Debunking the Latest Rumour: Manas Airbase

Note Feb 2016: I think this was a contribution to a section in ROPV that never quite took off.

Manas Airbase.

ISSUE. In 2001 the USA leased part of the Manas airfield in the Kyrgyz Republic to support US and Allied operations in Afghanistan. This month, President Bakiyev announced that he would seek to close the base. The Kyrgyz Republic Parliament will discuss the issue on 19 February.

INTERPRETATION: Many in the West saw Bakiyev as a puppet and the whole thing orchestrated in Moscow so as to embarrass President Obama. “Bakiyev Pleases Moscow” (Jamestown Foundation) “Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been trying to reclaim the influence it once had in the former Central Asian Soviet republics, so Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan is not unexpected.” (BBC) “”I think that the principal motivation is to reassert Russian influence and get visible U.S. presence out of former Soviet republics,” said retired Adm. William J. Fallon” (Huffington Post) “Russia Offers Kind Words, but Its Fist Is Clenched” (NYT). Most of these accounts mention Bakiyev’s objections but seem to regard them as just a cover for Russian machinations

COMMENT. But Bakiyev has long been tired with the relationship with Washington. “The president said he had repeatedly suggested that the US side should review the airbase agreement and raise the leasing fee for the airbase, but the suggestion was ignored. He added that the base closure was also caused by violations of law by US military personnel, including the killing of a Kyrgyz national by a US soldier in December 2006.

But there are other reasons why the issue has become a significant irritant.

  • The possibility that US forces might use the base to attack Iran or gather intelligence on China: support of the effort in Afghanistan is one thing, being draw into these issues is quite another.
  • The lack of the “trickle-down” benefits that, perhaps naively, were expected.
  • Concerns over the initial, possibly corrupt, agreement with the former President of the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • Growing scepticism about the effectiveness and length of the Afghanistan operation.
  • But, probably most important, the conviction that Washington regards the Kyrgyz Republic as a third-rate country to be taken for granted and fobbed off with indifference, patronising promises and extra-territorial arrogance. Media treatments that assume Bakiyev is Moscow’s puppet will not help this impression.

CONCLUSION: To regard Bakiyev’s decision (which may yet be reversed) as something dreamed up in Moscow is to grossly oversimplify the issue and make the common error of assuming that Moscow is the only actor.

FURTHER READING: John CK Daly: “The Manas Disillusionment”.