Kyrgyzstan: closure of key US air base not up for discussion
The government of Kyrgyzstan has said that its decision to close a major US military base is final. According to Kyrgyz government spokesman, Aibek Sultangaziyev:
"The US embassy and the [Kyrgyz] foreign ministry are exchanging opinions on this, but there are no discussions on keeping the base."
The base has an incredibly strategic location, just outside the capital city of Bishkek.
Manas Air Base, just outside the capital Bishkek, is the only US base in Central Asia and is a vital transit point for Nato and US operations in Afghanistan - an hour-and-a-half's flight away.
The base is used to refuel Afghan-bound planes, and is the first point of stop for the majority of coalition troops on their way in and out of Afghanistan.
The US Military calls Manas its "premier" mobility hub in the Central Asian region:
Manas Air Base, Kyrgyz Republic, is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and serves as the premier air mobility hub for the International Security Assistance Force and Coalition military operations in Afghanistan. The wing's around-the-clock missions include aerial refueling, combat airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation and strategic airlift operations. The base also provides support for Coalition personnel and cargo transiting in and out of Afghanistan. Approximately 1,000 military personnel from the United States, Spain and France are assigned to the wing, along with 650 U.S. and host-nation contractor personnel. Coalition aircraft supporting the mission include U.S. KC-135s, Spanish C-130s and French C135FRs.
While Kyrgyzstan may not have appeared much in the media in recent years, it has been a key location in the ever-lengthening US-NATO war in Afghanistan. Manas has housed the Air Base since 2001. Loss of the base will be a major blow to President Obama's pledge to renew efforts in Afghanistan.
The Kyrgyzstani government claimed that there is no link between the closure and US$2.4 billion in aid recently pledged to it by Moscow. The Russian government is lately taking an even greater interest in tightening its grip on the former Soviet republics.
Russia has long been irritated by the U.S. military presence in what is considers its natural areas of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin is widely believed to be behind the move against the U.S. by Kyrgyzstan's government, which submitted a draft bill to parliament Wednesday that would close the Manas air base.
But Moscow, which fought its own bloody and unsuccessful 10-year war to control Afghanistan, also does not want the country's instability spreading north toward Russia. The Kremlin has said it is open to aiding U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan by helping to find alternatives to Pakistani supply lines that are increasingly threatened by militant attacks.
Russia has criticized the US for its use of solely military means in its War on Terror.
Kyrgyzstan, for its part, has been faltering economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite foreign aid, including IMF loans, the country had an unemployment rate of 17.7% in 2006. It lacks the richness in fuel and mineral resources which have helped other former USSR countries build their economies. Kyrgyzstan is home to stunning mountain topography, especially in the southwest, and the government has attempted to promote tourism as a means to boost national income in recent years. However, political instability and social unrest have prevented the successful implementation of a tourist infrastructure, especially in the countryside.
Replacing Manas will prove difficult, both politically and militarily. The US has begun talks with Uzbekistan, and Russia has agreed to let non-military supplies travel through its borders. Regardless, how the U.S. chooses to handle the war in Afghanistan over the coming months will be crucial to the outcome of the conflict. Greater diplomacy may indeed prove to be crucial.
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