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Are Cold War Politics at Play in the Closure of Manas Air Base?

Next fall will be a busy time of year for our dysfunctional government. Faced with the prospect of midterm elections for a Congress with some of the lowest approval ratings ever and the near complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, our country’s bureaucrats will be hoping that nothing else will shake up the second half of 2014.

First on the list to make sure that 2014 goes off without a hitch: ensuring the Afghan withdrawal runs smoothly. To do so, military planners are working around the clock to determine what defense hardware can be left behind, what can be sold, and what needs to be destroyed. They also need to figure out how American personnel and equipment will be taken out of Afghanistan, a completely land-locked nation. Although most of the military’s heavy equipment can be extracted to Pakistan via complex land routes, the journey requires venturing through mountainous, Taliban infested territory. As a result, most American troops and their light equipment will be transported out of the country by large aircraft.

Manas Air Base is considered crucial to the United States’ withdrawal efforts from Afghanistan. Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty/Agence France-Presse

Moving from Manas

Enter Manas air base. Located near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Manas air base has operated as the main air transit center for troops and supplies in and out of neighboring Afghanistan. In 2009, approximately 15,000 troops and 500 tons of food and weaponry went through Manas every month.[1] 97 percent of all troops flying into Afghanistan pass through the base at least once. Furthermore, Manas is used as an aerial refueling station for cargo planes traveling deeper into Central Asia. Thus, the use of Manas air base has been deemed critical to the successful execution of any withdrawal plan.

However, after years of diplomatic tit-for-tat with the Kyrgyzstani government, the U.S. will lose its basing rights for Manas on July 11, 2014. In its place, the U.S. will be relocating the bulk of its operations in Manas to an installation in Romania. The deal to relocate the bases’ operations was finalized on October 18th in a meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa. Although the exact details of the summit were undisclosed, a defense department official stated that the two had concluded an agreement “for Romania to support logistics into and out of Afghanistan, including both personnel and cargo movement.”[2] The move sees the relocation of Manas’ logistics operations to Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, located on the Black Sea.

Despite this setback, defense department spokesmen moved to downplay the effect the move will have on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. On further review, defense officials claim that they over-estimated the amount of equipment that needs to be removed from the country as more of it will now either be sold or destroyed. One spokesperson commented that military planners “realized they didn’t need Manas as much as they originally believed.”[3] Furthermore, the ability of Mihail Kogalniceanu air base to serve as a transportation hub has already been tested by the U.S. Transportation Command. During the second half of 2012, USTRANSCOM conducted a “proof of principle” test at the base that shuttled 3,800 troops to Afghanistan and brought back 6,200 personnel to the U.S. via Mihail Kogalniceanu – all within one month.[4]

Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, commonly referred to as “Forward Operating Site MK,” currently houses five U.S. service members. However, the base can provide garrison support for up to 1,350 rotation personnel. Mihail Kogalniceanu is located in Eastern Romania, fifteen miles from Constanta, Romania’s largest port and second largest city. MK is located on the Black Sea and is three times farther from Afghanistan than Manas. However, defense officials stated that the increased distance would make little difference, since the operations in Romania would only serve as an air logistics hub. In contrast, the refueling flights that also run out of Manas will be moved to a different facility in Southwest Asia.  Defense officials believe that MK will serve as an attractive site for the Pentagon as the base has access to air, rail and sea. The airport also boasts a 3,500 meter runway, “which is [considered] key for hosting large military transport and tanker aircraft.”[5] Hence, though the closure of Manas represents a setback for American military planners, Mihail Kogalniceanu air base should serve as a more than adequate alternative to the Kyrgyz airport in facilitating the Afghan withdrawal.

Rationale for relocation

The U.S. made the decision to relocate its aerial logistics operations from Manas to Mihail Kogalniceanu air base after Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Council voted in July to prevent any extension of the American lease. Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament had previously tried to end the lease of Manas in 2009, but reversed its decision after the intervention of American diplomats and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz President at the time. To secure continued basing rights, American officials offered to roughly triple the annual rent that the military paid for using the base from $17.4 million to $60 million.[6]

In 2010, after a bloody revolt, the authoritarian government of President Bakiyev was toppled in favor of a strongly pro-Russian regime. Thus, the new Kyrgyzstani government has opted to not only eliminate most of the American presence in the nation, as signaled by the July leasing votes, but also to increase its economic and military ties with Russia. Recently, the Supreme Council chose to extend the lease on Russia’s air base in the country until 2032. Furthermore, American officials believe that the Kyrgyz decision to push the U.S. out of the country may have been one of the conditions placed on approximately $2 billion in loans made by Russia to Kyrgyzstan.[7]

Nevertheless, despite Russia’s promise for aid, the closure of Manas may impose an undesirable economic burden on Bishkek. The rent paid by the U.S. for using the airbase was the Kyrgyzstani government’s second largest source of income, the first largest literally being a goldmine. With a GDP of merely $6.5 billion, the impact of U.S. relocation may reverberate throughout the country. In addition to the $60 million that the U.S. military paid in rent each year, it also spent $300 million on fuel contracts annually. Although a large portion of that money may have been funneled into the hands of corrupt government officials, according to the International Monetary Fund, there is no question the country may suffer a dip in economic performance from the closure of Manas.[8][9]

Simmering superpower tensions in Central Asia?

