U.S. aircraft refueling operations in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan -- a possible substitute for Manas? (photo: flickr user BTCooper)
The commander of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has said that the missions that the base carries out "will have to move someplace else" as a result of the Kyrgyzstan government's refusal to renew the base agreement. While U.S. officials have not formally announced that they are leaving the base at Manas, near the capital city of Bishkek, this is the strongest indication to date that they are.
The base commander, Col John Millard, made his comments in an interview with the Pentagon Channel. The report leads off, "As the drawdown in Afghanistan nears, the U.S. transit airbase in Kyrgyzstan is preparing to shut down." And Col Millard adds: "At this time, our plans would be to stop our operations and be complete here at the transit center. According to the ISAF and the president we will not be out of Afghanistan by that time, mid-July of 2014 [when the current base agreement ends], so the operations will have to move someplace else." The piece was posted August 14, but then was subsequently taken down. (I managed to save it and you can watch it below.)
It's a bit curious how the U.S. is handling this publicly, going right up to the point of acknowledging that they're leaving Manas without formally announcing it. But anyway, what "someplace elses" might the U.S. be looking at to carry out the missions that Manas now fulfills? For years, there has been speculation about other sites in Central Asia that could play a role similar to that of Manas: Aktau and Shymkent in Kazakhstan; Kulyab in Tajikistan; somewhere in Uzbekistan. But given that the mission is winding down in Afghanistan, it will make much more sense to just use another existing facility to take up the slack rather than set up an entirely new facility. One military source I asked noted that "getting a place set up somewhere else takes time and money" and speculated that possible alternatives included "existing facilities in the Gulf, like Qatar and the UAE... European bases are possible, too: Crete, Turkey, Italy, Romania even Spain are possibilities," as were "gas and gos" in Baku or Tbilisi. Another source I asked pointed out that Romania has been playing an increasingly significant role in Afghanistan transit, but added that Western European bases may be too far from Afghanistan to be feasible and that moving operations to Turkey might be politically difficult given its proximity to Syria.
The State Department and Pentagon both declined to comment on next steps for Manas. An interesting side story is that the U.S. Air Force just announced a number of tenders to repair the runways at Manas. "But that's standard practice and doesn't indicate an intention to stay," said Nathan Barrick, a former U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer for Eurasia who has worked at US Central Command and is now a consultant at CLI Solutions. "Runway renovation is making good on promises and agreements and is typical of US 'borrowing' of airbases for a period. Experts I've worked with on the topic have told me that it's amazing the 'wear' on airfields-- and we often do this type of repair."
Anyway, the Pentagon Channel interview with Col Millard: