Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
Documents have come to light proving that the beneficiary of a $748,000 renovation funded by the U.S. military was not the state or people of Kyrgyzstan, as initially claimed by Kyrgyz and U.S. officials, but a private citizen who acquired the property under dubious circumstances.
The former state hospital, in the Bishkek suburb of Shopokov, was intended to be a “development center for battered women” and “a shelter for up to 55 women and their children,” according to U.S. military press materials distributed during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010. The American airbase at Manas funded the renovations. The base commander and U.S. ambassador attended the event.
For a time, the impressively refurbished two-story building stood empty. Today it accommodates a private kindergarten that earns its owners roughly $47,000 per year, based on calculations using figures provided by the school’s employees.
The $748,000 grant was unusually large for Manas, accounting for one-third of the base’s humanitarian aid spending that year. Most of Manas’s development grants that year were for less than $20,000.
American officials appeared to believe at the time that the funds were being used to refurbish a state-owned building. In 2011, when the building stood empty, a Manas spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that after refurbishment the building was supposed to remain Kyrgyz government property and said Manas was not responsible for monitoring program activity.
The implementing partner was Zamira Akbagysheva, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Women.
Today, a sign on the gate outside the building declares “Authorized People Only.” With its sparkling paint-job, new windows, and bright-red roofing tiles, the building stands out in the neighborhood of dilapidated gray houses.
The United States significantly stepped up its training of Kyrgyzstan's special forces in 2013, as Washington was trying to convince Bishkek to allow its air base to remain in the country.
The U.S. trained 1,024 troops from Kyrgyzstan in fiscal year 2013 (that is, the year beginning October 1, 2012), up from 345 the year before. Of those, 880 were special forces troops which took part in six-week training courses led by their American special forces counterparts, documents newly released by the U.S. State Department show.
According to the annual report (pdf), on “Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest,” the Kyrgyzstan forces trained appeared to be mixed groups taken from various special forces units including the Alphas and Borus from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) and the Scorpions, Panthers, and Ilbirs from the Ministry of Defense. The special forces training cost $2.6 million and was funded by Section 1004, under which the Department of Defense finances counter-drug activities around the world. They were trained in four six-week periods beginning in October 2012 and ending August 31, 2013.
U.S. officials have consistently denied that their security cooperation programs in Central Asia are linked to gaining regional governments' support for the Afghanistan military mission. But the timing of these programs are certainly suggestive of such a connection.
U.S. troops board an aircraft headed to Afghanistan at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, which this year replaced the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
Kyrgyzstan's truck drivers say they are suffering because the U.S. military has shifted traffic to Uzbekistan in the wake of the closure of the Manas air base, which operated in Kyrgyzstan until earlier this year. But the U.S. military denies that any decrease in traffic is connected to the base closure.
The director of Kyrgyzstan's Truck Drivers' Association, Temirbek Shabdanaliyev, told website KNews that as a result of the Manas closure, 2,000 truckers are now out of a job:
"After the departure of the Manas Transit Center our truck drivers were left without work. Shipments through our territory to and from Afghanistan immediately stopped, for some reason traffic now goes through Uzbekistan. Before, every week our drivers carried out 300-400 trips to Afghanistan and back, now they sit idle."
"Now these 2,000 drivers are left without work, unemployment increased. Very many drivers are parked without work, and tension and dissatisfaction among the drivers is growing."
The government of Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the United States is reducing its military cooperation in the wake of the eviction of the air base that the Americans operated there until last month.
In an interview with Interfax, Deputy Defense Minister Zamir Suerkulov said that "recently, the intensity of contacts between our sides in the sphere of military cooperation is decreasing." Suerkulov added that Kyrgyzstan would like to maintain the level of cooperation "but the Americans do it their own way. For the continuation of contacts the Americans proposed creating a legal base similar to the one which was implemented during the time of the [Manas] Transit Center, but we didn't want that."
