Logistical Support Options after the Manas Air Base Closing
by Reed Livergood
With the United States planning a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan, the pace of the counter-terrorism effort in that country will increase dramatically. As it does, the logistical challenge of moving personnel and material to this distant battleground will grow as well. This essay explores the possibility of and difficulties inherent in using bases in the former Soviet Central Asian republics for that purpose. – Pub.
On February 3, 2009 Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced in Moscow that “the Kyrgyz government has taken a decision to terminate the rent of the [Manas air] base.”1 He cited as the rationale behind the decision Washington’s refusal to discuss a higher base-lease fee and reluctance to apologize for the 2006 killing of a Kyrgyz citizen by a U.S. officer. By the end of the week, a bill was submitted to the Kyrgyz government annulling agreements in respect to U.S. and ten other NATO forces stationed at Manas air base.2 On February 20, 2009, President Bakiyev signed the bill that closes the Manas facility into law.3 The United States has 180 days to vacate the base after the Kyrgyz government passes the paperwork on to the U.S. embassy in Bishkek. The decision was almost unanimous, as 78 of the 90 deputies voted for the bill.4 This leaves U.S. policy makers searching for better options in Central Asia for basing rights.
The supply chain to Afghanistan is complicated and detailed but provides nuances for analysis. As unclear U.S. goals continue to cloud the situation in Afghanistan,5 and the Pakistan thoroughfare continues to be attacked by neighboring forces,6 NATO and U.S. commanders have been searching for a safer route to the Afghan theater. U.S. forces currently possess supply routes through Central Asia, which prove advantageous in different ways. However, there are also problems with shipping supplies through Central Asia, as this route is complicated terrain that traverses many nation-states. Not only is the route complex logistically, but exerts considerable strains on the Pentagon’s budget.7
Manas Air Base was a key link in the Central Asian supply chain assisting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Background to the Problem
The Manas Air Base was one base of many secured after the September 11 attacks to establish strategic presence for the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a joint statement October 11, 2001 in which Bishkek expressed support for the presence of coalition forces in the Kyrgyz Republic “until the mission of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is completed.”8 Since the joint statement was signed, 170,000 U.S. military personnel have passed through the base on their way to or from Afghanistan, together with 5,000 tons of military equipment.9 Approximately 1000 U.S. troops are stationed at the base, together with smaller contingents from France and Spain. Currently, about 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo transit through Manas each month10 on their way to Afghanistan.
Manas has proven to be a politically sensitive issue for U.S. leadership for several reasons. In a January 2009 trip through Central Asia, Head of U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus said that “$63 million of funds [we] are giving [is] for leasing the airport, paying contracts and salaries to the local personnel.”11 However, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said that “Kyrgyzstan gets $150 million from the USA every year, but most of these funds are not for deploying the Manas air base.” He stressed that this was the ‘total sum’ of U.S. payments while the air base totaled only $17.5 million per year.12 The United States considers that the funds were not used properly as corruption was evident in who received payments. Former President Aydar Akayev’s son was the recipient of $2 million annually in lease payments, plus additional fees of $7,000 per takeoff and landing.13 Meanwhile, Akayev’s son-in-law received $87 million and $32 million for his two airport service companies during Akayev’s tenure as president. The “influence” that the United States and Russia have shown in Central Asia has been in existence since Russia and Britain solidified the term in the nineteenth century as the “Great Game.”
Central Asian leaders have attempted to exploit the Moscow-Washington rivalry in the region for their own advantage, pitting each power against the other in an attempt to extract the most advantageous deals. In December 2005, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev publically demanded a hundred-fold increase in U.S. lease payments – from $2 million to $200 million – that was eventually negotiated in July 2006.14 After each occurrence, once receiving something from the American side in money or promises, the Kyrgyz leadership backed away from canceling permission to stay.15 Two weeks after Bakiyev made the February 2009 announcement for U.S. forces to leave Manas, the U.S. government reportedly offered to double what it was paying for the airbase, and [was] prepared to offer $200 million in the form of an interest-free loan.16 Evidently, another offer was more enticing.
The announcement to expel U.S. forces from Manas comes after summit meetings were held in Moscow. The Eurasian Economic Community (EuroAsEc) Interstate Council as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Collective Security Council officials met the first weekend in February 2009 to discuss “security” and “the effects of the global financial crisis.”17 It was at this point that EuroAsEc agreed to set up an Anti-Crisis Fund to “ensure security should the situation become critical in a state or in a group of states.”18 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that the anti-crisis fund “is not a money bag but a facility designed to help the EurAsEc member states to survive the crisis.”19 The money can be disbursed either as a sovereign loan or a stabilization credit.20 Kyrgyzstan, was a key beneficiary of this package and soon proved at what cost it had come.
