Since 2001, the most visible U.S. military presence in Central Asia has been a U.S. Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan, formally called the Transit Center at Manas. Since then the base has been the source of extensive diplomatic wrangling between the two countries, and now – with the pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan looming – the Kyrgyzstan government is making strong suggestions that it wants the base out.
In May, on a 91-5 vote, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a law “annulling” the current agreement between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan on the base. And Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev, who has strongly and consistently opposed the base since his election campaign, signed the law on June 26. The law may have no practical impact: the date it sets for the annulment of the agreement, July 14, 2014, is the same date the current agreement is scheduled to expire anyway. And this is not the first time Kyrgyzstan has said it is kicking the U.S. out: it did so in 2009, as well, before changing its mind when the U.S. upped the rent from $17 million a year to $60 million. But the strong parliamentary statement, and the consistency with which government officials have been making categorical statements, suggests an unprecedented seriousness about evicting the base.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition to the base’s presence stems from a number of different sources. The first is Russia, which strongly opposes any U.S. military presence in what it considers its sphere of influence, and which is able to pressure Kyrgyzstan through a variety of means. In 2009 Russia appeared to try to sway Kyrgyzstan into evicting the Americans with promises of a $2 billion loan. And when then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev nevertheless allowed the base to stay, Russian media undertook a black PR campaign to discredit him; he was overthrown not long after. And ahead of this recent law Moscow agreed to forgive $500 million in debt to Kyrgyzstan, to fund a strategic hydropower plant there as well as to supply more than $1 billion in weapons.
Another source of Kyrgyz opposition to the base is the base’s history of corruption. Family members of two consecutive presidents, Bakiyev and his predecessor Askar Akayev had non-transparent contracts to supply fuel to the base. A 2010 U.S. Congressional report found that “the Department of Defense had a single-minded focus on supplying fuel to support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan but failed to properly oversee the political, diplomatic, and geopolitical collateral consequences of its contracting arrangements. At multiple critical junctures over the past eight years, both the Pentagon and State Department turned a blind eye to glaring red flags in the fuel contracts. Real and perceived corruption in the fuel contracts has now been linked to two revolutions and seriously strained U.S.-Kyrgyz relations.” The interim president who took over after Bakiyev’s ouster, Roza Otunbayeva, took steps to increase the transparency of supply contracts to the base, ensuring that future governments would have a harder time profiting personally from the base’s presence. (Another event that appeared to influence Kyrgyzstan’s parliament ahead of this vote was the move by the U.S. Department of Justice to drop securities fraud charges against Maxim Bakiyev, the ex-president’s son who was at the middle of the corrupt fuel contracts scandal. Although the charges were unrelated to Manas, the move was nevertheless unpopular in Kyrgyzstan.)
Finally, a series of accidents and scandals, especially in the early days of the base, soured Kyrgyzstan public and elite opinion on its presence. In 2006, a civilian was shot and killed by American guards at the base. And villagers around the base objected to the practice of occasionally jettisoning fuel, though the U.S. eventually changed its protocols for doing that. More recently, the crash of a fuel tanker from the base engendered more controversy about who had the legal jurisdiction to investigate the accident.
The U.S. has indicated that it wants to keep the base, the transit capacity of which should play a crucial role as the U.S. begins to pull out its forces from Afghanistan. But U.S. officials are being very quiet about their efforts to do so. Last week, a newly appointed State Department official, Ambassador Eric John, Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, headed a delegation to Bishkek to discuss the future of the base. The official statement about John’s visit to Bishkek downplayed the role of the base, noting only in passing that “Kyrgyzstan’s support of international efforts in Afghanistan through its hosting of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport is one facet of … overall cooperation.” The U.S. has been able to overcome Kyrgyzstan’s misgivings both by financial means and by offering the prestige of being an important U.S. partner. The question for the administration is whether it would be able to it again?