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U.S. may leave Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan

Leasing costs may force exit

Jun. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Now boarding: PAX terminal keeps troops moving onw
Senior Airman Matthew Hanning and Staff Sgt. Duane Pace of the 376th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron tighten a baggage net April 27 at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The future of U.S. troops at Manas is once again in question. (Staff Sgt. Stephanie Rubi / Air Force)
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Once again, the government of Kyrgyzstan wants the U.S. military to leave the Transit Center at Manas, a key logistics hub for resupplying troops in Afghanistan. This time, the price of staying may be too steep.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament recently voted to end the U.S. lease on the base in June 2014, and President Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly said the transit center will revert to a commercial hub afterward, officials said.

The U.S. government is “consulting with Kyrgyz officials about the possible effects” of parliament’s vote, said a State Department spokeswoman, who declined to say if the U.S. or Kyrgyz governments are discussing extending the lease.

When Kyrgyzstan tried to kick the U.S. out of Manas in 2009, the two countries reached a deal under which the U.S. agreed to increase the annual rent it pays from $17.4 million to $60 million. This time, however, the U.S. government may not be in a position to offer more money, said retired Gen. Arthur Lichte, former head of Air Mobility Command.

“If this is just, ‘We want more money, keep bringing money,’ that’s something that the Americans will probably not be able to step up to anymore, especially in these tough budgetary times,” said Lichte, who is not part of the current negotiations with the Kyrgyz government.

After the Kyrgyz government told the U.S. to leave Manas in 2009, AMC decided, “let’s continue to work this, let’s continue to do everything we can to make this work,” said Lichte, who was AMC commander at the time. One thing that worked in the U.S. government’s favor was the good will from local Kyrgyz.

“The people around that base appreciated what the Americans were doing,” he said.” They appreciated the community aspect and our folks would go out, they would work in orphanages, they would help out and do a lot for the surrounding community. So I’m sure there are still probably people who live right near the base that would definitely would want to see the Americans continue there.”

At the time, the war in Afghanistan was picking up speed, but now most NATO troops are slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Lichte noted.

“If you say, ‘Bring X million,’ the Americans may say, ‘Hey, it’s just not worth that price for us anymore,’ ” he said.

Still, the loss of Manas would cause major problems for AMC just as equipment and troops are leaving Afghanistan, Lichte said.

“It’s a critical node, a critical operation and it will put a big burden on Air Mobility Command to figure out another way,” he said. “Coming through the north like that is critical. Everything else will have to be moved down probably through Pakistan and out through ships.”

The Kyrgyz parliament is divided between lawmakers who want the U.S. to leave Manas and those who voted to end the lease as a negotiating ploy to get the U.S. to pay more money, said Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert based in Washington, D.C.

Some lawmakers are angry at the U.S. for dropping its efforts to extradite Maksim Bakiyev, the reviled son of the former Kyrgyz president who was ousted in a 2010 revolution, Marat said. Other lawmakers expect the U.S. to come up with another “grand bargain.”

Yet Marat has heard talk in Washington that the U.S. won’t bargain this time because the transit center’s strategic significance is dwindling as NATO leaves Afghanistan, she said.

“It seems like these discussions, they don’t really reach Kyrgyzstan — what happens in D.C. doesn’t reach Kyrgyzstan and when you talk to nongovernment experts, when you talk to government officials, they still expect that it’s 2009 all over again,” Marat said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command declined to talk about the future of the transit center, saying the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments will ultimately decide what happens.

“We will continue to be the premier transportation and logistics hub providing onward movement, airlift, and air refueling in support of operations in Afghanistan,” Lt. Col. Max Despain said in an email. “We will also continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Kyrgyzstan and build our partnerships with our neighbors.”

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