Q+A: High stakes for U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan

WASHINGTON, April 13 Reuters) – The future of a U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan could have important implications for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and U.S. relations with Russia.

Here are some questions and answers about the Manas base, which faces an uncertain future after the overthrow of the Central Asian country’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE BASE?

The Manas transit center is now used by the United States under a five-year agreement that expires in July 2014 and is based on a year-by-year renewable lease, the Pentagon says. It was activated in December 2001 as a hub for U.S. operations in Afghanistan against al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks.

U.S. officials say Manas has been central to the war effort, allowing round-the-clock combat airlift and airdrop, medical evacuation and aerial refueling.

It has been particularly important for getting U.S. forces into Afghanistan. Just last month, about 50,000 troops passed through the base on their way into and out of the war zone.

Still, Pentagon officials say there are other options for troop transport if the United States loses Manas, asserting that the base itself is not “essential” to the war effort.

“If we had to fall back to other locations, we could do that,” General Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, told U.S. lawmakers last year. “We have a plan, we have a back-up. It’s harder. It’s more expensive, it’s more … intensive.”

It is unclear whether losing Manas might affect the timetable for President Barack Obama’s plan to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan.

IS RUSSIA INVOLVED?

Russia has resented the spread of U.S. influence in the region and, in particular, the U.S. establishment of the air base at Manas. Russia also has a base in Kyrgyzstan and a senior Russian official suggested last week that Moscow would urge the country’s new leaders to close the U.S. base.

“In Kyrgyzstan there should be only one base — Russian,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Obama has been at pains to “reset” relations with Moscow strained under the Bush administration. It is unclear whether Manas might threaten recent momentum, which has included the recent signing of a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaty.

WHAT IS KYRGYZSTAN GOING TO DO?

Kyrgyzstan’s self-proclaimed new government initially said it aimed to close the U.S. base but interim leader Roza Otunbayeva told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday that it would abide by existing agreements.

An official told Reuters the new government’s close ties to Moscow meant there was a high probability “the U.S. air base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened.”

In the past, Kyrgyzstan has used such controversy as leverage to squeeze more money from Washington. Last year, its now-deposed government ordered out U.S. forces but then allowed them to stay after Washington agreed to pay more to the impoverished country to keep Manas open.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who went to Kyrgyzstan this week for talks with the interim government, said the two countries could continue to discuss the base.

“It is very good news that Ms. Otunbayeva said that they will continue to abide by those agreements and of course the United States is prepared to talk at any time with her and members of the provisional government about these arrangements,” Blake told a news briefing.

Kyrgyzstan would have to give six months’ notice if it wants to evict U.S. forces from Manas.

IS THE BASE OPERATING?

The Pentagon has said the base is conducting “limited operations” but is not giving details about how many flights are taking off or landing. Clearly operations have been reduced, potentially putting pressure on other parts of the supply chain to Afghanistan and even causing delays if the situation persists.

A U.S. military official said on Monday that Manas would not be used as a hub for sending troops into Afghanistan in the near term, citing the need to free it up for possible humanitarian aid or other logistical purposes.

A U.S. official said on Tuesday the flights were being diverted through Kuwait.

WHAT ARE THE OTHER LOGISTICAL OPTIONS?

U.S. military officials say it is premature to discuss what exactly they would do if they lose Manas permanently.

But the U.S. military’s Transportation Command says only about 20 percent of the cargo to Afghanistan goes in by air. Around 50 percent goes through Pakistan, mostly arriving at the port of Karachi and then traveling by land into Afghanistan.

The remaining 30 percent goes through what is known as the northern distribution network, a rail and road system that includes Central and South Asian states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and Georgia.

Major John Redfield, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said there were options for troop transfers.

“There are other routes, other locations we can use,” he said. He declined to name the other bases but said they were in Southwest Asia, a term the U.S. military uses to refer to locations in the Gulf, such as its large air bases in Qatar and Kuwait.

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(Editing by John O’Callaghan)

Q+A: High stakes for U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan