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US Military Departure from Manas Stirring a New Game in Central Asia

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 07, 2014

    A few weeks ago, when I landed in Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, the Manas International Airport had a deserted look with only a few local aircrafts parked at bay. In comparison, when I left for home from Manas in October 2012, at least two dozen US C-17 transports and KC-135 aerial refueling tanker aircrafts actively stationed there. I recall participating at the events at the US Transit Centre, a tent city located next to Manas. It was the hub for onward movement of about 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo a month to and from Afghanistan. On June 22, 2014 I was told by a local Kyrgyz that the closure of the US Transit Centre after more than 12 years occurred just weeks back on June 3, though the last date for eviction was slated to expire on July 11 2014.

    I remember over 1,000 US servicemen at Manas were engaged in aerial refueling, cargo airlift, as well in humanitarian programmess with Kyrgyzstan. The Commander and other officials of the US Air Force were always enthusiastic to call the Bishkek-based Japanese, Indian and Korean diplomats for entertainment at the sprawling military installation comprising air-conditioned tents and makeshift houses that boasts recreational facilities, movie theaters, gymnasiums, internet cafes, field canteens and duty free shop. My children liked to visit the Transit Centre for having pure American hamburgers. I recall how the American troops complained about being in Bishkek – an obscure destination and perhaps the end point of the world for them. They always expressed the desire to visit India (two and half hours flight from Manas) like the US diplomats in Bishkek do at every opportune movement.

    According to the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, the Transit Centre, during its more than 12 years of operations, handled more than “33,000 refueling missions, moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and served 42,000 cargo missions.” The official data says that a total of 1 billion liters of fuel has been bought on the local Kyrgyz market. The Transit Centre provided humanitarian assistance under 37 projects, with 4.7 million dollars given to schools, hospitals et al.

    Manas, named after Kyrgyz epic hero, formed a critical military staging ground for the Soviet Army for their operation against enemies to the East. This was also called Ganci and the Frunze airport where many of our Indian pilots were trained in the past. Another airport, Kant, now a Russian military base under the CSTO, is just 40-km away from Manas. The US Air Force leased Manas from Kyrgyzstan three months after the 9/11. Putin had then agreed to Bush’s plan and offered to support for deployment and transit of troops and cargo to neighbouring Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, Putin had to agree because it was not the NATO forces but the Chechens separatists, trained in Afghanistan by Al-Qaida that threatened Russia’s territorial integrity.

    The US also then opened another base at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) in Uzbekistan. But the US urge to promote democracy in Central Asia had annoyed the Uzbek leader Islam Karimov who eventually ordered the US eviction from K2 in 2005. Years later, Putin also sought to pressurize the Kyrgyz government to shut down the Manas base but the Kyrgyz leaders opted for financial benefits from the US, and instead used Russian pressure only as a bargaining chip. The US had to simply raise the rent for Manas from $2 to $17 million – peanuts for the Americans but big fortune for the Kyrgyz elite which anyway siphoned off the regular rent.

    When Russia was pressed by the Kyrgyz government to shut down the Manas, Obama, during a meeting with Medvedev in April 2009 is believed to have said: “…in Kyrgyzstan we spend about $60 million there, to use the facility for flying in women and men from the United States military to get a good night’s sleep, something hot to eat, to take a shower, and then we’re sending them to forward operating bases. The people they’re killing, if we weren’t fighting them, would be fighting you. And by the way, they are fighting you, as you know dramatically from your experiences in Chechnya. So help me understand why the base is not in Russia’s national interest.”

    For over a decade, the US presence at Manas marked the ultimate geopolitical reach for Washington to be positioned at a critical location bordering on Russia, China, Iran, India and Afghanistan. But during this period, the threat of terrorism launched by Al Qaida had made both Russia and the US to abandon their old fashion zero-sum game. But, it was not so much the geopolitics but the role of money that allowed the US to retain Manas for over 12 years. However, the presence was not without controversies and eruption of several thorny issues – a female American soldier went missing from Manas in 2006; a US soldier shot dead a Kyrgyz citizen working on the base; Kyrgyz nationalists accused US jets polluting air of the Chui Valley and many more.

    Moscow remained wary of American base at its Asian backyard and so was Beijing. Political controversies relating to the base abound and had, in fact, begun to mold the political course of Kyrgyzstan. The cases of families of ruling elite receiving hefty amount in rent and supplying of fuel to Manas from US lead to two Tulip Revolutions that ousted two Presidents since 2005. In fact, the 2010 Kyrgyz uprising resembled the recent turmoil in Ukraine, where a popular uprising against a pro-Russian President Bakiyev and his clan coterie who were indulging in making money from NATO fuel supplies contract for Manas. People believed that the President’s son Maxim Bakiyev was involved in racketeering and estimated to have earned about $170 million a year.