The Kremlin has seemingly tied strings to the aid package for Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz and Russian ministry officials insist that the timing of the aid deals and the ousting of American authorities at Manas was “mere coincidence” and had no influence on each other. Linking Kyrgyz interests to Russia’s, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced an aid package worth over two billion dollars.21 The package includes a direct grant of $150 million, which matches U.S. funding for the country,22 as well as an additional $300 million in the form of a loan with nominal interest. On top of these two aid dispersals, Russia has pledged $1.7 billion for the construction of a hydroelectric plant. The Kremlin also supported Medvedev in his pledge to write off Kyrgyzstan’s debt to Russia, currently around $180 million.23 The size of this aid package is half the total gross domestic product or twice the annual budget of the Kyrgyz government.24
There were further reasons that tied Kyrgyz to Russian interests in Central Asia.
At these same Moscow meetings, the CSTO also agreed to a plan for a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) composed primarily of Russian paratroopers to “rebuff military aggression” in the region and combat “terrorism.”25 This force seemingly was in response to the European version of the same rapid reaction force NATO and the Bush administration discussed in late 2008. The Russian response seems to be more a geopolitical reaction than a military threat. In this manner, Russia is asserting itself in a greater role within Central Asia. Their design is to counter American influence in the region as well as establish their global role as another superpower on the international stage. The United States is fighting a twofold battle in dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan as well as the assertiveness of Russia to reclaim influence in its former Central Asian Republics.
U.S. reaction to the announcement was apparently controlled and respectful. Before the announcement was made, the United States had been considering giving a greater share of profit to Kyrgyzstan.26 A special commission was set up to visit and consider the possibility of funding an increase, according to General David Petraeus. Alternate options broached were other Central Asian bases. As head of the United States Central Command, he spent a week visiting potential bases in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan inspecting alternate supply routes. A different alternate route was offered by Russia in addition to these Central Asian options.
Although NATO and the United States have concluded deals with Russia and Central Asian states for non-military supplies to pass through their territory, these routes are much longer and more expensive. General Petraeus announced January 20, 2009 that the United States had reached agreement with Russia and several Central Asian nations for a new, and costly, U.S.-NATO supply route into Afghanistan as the struggle for control of the supply routes through Pakistan continues.27 The two sides discussed “many issues related to Afghanistan… including the transit arrangements for non-lethal supplies through Russia to the ISAF in Afghanistan,” the U.S. embassy in Moscow stated. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Moscow was ready to provide more assistance for supplying Western operations in Afghanistan but only on the basis of full respect from NATO members.28 Since Russia currently only offers allowing non-military supplies to pass through its borders, U.S. policymakers have been searching for a viable Central Asian route that has fewer restrictions.
Some options in Central Asia have been systematically tainted since the Afghanistan campaign started in 2001. U.S. forces had a military base at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) in Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2005, but were kicked out in light of the Andijon situation.29 A facility in Turkmenistan (Merv) was then sought, but its government stated that “faithful to international commitments, [Turkmenistan] will not … place its military bases at anyone’s disposal.”30 By contrast, Kazakhstan supported U.S. efforts and even mentioned that the “U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has dealt a powerful blow to Islamic fundamentalism that threatens all of Central Asia.”31 Tajikistan was also asked for military personnel but no deal was reached between the governments. Kyrgyzstan, however, supported U.S. anti-terrorist efforts by allowing U.S. forces to lease the Manas air base near Bishkek.
While some experts suggest that changing the Manas Air Base status is a possibility, it seems that there are more drawbacks than positives. Should the United States send the message that ad hoc alterations after concluding negotiated agreements are acceptable, it leaves itself susceptible to future Kyrgyz demands. The U.S. installation at Manas is geographically close to Afghanistan, fully capable of delivering supply equipment, and has effective transport routes to and from the base. This same route comes at a higher cost than the Pakistan route in terms of dollars per pound. However, with Russia attempting to manifest influence on the regional stage, it may prove unwise to engage in a contest of financial influence with Russia. The Russians will not only write off the state debt of Kyrgyzstan as well as provide an additional grant, but will also give them a massive loan ($2.3b) to help with their infrastructure. Kyrgyzstan authorities will pay attention to the “loudest” bidder in terms of their interests, and Russia currently wields greater incentives. The United States needs to either find ways to support Kyrgyzstan financially and security-wise, or find alternative ways of supplying its troops in Afghanistan.
