So now that Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has signed the law annulling the agreement with the U.S. to host the Manas air base, what's the future of the base? It's still not clear that the law will have any legal impact, as the date it specifies for the U.S. departure was the date that the current agreement was supposed to expire anyway. While the law seems an obvious political signal, what is the government trying to say?
In a must-read analysis for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Erica Marat notes that until recently, Kyrgyzstan's parliament was poised to defeat the bill calling for the annulment of the base agreement. But then a number of events changed their calculation. From the U.S. side, the Department of Justice dropped charges against former first-son Maxim Bakiyev, to the dismay of many in the new government. Meanwhile, Russia -- which has long opposed the base's existence -- agreed to fund a strategic hydropower plant and to forgive $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt. Thus, the 91-5 vote in parliament in favor of annulment.
In a separate piece in the Military Times newspaper, Marat is cited as saying that "[t]he Kyrgyz parliament is divided between lawmakers who want the U.S. to leave Manas and those who voted to end the lease as a negotiating ploy to get the U.S. to pay more money." But Marat suggests that the U.S. may not be as willing to go through the same hardball negotiations as it did when the current agreement was negotiated in 2009. That sentiment is echoed by retired Gen. Arthur Lichte, former head of Air Mobility Command, who was involved in the 2009 negotiations. He told the Military Times:
If this is just, ‘We want more money, keep bringing money,’ that’s something that the Americans will probably not be able to step up to anymore, especially in these tough budgetary times.
I'm not sure. The utility of Manas is going to go down in coming years, but as the U.S. starts to pull out its forces, it will still play a crucial role -- it is, after all, a transit center. And the withdrawal is going to be nowhere near completed by July 2014. In addition, though $60 million is a lot of money for almost any institution, it's small change at the Pentagon, roughly the cost of air conditioning for U.S. forces in Afghanistan for a single day. And it's certainly worth the headache that would be caused if the U.S. had to quickly set up a substitute for Manas somewhere else. A State Department spokeswoman told the Military Times that U.S. diplomats are still "consulting with Kyrgyz officials" about the law and the base.
Marat's piece includes one sentence that should be highlighted:
Atambaev, who is unlikely to benefit personally from financial inflows associated with the base, sees the U.S. military presence as a destabilizing factor in the country.
Atambayev's predecessors Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Askar Akayev, of course, benefited significantly from the base, in particular via corrupt fuel contracts. When Bakiyev was overthrown, though, President Roza Otunbayeva worked to increase the transparency, and decrease the potential for corruption, of Manas's supply contracts. Lichte noted the goodwill that U.S. airmen engendered in Kyrgyzstan with visits to orphanages and other community projects. But whatever impact that had, in terms of effective advocacy nothing comes close to lining the pockets of presidential family members. Should Kyrgyzstan ultimately shut down Manas before the U.S. is ready to go, might we trace it back to the disappearance of the corrupt fuel contracts?