So why would Kyrgyzstan voluntarily cut off its military-based economic ties with the U.S.? The answer: For the perks associated with deeper relations with Russia. Since Kyrgyzstan voted to end the U.S. lease, Russia has written off large chunks of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign debt and accelerated its arms shipments to the country from 2014 to the third quarter of 2013. Furthermore, Russia has promised nearly $1.1 billion in military support to the Kyrgyz government in the form of tanks, weapons, and ammunition. Michael Mamut, a prominent Russian analyst, believes recent developments between Kyrgyzstan and Russia signal the “resuming [of] relations between the two countries, as in Soviet times.” In the wider context, Russia has also made similar pledges of military assistance to Tajikistan.[10] Taken together, these moves signal Russia’s intent to regain its influence in Central Asia by deepening its military and economic engagement with the smaller countries in the region.

On the other hand, the U.S.’ plan to relocate its logistics hub to Romania signal the nation’s pursuit of a stronger buffer zone between its continental European allies and Russia. On securing the move from Manas to Mihail Kogalniceanu, Hagel also thanked Romania for agreeing to host the Aegis missile defense system along its border. Miller, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, will attend the systems unveiling at Deveselu later this month. Romania’s decision to host the missile defense system is taken as a positive sign by the Pentagon, as it at least marginally reduces the threat of any nuclear attack emanating from Moscow. Furthermore, U.S. defense officials have praised Romania for making the decision to purchase twelve F-16s from Portugal.[11]

Deletant, a visiting Romanian studies professor at Georgetown, believes that pro-U.S. sentiment in Romania made the decision to move American operations to MK a logical choice. Furthermore, according to Deletant, many Romanians believe instability in Afghanistan may spread into Europe. Thus, they subsequently support a more robust U.S. presence in the region.[12] This also indicates that the U.S. is looking to forge stronger ties with like-minded allies who share “liberal-democratic” values. This may be part of a larger plan to increase the resilience of future American military ties, in contrast to the fragility of our current relations based on oil-related politics.

While much of the narrative surrounding the Manas base closure has focused on the logistics of the U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mainstream media often fails to portray the larger geopolitical battle occurring behind the scenes between the U.S. and Russia. Although Russia struck the first blow by pressuring Bishkek to kick the U.S. out of Kyrgyzstan, America responded in turn by increasing its engagement with a pro-western Romanian government. However, it remains to be seen who will become the ultimate victor in the race to dominate the former Soviet sphere of influence.

[1]Cashing Out: U.S. Military Quits Critical Air Base After $100 Million in Payoffs,” Gordon Lubold, October 18th 2013. Gordon Lubold, Natural Security Reporter for Foreign Policy; Former Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace; Former Politico Defense Reporter.

[2] “US to Use Romanian Air Base as Air Transit Point for Afghanistan,” ABC News Radio, October 21st 2013.

[3]Cashing Out: U.S. Military Quits Critical Air Base After $100 Million in Payoffs,” Gordon Lubold, October 18th 2013. Gordon Lubold, Natural Security Reporter for Foreign Policy; Former Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace; Former Politico Defense Reporter.

[4]Report: Manas Operations Moving To Romania,” Joshua Kucera, October 18th 2013. Joshua Kucera, Central Asia Commenter for EurasiaNet.

[5]US To Use Romanian Air Base as Afghan Transit Hub,” DefenseNews, October 18th 2013.

[6]US to use Romanian air base for Afghan pullout,” BBC News, October 18th 2013.

[7]Cashing Out: U.S. Military Quits Critical Air Base After $100 Million in Payoffs,” Gordon Lubold, October 18th 2013. Gordon Lubold, Natural Security Reporter for Foreign Policy; Former Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace; Former Politico Defense Reporter.

[9]Kyrgyzstan: Proposals for Post-Manas “Transit Hub” Lack Air Under Wings,” David Trilling, October 7th 2013. David Trilling, Central Asia Editor for EurasiaNet.

[10]Moscow influence in Central Asia boosted by Kyrgyz military deal,” Farooq Yousaf, July 28th 2013. Farooq Yousaf, Editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

[11]US secures airbase in Romania, begins pull out from Kyrgyzstan,” The Economic Times, October 19th 2013.

[12]DOD to shift air transit from Manas to Romania,” Stars and Stripes, October 18th 2013.