According to most recent data on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's has decreased, but not any more than in any of the other countries of the region. I asked the State Department to clarify what happened, and they provided this statement:
Our security cooperation has historically included bilateral work on key, mutually-beneficial areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics,border security, and building peacekeeping capability. The termination of the 2009 Agreement for Cooperation in July 2014 severely inhibits the ability of the United States to continue its military assistance and cooperation with the defense and security ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Col. Mirbek Imayev, chief of staff of the Kyrgyz National Guard, with a symbolic key he received from U.S. officers at the formal closure of the Manas air base. (photo: Capt. Cory OBrien, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing)
As the United States shuts down its air base in Kyrgyzstan, people in the region are assessing the legacy of 12 years of American military presence in the country. And for the most part, the conclusion is: good riddance.
The reaction in Kyrgyzstan was muted, said Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The news portals of Kyrgyzstan were silent about the news that caused such a lively reaction in Russia. It was as if there had not been 12 and a half years of the presence of a foreign army, painful incidents, corruption scandals and the 'strengthening of American-Kyrgyzstani friendship.'" (Scare quotes as in original.)
And indeed, according to an informal press review conducted by The Bug Pit, there did seem to be more commentary on the closure coming from Russia than from Kyrgyzstan itself. Russian website Lenta.ru ran an interview with Kyrgyzstan analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, who described the base in thoroughly negative terms. He said that former president Askar Akaev allowed the establishment of the base as a "PR move ... so that Kyrgyzstan could be called an island of democracy in Central Asia. But the people wanted to be together with Russia."
U.S. airmen load cargo into a plane as they prepare to shut down the base in May 2014. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
The United States's most prominent military outpost in Central Asia, the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, formally closed its doors on Tuesday. The commander of the base handed over a symbolic golden key to Kyrgyzstan military officials, and the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan said the last of the American troops will be gone this week.
In its 12 years of operation, Manas handled 5.3 million military personnel from 26 countries as the main transit point for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan, the base's commander, Colonel John Millard, said at the ceremony.
Those 12 years saw plenty of rocky periods of negotiations between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, as the Kyrgyzstan government faced both pressure from Russia and widespread public suspicion over the base. In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that it would close down the base, only to reverse its decision after the U.S. upped the rent from $17 million to $60 million annually. But President Almazbek Atambayev campaigned in 2011 on a promise to shut the base down, and whatever the U.S. offered to keep it open apparently wasn't enough, and last year announced that they would leave the base and the transit operations would move to Romania for the remainder of the Afghanistan mission.
As if to symbolize the rocky relationship, the last news item to come out of Manas was the conviction on Monday of a U.S. civilian contractor at the base who attempted to rape a local woman; he was sentenced to four years in prison.
Col. John Vaughn, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, kisses school cook Galina Ivanovna in one of the last visits by US troops to the school in Birlik on Dec. 20, 2013. (Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman George Goslin)
The U.S. air base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, has started formally shutting down, and U.S. troops have already started using the replacement facility in Romania as they transit in and out of Afghanistan.
This month, there have been a steady stream of U.S. military press releases marking the "last" of one or another functions at Manas: the air traffic control unit has shut down, the Theater Security Cooperation division (which deals with the base's joint activities with Kyrgyzstan's armed forces) is closing shop February 25, even the final visit by American troops to a local school.
Meanwhile, on February 3, 300 U.S. troops transited through the Romanian base at Mihail Kogalniceanu on their way to Afghanistan, the first contingent of U.S. troops to use that facility (popularly referred to among troops as "MK") instead of Manas. It was apparently a rush to get the MK facility ready to go, judging by the remarks made by an officer in the unit charged with setting it up:
“There were some naysayers who were very skeptical about our ability to complete this project in time,” Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC, officer-in-charge of the Regional Support Element at MK Air Base and a native of Dallas, Ore., told his team of Army and Air Force personnel. “You should be immensely proud of what you’ve accomplished during the last couple months. Don’t let this moment pass without realizing we’ve come together as a team to achieve some amazing things.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].