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].
U.S. soldiers construct new facilities in Romania to prepare for the U.S. shifting operations from Kyrgyzstan. (photo: Staff Sgt. Warren W. Wright Jr., 21st TSC Public Affairs)
The U.S. military will start shifting operations away from the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to a new facility in February as it gradually winds down its presence in Central Asia. The U.S. presence at the new base in Romania, Mihail Kogalniceanu on the Black Sea coast, will also be significantly smaller than that in Kyrgyzstan. That's according to Maj. Gen. John O'Connor, commander of the Army's 21st Theater Sustainment Command, who gave an interview to Foreign Policy about the move.
The mission at MK won't be quite as large as the one at Manas -- a reflection, in part, that the size of the war in Afghanistan already has shrunk. Still, some 400 troops under O'Connor's command will be based there this year to process troops in transit, with the work beginning in days. A team of three colonels will be leading the transit mission at MK. In return for allowing the U.S. transit mission, the Romanian government will get an undisclosed amount of fuel, O'Connor said.
Manas has typically had a permanent staff of roughly 1,400 troops and 200 civilians and contractors working for the Defense Department. Between February and July, when the lease at Manas runs out, U.S. forces in transit could be sent through either Romania or Kyrgyzstan, with the mission eventually shifting entirely to Romania, O'Connor said.
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.