Why the air base debate drags on


KIEV, Ukraine — So now it’s official.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed an order Friday — which was then delivered to the U.S. ambassador in Bishkek — that gives Washington six months to evacuate the Manas Air Base.

The important base, which is located at the main international airport outside the capital Bishkek, has been in use since 2001, serving as a major transportation and refueling hub for operations in nearby Afghanistan. It's staffed by about 900 Americans, as well as a handful of French, Spanish and Turkish troops. About 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo pass through it every month.

And yet — according to the Americans — despite the Kyrgyz decision the base debate is still not quite over: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he hadn’t given up hope that the Kyrgyz government would allow the Americans to stay. “We have not resigned ourselves to this being the last word,” he said at a NATO conference in Poland.

One would suspect, however, that this is in fact the last word.

For Bishkek to change its mind, it would most likely take a bigger sum than Washington is willing to provide, and a willingness from the Kyrgyz to lose an unfathomable amount of face. Not to mention fortitude in the face of a political and economic onslaught — and God-knows-what-else — from Moscow that would most certainly follow.

There are two further quotes from Gates that I feel are worth mentioning.

First, the defense secretary said that the U.S. would pay a reasonable amount for rent, but would not be “ridiculous about it.” What’s ridiculous to Washington is obviously not so to Bishkek. Still, if the Kyrgyz are asking the U.S. to match the Russians’ alleged $450 million or so in immediate payments, then maybe they’re being a bit optimistic.

Second, Gates said that Manas is “important but not irreplaceable.” This jibes with what I’ve been hearing about the base ever since it was established. In fact, there has been a strong debate among U.S. policy-makers to close the base down, since it is very expensive to maintain, and its functions could be transferred elsewhere. To be sure, the base's importance will be magnified with the surge in U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But its loss is probably not a crippling blow.

But Manas’ importance has as much to do with politics as it does with the military.

It projects U.S. power into a region where America has historically been absent. This is not to say that Washington wants to dominate Central Asia or steal it from the Russians. But U.S. officials do want to influence events there in ways that they consider positive, and Manas is one of the means of doing this.

State department types often argued to me that Manas was a good thing because it provided the U.S. with leverage to pressure the Kyrgyz to be more open and democratic, since they didn’t want the base and the millions it provided to disappear. (This usually went along with the proposition that, “They need us more than we need them.”) The odd thing is that in past years, the Kyrgyz have been more effectively using the leverage against the U.S.

It seemed to many observers in Bishkek and throughout the region that the U.S. was pulling its punches at the very moment that the Bakiev regime was becoming more and more authoritarian. And this could be explained, they said, by the fact that Washington was afraid of losing the base. The tail was wagging the dog.

Which brings me to my last point: Why does the West care about isolated, impoverished and under-populated ex-Soviet Central Asia at all?

Besides the general goal of promoting democracy, human rights and free markets wherever possible — because they ultimately lead to stable governments and satisfied populations — there are two main reasons: hydrocarbons and location, especially the region's proximity to Afghanistan. (Keep in mind that the region also borders Russia, China and Iran.)

On the first issue, the loss of Manas is beside the point: Kyrgyzstan has no significant oil and gas deposits. The bigger fish are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (and to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan). These countries may be impressed by a U.S. base in the region, but in the end they will decide on their own what to do with their reserves.

As for the second point — well, all of this is important to keep in mind as reports leak out that the Americans are talking to the Uzbeks about re-establishing a base in that country (which may or may not be true), and supply lines are being expanded in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and maybe Turkmenistan. Manas may not be “irreplaceable,” but this Northern Route does seem to be quite crucial.

At the same time, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov are among the world’s most repressive dictators — and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan are no picnic either. Doing business with these people may seem objectionable (increased business, that is — we’ve been working with these countries since they were created), but Afghanistan disintegrating into absolute chaos or witnessing a return of the Taliban is an even scarier prospect.