February 4, 2009 in Nation/World

Kyrgyzstan to close key U.S. air base

Decision hints at Russian strategy
By Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay McClatchy
 
Associated Press photo

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, speaks with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

MOSCOW – The U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban suffered two logistical blows Tuesday as the president of Kyrgyzstan announced that he’d shut a U.S. air base in his country and insurgents in Pakistan blew up a bridge, disrupting the main U.S. supply route into Afghanistan.

The developments were the latest reminders of the vulnerability of the long and complex transportation system on which the 60,000 U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan depend for fuel, ammunition, construction materials and a great deal more.

The announcement by Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that he will close the Manas Air Base also gave President Barack Obama a first taste of the challenge he faces from Russia, which is trying to restore its clout in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

Bakiyev made his announcement in Moscow, not in his own capital, shortly after the Russian government reportedly agreed to lend Kyrgyzstan $2 billion, write off $180 million in debt and add another $150 million in aid. The timing and place of the announcement indicated the Kremlin’s involvement.

“It’s a direct challenge to the new American administration. Russia is going out of its way to close an American base,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst.

Manas is the main transit point through which U.S. troops fly into and out of Afghanistan. As such, it is vital to plans to send 30,000 more American troops to stabilize Afghanistan. A U.S. Air Force Web site calls it “the premier air-mobility hub” for U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan, with about 1,000 military personnel from America, Spain and France stationed there.

A senior U.S. military official said the U.S. military hopes Bakiyev’s decision is not final but is the latest gambit in what has been a lengthy effort to squeeze more money out of Washington.

The U.S. has been paying Kyrgyzstan about $63 million a year to use Manas. The money is part of some $150 million in annual direct and indirect U.S. aid.

The senior U.S. military official said the base is also used to “bed down” U.S. tanker aircraft used for midair refueling operations over Afghanistan.

Bakiyev explained in Moscow that the decision had been made because “we have repeatedly raised with the U.S. the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood,” Russian media reported.

Bakiyev said that after the base opened in 2001 the understanding was that “it was one or two years that were being talked about. Eight years have passed.”

In Pakistan, meanwhile, Islamic insurgents allied with the Taliban blew up a bridge in the Khyber Pass, disrupting one of two truck routes from the port of Karachi by which U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan receive about 80 percent of their supplies.


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