Another viable option would be to explore other Central Asian facilities including those at the former (K2) facility in Uzbekistan. Since U.S. forces have inspected three bases around Uzbekistan previously, the cost of the operations center would be reduced. When U.S. forces exited in December 2005, President Islam Karimov and the parliament were adamant about stronger ties to Russia32 and fewer ties to the West. Since that time, Karimov and the Uzbek parliament have gone through economic, gas, and political crises. Some have said that they are willing to listen if U.S. offers are adequate in exchange for what they want. This could provide an apt opportunity for negotiating a base lease. The problem with this option is that the price could skyrocket too high, as Uzbekistan knows potential funds exist in the CSTO “emergency” fund and from Russia itself. Financial efficiency would suggest the K2 facility over Manas, as the distance is smaller to key U.S. bases in Afghanistan.33 Combining the basic aid costs with the per diem use, the K2 option would benefit U.S. and Uzbek policy-makers.
A base in Tajikistan is another possible option in Central Asia. Tajikistan has seen a steady fall in the standard of living, and the government is in desperate need of extra sources of income.34 Taking into consideration the economic situation, the United States could see agreement if the economic situation in Tajikistan is recognized and the base presented as a means of amelioration. A formal agreement would need to be structured, because without clear principles, the United States could be accused of not living up to the contracted standard, as the current Manas situation clearly shows. Building a coalition with Emomali Rakhmonov and the Tajik government would be beneficial to the United States in terms of economic ties, confidence-building measures, and supply network chains. Military officials would have a geographical hub for supplies to northern Afghanistan.
The Russian option is a politically complicated and delicate balancing act. Under a 2006 agreement, Russia allows nonmilitary cargo to transit its territory and also permits the leasing of both Russian and Ukrainian transport aircraft for NATO use.35 The major point of contention is the Russians’ desire for an end to NATO’s plans for Ukraine and Georgia and other former Soviet republics. If Russian conditions are not met, Moscow could refuse the transport of supplies and equipment at any time. This might severely limit U.S. ability to fully and effectively utilize transport routes to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, this option must be weighed against other alternatives. If the Russian offer is beneficial to U.S. interests, America should accept it.
Another option would include improving the infrastructure in Pakistan for safe, secure logistical support. Building security along the supply routes may reduce terrorist activities as well as build coalition with the Pakistani government. However, it may also provide insurgents with clearer targets. In this regard, without an overwhelming troop force at each stage of the supply chain, Taliban and other insurgent forces may possibly disrupt the logistical supply with a smaller fighting force. This policy would incur heavy losses and costs to U.S. forces. Not only is the ground situation a problem in Pakistan, the political situation further complicates the circumstances. With little effective political control by President Asif ali Zardari, the state has transformed into a constant headache for logistical planners. With effective control of state and military apparatuses uncertain, U.S. logistical planners have no reason for confidence in Pakistan’s stability. With so many questions, Pakistani infrastructure re-stabilization is not currently a viable option.
|Tajik Base||Russian Transport||Pakistani infrastructure|
|Scalability & Efficiency||*||**||***||****|
Ranking scale: Stars 1-4 (1 star = highest, 4 stars = lowest)
The United States has to clearly set a policy that promotes U.S. interests while also taking into consideration the interests of our regional partners in Central Asia. The Uzbekistan option (K2) provides the best logistical support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in terms of scalability and efficiency. In terms of political impact and sustainability, this option also ranks among the top tier. The Uzbek advantage over the Tajik option would be the sustainability of Karshi-Khanabad base over the Tajik base. With political tension in Tajikistan currently problematic, K2 provides the most stability.
Competing in the “Great Game Redux,” as Joseph Ferguson points out,36 would not produce a healthy or secure Central Asia nor would it lead to friendlier relations in the region. As Kyrgyzstan tries to acquire the best possible economic and political scenario for its survival and sovereignty, ousting the American military is neither good for Kyrgyzstan, Russia, or the United States in the long term. The current Russian offer of non-military goods transport costs too much money.
Therefore, the United States should negotiate agreement with Uzbekistan about basing rights at K2 while also diversifying the supply network through other non-military routes (i.e. Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan). This will give a broad basis of support for U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan while they fight extremism in Central Asia.
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Reed Livergood is a graduate student at Monterey Institute of International Studies in the Conflict Negotiation and Resolution stream. He is currently focusing on U.S.-Russia relations, specifically in connection with U.S. foreign policy.