BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 14 (UPI) — The Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan will be used as a civilian transit center after international forces wind down their mission in Afghanistan, Bishkek said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Kyrgyz officials this week while en route to Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base is a key transit center for troops and supplies for the international military operation in Afghanistan. Panetta, during his visit, said the base was important to the mission because neighboring countries had blocked alternative routes.
The Kyrgyz Defense Ministry, in a statement, said Bishkek is interested in a secure and stable Afghanistan. Bishkek, the ministry said, is ready to participate fully in the mission and understands the strategic importance of the air base.
“At the same time the Manas Transit Center infrastructure will be used as a civil transit center after 2014,” the ministry was quoted by Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg as saying. “This position is dictated solely by national interests of Kyrgyzstan.”
International forces starting next will start the steps needed to hand security responsibility over to Afghan forces by 2014.
Sort of a “no surprise” story. Kyrgyzastan has for decades been slowly de-orbiting the old Soviet sphere and falling under the influence of the Chinese. The people in the streets of Bishkek are essentially saying “Yankee go home.”
Trouble, aside from the fact we have troops deployed in a country none of use can spell or pronounce accurately without aid of the internet, is that the looming closure of Manus threatens to close off options for the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. With the 2005 eviction from Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airfield, Manus became a critical, and now tenuous, supply route. The other option is through Pakistan, with no small set of worries. For an administration already looking for the end game in Afghanistan, this may provide a clean-cut justification for large scale draw-downs. Clearly the Kyrgyzs figure this too, pushing for a settlement by the end of this year. They know the US is playing the short game.
But there’s another option on the table. Russia may set aside facilities at Ulyanovsk, some 300 miles west of Moscow, for NATO use. Swell, but that still means NATO aircraft would need to transit the airspace of several nations offering less than full support. Nor does it provide relief for supplies using the land route into Afghanistan.
What’s in it for the Russians? Perhaps a place at the table when the Afghanistan war transitions to the post-US phase? A block against expanding Chinese influences in Central Asia?
Seems like someone is playing the long game.