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09 December 2023

US airbase in Kyrgyzstan locked up in limbo

Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said last week he would evict US forces from Manas Air Base, an important staging post for US-led operations in Afghanistan. (REUTERS) 

By Reuters
A US officer squints and covers his ears with his hands when a military plane takes off into the sky over the last remaining US base in Central Asia.

Tucked away in the hills of northern Kyrgyzstan, the Manas air base found itself at the heart of global geopolitics this month after Kyrgyzstan announced its decision to close this key gateway for US-led operations in nearby Afghanistan.

Now the fate of its 1,000 personnel is up in the air as doubts begin to emerge as to when – and if – the tiny former Soviet republic would actually implement its decision.

With more than a week since the February 3 announcement, Kyrgyzstan has yet to say when the base would be shut, leading some to suggest it may still opt to reverse its decision.

"We haven't received an official eviction note yet. So we are going to continue with our mission until we are told otherwise," said Major Damien Pickart as he watched a KC-135 tanker plane embark on a refuelling mission to Afghanistan.

"Once an arrangement is reached – whether we decide to increase the rent and stay, or whether they tell us it's time for us to go – that is when we are going to work out where we are going to operate our forces out of."

Kyrgyzstan has long accused the United States of refusing to heed its calls to pay more rent for the air base, the main refuelling point for aircraft used in US Afghan operations.

Many observers believe that Russia, which operates its own military base just few dozen kilometres (miles) away from Manas, had applied pressure on Kyrgyzstan to evict US troops.

Kyrgyzstan's president had made his announcement in Moscow after securing more than $2 billion (Dh7.4 billion) in Russian aid and credit.



The standoff over this square mile of heavily guarded space, surrounded by swathes of windswept land and Kyrgyz villages, marks a fresh twist in a regional power struggle reminiscent of the 19th-century "Great Game" between Russia and Britain.

Manas, named after a Kyrgyz epic hero, gained particular importance for the United States in 2005 when Uzbekistan, another Central Asian nation, evicted US troops from a military base there in a row over human rights.

Analysts say Kyrgyzstan's move and attacks on the main supply routes into Afghanistan via Pakistan were an early sign of the problems the US administration faced in Afghanistan as it prepares to boost troops numbers in the country.

"Welcome to Freedom's Frontier!" says a large billboard near the main headquarters building of the base, home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing which dates back to World War Two years when it led air raids against Germany's oil fields in Romania.

Life appeared to proceed as normal inside a thick layer of barbed wire encircling the base during a visit by a Reuters multimedia team on Thursday. Uniformed men and women shared lunch in the canteen, while others played basketball in the spacious gym.

A group of mechanics, braving blasts of wintry wind at the main flightline, carried out aircraft maintenance. Others were busy checking equipment as they prepared to be transferred to Afghanistan from the air base, also used by French and other coalition forces fighting there.

"I think there is still some negotiation going on," said Eric Denos, a French airman, as he checked the latest news on his laptop in a recreation zone.

"I think Kyrgyzstan wants more money. But we can't do anything about it. But I hope they won't close it."



Even though Kyrgyzstan has complained about the rent, the base has been a crucial contributor to its $4 billion economy, already struggling with rising unemployment and corroding incomes due to a deepening global economic crisis.

Manas employs many local workers, and a whole economy based on servicing its operations – from laundry to cleaning – has blossomed around the base, whose round-the-clock missions include refuelling and support for troops flying to Afghanistan.

"I've always wanted to work for Manas and lots of other people around here dream of working here," says Gaukhar, a 29-year-old fluent English speaker who works in a local library.

The US government pays $17.4 million a year for use of the base. Its total assistance to Kyrgyzstan is $150 million a year.

Public opinion is split over Manas, with the government and some Kyrgyz people still upset about a 2006 incident when a US airman shot dead a Kyrgyz driver at the main gate of the base.

But many locals still said its closure would deal a blow to hundreds of Kyrgyz people currently employed by the base – a lucrative job market for a largely agrarian nation where the average monthly wage is just about $130.

"Everyone is literally crying in the nearby villages," said a Kyrgyz traffic policeman posted on a desolate road outside the base. "Entire villages around here will be left without work."