Washington’s ongoing drawdown, officers say, as it was for maintaining the war effort for over a decade.
These days, up to 1,500 soldiers, marines and airmen transit Manas every day. Most are on their way home. Officials expect that number to double in the coming months. “For every one going in, about two are coming out,” says a spokeswoman. “The planes are going out [to Afghanistan] empty and coming back full.” Wide-body passenger jets run by charter companies such as Atlas Air and Omni Air International ferry soldiers back to Europe and America.
Col. Corey Martin, the base commander, expects transit passenger numbers to drop next year, “because the sheer number of people left in Afghanistan is falling.”
Air refueling, then, will become Manas’ primary mission. After most NATO troops are gone, Martin believes refueling missions over Afghanistan will continue as the Air Force provides support to its Afghan counterparts. The Transit Center is the nearest of three US bases that can offer refueling services over Afghanistan.
Last year, 4,700 refueling missions flew out of Manas. They are constant. On a hot recent afternoon, several of the four-engine Stratotankers departed per hour. Loaded with up to 200,000 pounds of fuel, they need most of Manas’ 13,780-foot runway to lift off. “In the summer there are more refueling missions and aircraft here because there is more fighting in Afghanistan,” Martin says.
To support the transit and refueling operations, the base is home to roughly 1,200 US soldiers. Manas also employs about 300 American contractors and 700 Kyrgyzstanis as well.
Despite those relatively high-paying jobs in job-strapped Kyrgyzstan, the base remains unpopular locally, mostly due to critical, (some would say unbalanced) local and Russian press coverage. One story that appears from time to time tells of jets dumping fuel, melting Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers and poisoning apple orchards. Many Kyrgyz have little access to reliable information, so such rumors spread easily and are believed. But the rare fuel dumps, carried out in emergencies, happen at altitudes too high to affect Kyrgyzstan directly (the fuel evaporates), according to pilots not associated with the US military. And while it is certain that Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers are melting, no credible scientific evidence links the airbase to the cause. Global warming is most likely the culprit, environmentalists say.
Some Russian and Kyrgyzstani officials have insinuated that Manas is connected to drug smuggling, without presenting evidence. Americans deny such allegations.
The base has had to deal with its share of scandal. In 2010, a US Congressional report lambasted the Pentagon for unnecessarily opaque fuel contracting practices at the base. The report reinforced local perceptions that the family of ousted dictator Kurmanbek Bakiyev had illegally profited from base-related contracts.
Last month, without providing evidence, a prominent politician blamed then-Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov of accepting a bribe to distribute a subcontract at Manas to build a new air-traffic control tower. American officers say Kyrgyzstani officials have no say in the contracting process. But it nevertheless was the final nail in the coffin for Babanov, whose eight-month tenure was marred by allegations of impropriety. His government fell within a week.
The current base lease expires in 2014 and President Almazbek Atambayev has promised repeatedly -- some believe bowing to Russian pressure -- to see the base closed. But doing so would mean the Kyrgyz government would say goodbye to a $60 million annual lease payment, as well as tens of millions more in parking fees, landing rights, and local contracts. Add in fuel, and the base spends hundreds of millions more, with much of those profits going to Russian-controlled companies. So speculation is rife in Bishkek that Kyrgyz leaders, with a little help from Moscow, will find a way for the base to stay – perhaps a less visibly.
Col. Martin, the base commander, won’t speculate on the status of the base post-2014, though he believes Kyrgyz politicians are concerned about Afghanistan and see the Transit Center helping counter a common threat. “Many people in the government here see our efforts to make Afghanistan more stable as a benefit to all of Central Asia,” he says.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.