For the past 12 years, the Manas Transit Center was the main route for US troops and supplies into Afghanistan. It was somewhat dramatically called the “Gateway to Afghanistan on the Freedom Frontier”. The base is located near the main civilian airport in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, approximately 30 minutes outside of its capital city, Bishkek. On June 3, 2014, all that changed when the commander of the base handed a symbolic golden key over to Kyrgyz military officials, the last American troops left, and the base closed. Aside from the obvious logistical complications of having the main gateway for troops and supplies shut down, what does the closure of Manas mean for the United States, Russia and of course, Kyrgyzstan?
What is the Manas base (Manas Transit Centre) used for?
The Manas base was the ‘gateway to Afghanistan’ – most troops, fuel and supplies moved through it for the past 12 years. More than 5.3 million (98% of) servicemen went through the Manas Transit Center, as did over one billion liters of fuel.
Why is it closing?
The most obvious reason is that the war in Afghanistan is winding down. However, the Manas Transit Center’s presence was never popular in Kyrgyzstan. The negotiations to keep Manas open as long as it was were politically complex, and the source of much scandal in Kyrgyzstan. From Zero Hedge:
The corruption involved in the Manas lease arrangement…had a long genesis, as beginning in early 2002 (Kyrgyz President) Akayev’s son Aydar was the recipient of annual $2 million lease payments, plus additional fees of $7,000 per takeoff and landing. In all, Akayev’s family law received $87 million and $32 million for his two airport service companies during Akayev’s tenure as president as shortly after Manas began operations, the Pentagon signed contracts with Manas International Services Ltd. and Aalam Services Ltd., the only two aviation fuel suppliers in Kyrgyzstan, both controlled by Akayev’s relatives. Complaints over American arrogance over the facility would outlast the Akayev regime.
The Manas Transit Center is at the center of two corrupt Kyrgyz presidential administrations and is seen by much of the population as the US trying carry out their own objectives at the expense of the Kyrgyz. Multiple incidents occurred, such as contractors being accused of rape and locals claiming to be attacked by soldiers, which contributed to the unpopularity of the ISAF forces. This combined with the unpopularity of the Afghan war means that the base was never well received by the Kyrgyz public.
How does Kyrgyzstan feel about all this?
Josh Kucera, for EurasiaNet’s The Bug Pit argues that the prevailing attitude in Kyrgyzstan may be “Good Riddance.” He points out the major concern is likely to be how the country will make up for the revenue brought in by the base:
One of the key questions surrounding the base has been how its contribution to the government budget of Kyrgyzstan — in total, more than $200 million a year — can be replaced. Kakchekeev expressed confidence that Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming accession to the Eurasian Union will solve that problem. “The creation of the economic union — this is exactly the right solution to make up the money lost from the departure of the air base.” And he noted Russia’s promise of $1.2 billion in aid to help Kyrgyzstan in its accession.
What does this mean for the US?
The US is relocating the supply and transit functions of Manas to Romania, in Eastern Europe. The closure of the base is seen as the proverbial ‘beginning of the end’ of the war in Afghanistan, and the end of US presence and interest in Central Asia. However, CES would like to remind readers that it is absolutely not in the best interests of the US to turn their backs on Central Asia, and hopes this prediction is proven wrong.
Is Russia happy about this?
Yes. Kyrgyzstan, for a long time, was the only country to have both a Russian and a US base on its soil. The US presence at Manas was large, but Russia operates four military installations on Kyrgyz soil. Over the past decade Russia became increasingly uncomfortable with the overt presence of the US in what Russia considers to be their ‘near abroad’ (the states of the Former Soviet Union, which Russia considers their turf). This sense of unease is particularly heightened in Central Asia, which is strategically important, resource rich, mostly forgotten by the West and poorly governed enough that Russia is essentially able to exert their will with impunity.
Is this part of that ‘New Great Game’?
Sure, in as much as any major event in the region can be tied to the idea of the ‘New Great Game’ – referring to the struggle for control over the region by the US, Russia and China. However, looking at this event only through this lens means much of the time that local politics and impact are ignored in favor how the event, in this case the base closure, affects only the more powerful states. As mentioned previously, the base closure will have a noticeable impact on the Kyrgyz economy, and it will be interesting to see how public opinion towards the current Kyrgyz presidential administration changes in light of the fact that they kept their 2011 promise to close the base.