U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
U.S. officers give the Russian counterparts from the Kant air base a tour of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
With the Pentagon's announcement that the U.S. is leaving its air base in Kyrgyzstan, one would think Russians would be gloating: after finally succeeding in rousting the Americans out of their back yard, Moscow has scored an undeniable geopolitical victory.
Or, perhaps, that's just what they want you to think. The Russian press and Moscow-friendly analysts appear to believe that the Pentagon's announcement that they are moving operations out of the Manas base near Bishkek to the Romanian Black Sea coast is just a bluff. And they have developed a set of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on with the Americans in Kyrgyzstan.
The prevailing theory is that the Pentagon is in cahoots with Turkey, and that under the cover of a Turkish-operated "civilian" transportation hub at Manas, Americans will continue to carry out military missions there as subletters from the Turks. But the mission will change, from supporting logistics in Afghanistan, to supporting a NATO air defense/surveillance system that will cover all of Central Asia, as well as parts of China. In addition, a new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek will include a secret, 30-meter-deep underground facility that will be used by American intelligence specialists working on the notorious Echelon spying program.
The source for this version of events seems to be a report on a Kazakhstani website, Radio Tochka. It was then picked up by analyst Aleksandr Knyazev, who was quoted extensively in a piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta espousing much the same theory, but adding a few of his own elements (or, if you prefer, scoops). And the story then spread even more widely from there.
The Radio Tochka report, which got things kicked off, even cites named sources:
U.S. airmen handle cargo en route to Afghanistan at Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, now reportedly the U.S.'s new troop transit center.
The U,S, is working out a deal to move part of its operations at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, AFP has reported, citing U.S. defense officials. The U.S. was forced to look at options for replacing Manas after the Kyrgyzstan government demanded that the Americans finish up their operations there by July 2014. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is hosting his Romanian counterpart Corneliu Dobritoiu at the Pentagon on Friday, where the issue is expected to be on the agenda. From AFP:
Representatives from both governments in recent months have been negotiating the terms for use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in eastern Romania, which would serve as the main hub for flying troops out of Afghanistan back to the United States.
Some equipment also would be flown from Afghanistan to the base, officials said.
Five US military personnel are currently stationed at the air base and the number of American troops and contractors would dramatically increase if the agreement goes ahead. In Kyrgyzstan, about 1,500 US troops and contractors work at the air base.
Georgian soldiers disembark at the Manas Transit Center, in Kyrgyzstan, after a charter flight from Tbilisi. They will spend about two days at the airbase before deploying to Afghanistan on a US Air Force jet. With over 1,500 soldiers on the ground, Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has opened his wallet to the tune of tens of billions of dollars on his four-nation tour of Central Asia this month, didn’t run out of money before he arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing has offered Bishkek a much-needed cash infusion reportedly totaling about $3 billion.
During his trip, Xi helped inaugurate the world’s second-biggest natural gas field, in Turkmenistan, which will help triple China’s imports from what is already its largest foreign supplier. In Kazakhstan, he reportedly signed energy deals worth $30 billion. In Uzbekistan, AFP reported $15 billion in vague energy and mining deals.
In resource-poor Kyrgyzstan, Economics Minister Temir Sariev said Beijing’s credits and investments would total $3 billion. About half will be used to build a 225-kilometer pipeline across the country for the Turkmen gas, from which Kyrgyzstan will eventually receive transit fees.
The package announced on September 11 includes a loan to build a new highway connecting Kyrgyzstan’s north and south, KyrTAG reports, citing Sariev, a $400 million loan to modernize the ailing Bishkek heating plant, and $400 million toward a long-delayed Chinese-built oil refinery. There’s even a promise to open a hospital specializing in Chinese medicine.
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.)
The government of Kyrgyzstan is working with a Washington, D.C., law firm to reopen the securities fraud case against Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former president. Kyrgyzstan had made clear its displeasure with the U.S., after the Department of Justice dropped the case without explanation, and the move may have even played a role in the U.S.'s apparent eviction from its air base in Kyrgyzstan. So it's not too surprising that they are continuing to pursue this. But a story about the issue in Buzzfeed contains a number of intriguing details.
One is that the law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, is working pro bono. Why it is doing so remains unclear, and the Buzzfeed piece implies there is a hidden agenda.
“It’s not a usual path to represent a country pro bono,” McCarthy [the firm's head lawyer on the case] conceded. He named the firm’s “respect for Roza Otunbayeva” as a main motivating factor in taking the job. When asked what Akin Gump was getting out of the deal, McCarthy said “it motivates me and my team personally as well” and that Akin Gump wants to help Kyrgyzstan “stay the course” when it comes to corruption.
Another interesting piece of news the story broke is the apparent reason that the U.S. dropped the charges:
A person working on the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that State Department officials had told Akin Gump representatives that the case was dropped because Eugene Gourevitch, the Bakiyev family’s financial adviser who was the cooperating witness on the case, had recanted his testimony. Gourevitch is currently in an Italian jail facing charges related to a $2.7 billion carousel scheme.
Kyrgyzstan news media have reported that the U.S. has agreed to close the Manas air base it operates there, and U.S. officials have declined to deny the reports, making it seem more likely than ever that this is in fact the end of the line for the beleaguered base.
Last week, a U.S. State Department team headed by Ambassador Eric John, Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, visited Bishkek. The U.S. embassy statement about his visit only mentioned Manas in passing: "Kyrgyzstan’s support of international efforts in Afghanistan through its hosting of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport is one facet of this overall cooperation."
Today, news agency KyrTag reported that the Kyrgyzstan side informed the U.S. that their last day would be 11 July, 2014:
"We discussed this in the recent meeting with the working group from the U.S. The discussion was conducted in the framework of the well known position of Kyrgyzstan on this question," said [Erines Otorbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs].
Otorbayev added that the American side must start removing military objects and personal equipment by 11 July, because after that day there should not be any U.S. military presence at the Manas airport."
A ceremony honoring military dogs; Sheila, who worked at Manas, is on the right. (photo: Micah Garbarino, US Air Force)
At a U.S. Air Force ceremony last week honoring retiring military dogs, two of the dogs achieved distinction for their service at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. From a report in Stars and Stripes:
Arras, a German shepherd born Aug. 26, 2006, was assigned to Tinker on Dec. 10, 2008, the start of his military career. Arras was deployed in support of Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan and Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. He used his keen detection ability to locate explosives and deter terrorist attacks against the bases....
Sheila, a Belgian Malinois born on Sept. 10, 2006, was assigned to Tinker on July 30, 2008, the start of her military career. Sheila deployed twice to Manas Air Force Base, Kyrgyzstan. She used her keen detection ability to locate explosives and deter terrorist acts.
Wait, attempted terrorist attacks against Manas? Why are we only hearing about this now -- and from a dog retirement ceremony of all places?! Well, it turns out that, like many proud pet owners, the Air Force may have exaggerated the accomplishments of Arras and Sheila a bit. A Manas spokesman tells The Bug Pit:
[T]he dogs succeeded in their mission to deter attacks because of their capabilities. They did not literally locate explosives, nor were there any actual terrorist attacks they foiled. Instead, their capabilities and their presence prevented people from attempting such actions.
Ah well. I often claim that my cat can play fetch, when in fact he only very occasionally brings back what I throw him. And I'm sure that had there really been a attempted terror attack, Arras and Sheila would have helped foil it (unfortunately, I don't think I can say the same for my cat). So let's wish Arras and Sheila a happy retirement.
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.