    It was only after the new leadership of Almazbek Atambayev in 2010-11 that Moscow managed to nudge the Kyrgyz and urge for further negotiations for rent with the US. But for the US, clinging to Manas became more important owing to Pakistan’s decision to shut NATO’s supply line through the Khyber Pass in the post Bin laden US-Pak squabble. For the Kyrgyz, Manas towards the end earned them $60 million a year, besides other earnings from sale of fuel, employment and other financial aid from the US. The media report suggest that the US military left behind property worth about 30 million dollars including “buildings and facilities at the base itself, such as soldier’s barracks, sports halls, and also tents, and about 60 vehicles, mainly excavators and equipments.”

    Things for the US changed after 2010, when the new President Atambayev, who came to power through a revolution in which Bakiyev was ousted. Atambayev, a pro-Russian leader from the outset (2011) remained dead against renewing the lease agreement. He, however, allowed the facility to continue until the agreement period was to expire by July 2014.

    Atambayev preferred a closer political tilt towards Russia and sought economic help from Russia, Turkey and China instead. He took several steps since then to strengthen Moscow’s position including his agreement to extend the lease of the Russian military base located at Kant (50-km from Manas) for 15 years from January 2017, in exchange of Moscow agreeing to write off some $500 million of Kyrgyz debts. Since then Moscow has been strengthening its four military in installations in Kyrgyzstan, including the Kant airbase and a naval test site at Lake Issyk Kul. Kant base hosts several modernized version of Su-25SM fighter-bombers and transport helicopters.

    Atambayev remained opposed to his country turning into a military springboard for any country. He found it absurd to have a foreign military base located at the civilian Manas airport and also raised the specter of Kyrgyz capital becoming a target for the enemies of US, for example, Iran. But in reality, he has been saying these under pressure from Moscow.

    Kyrgyzstan seemed destined to come back into the Russian orbit, but many feel that the country will have to compromise of its sovereignty. Already, as an alternative to the US military presence and to maintain the cash flow, Atambayev has been dreaming about converting the Manas International Airport into an international transport hub between East and West. He has been asking the Russians and the Turks to invest in the venture but so far without any success. Some reports suggest that Russia's oil giant Rosneft and another Russian firm, Novaport as well as three Chinese bidders have shown interest. It seems that the International Financial Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have also shown their keenness for participation, but ultimately the transport-hub project will only go to a Russian firm, if at all the Russians are interested. I heard Atambayev is keener on Turkish participation.

    But, soon after the Americans left Manas, Rosneft has secured 50 per cent stake in Kyrgyz fuel company Intek that operates in the southern city of Osh. Russia's state-run oil firm also acquired Bishkek Fuel Company which owns a chain of gasoline stations. Not just that, Kyrgyzstan agreed this year to transfer its critical energy sector KyrgyzGaz to Russia’s Gazprom for a symbolic amount just $1. This is a major boost for Russian advance into Central Asia. Gazprom promised to invest over $600 million and also pay off the company's $40 million debt. Also in return, Russia has agreed to assist Kyrgyzstan build its hydropower projects, but that would risk the ire of Uzbekistan. But for Kyrgyzstan playing with Moscow is essential to counterbalance assertion by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan over the issue of water. Already, Islam Karimov has threatened to go for war if such hydro plants are built along the Naryn River and other streams of Syr-Darya that would kill Uzbek agriculture life. However, for Moscow, the main goal is to bring Kyrgyzstan into the Custom Union (CU) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by 2015.

    The US military has left Kyrgyzstan on June 3 after a handing over ceremony of the closure of the US Transit Center by Col. John Millard, Commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. While Moscow might be feeling happy about the US departure from Manas, but many Kyrgyz seem to have second thoughts whether the decision to evict the US from Manas was a correct one. They fear that hosting of multiple bases was a better policy after seeing the recent fate of Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan’s situation resembles Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russian live in Kyrgyzstan and still harbour pro-Russian sentiments. In fact, some reports suggest that ethnic Russians from Central Asian are recruited to fight in eastern Ukraine. It is here that the Kyrgyz now fear that the Ukraine story might get repeated in their country, for Russia would take the slightest opportunity to intervene in Kyrgyzstan to protect the ethnic Russians. Given the presence of several Russian military facilities all around Kyrgyzstan, the fear among the people grows further. In fact, Moscow has recently sent reinforcement to its air base in Kant. Many say that call for retaining the US base grew in the post-Crimea events. Resentments are also growing over the sale of KyrgyzGaz to Russian Gazprom. People doubt whether the Russian Company would deliver gas to all areas of Kyrgyzstan.

    But now it is too late. The US cargo airlift missions have now been shifted to Forward Operating Site Mihail Kogalniceanu near the Black Sea port of Constanta in Romania, known as "Transit Center M.K" which not so far away from Sevastopol, where the Russians have a base.

    For some years, Kyrgyzstan had the distinction of being a unique and only country for having simultaneously hosting military forces of two rival powers. Many thought that the Kyrgyz policy amounted to sale of sovereignty. However, by hosting multiple foreign military bases, the Kyrgyz made the country a place of major strategic importance. But, now with the folding of the US base, it has also put an end to the US-Central Asia saga. The US overseas military presence is now retracted to the line of its power limits in Europe. When the last C-17 transporter left Manas on June 3, another episode of expansion and contraction of empires is being written in the Central Asian history.