Kyrgyzstan has agreed to retain the US Transit Center at the Manas airport beyond the term of current contract that expires in 2014. At a meeting with James Mattis, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) on April 2, Kyrgyzstan’s Defense Council Secretary Busurmankul Tabaldiyev lauded the dynamic development of Kyrgyz-US relations and expressed interest in collaborating with Washington beyond 2014.
Tabaldiyev further thanked the United States for providing material and technical aid to help Kyrgyzstan’s anti-terrorism efforts, fight against drug trafficking, and maintaining of border security (www.24.kg, April 2). The Kyrgyz official reiterated that Afghanistan’s security is in Kyrgyzstan’s national interests. A statement by Kyrgyzstan’s Defense Ministry says that the country is “interested in providing security and stability” in Afghanistan and is “ready to comprehensively participate in the efforts of the international community” (www.24.kg, April 2).
US military assistance has been vital for Kyrgyzstan’s military forces. Washington has trained and equipped some of the country’s most professional special forces units. By indicating that the US Transit Center can stay beyond 2014, Kyrgyz officials are also raising their expectations of security engagement with Washington. During his meeting with CENTCOM officials, Tabaldiyev has requested that the United States donate a pilotless drone aircraft to Kyrgyzstan (www.rferl.org). According to reports, Mattis said he would consider the request.
It is highly likely that Bishkek will continue asking for more assistance in return for hosting the US base. Without external help, Kyrgyzstan’s military capability to face the rising challenges of drug trafficking and illegal border crossings by criminals and insurgent groups would considerably diminish.
Although Kyrgyzstan’s government might have always been interested in continuing to closely collaborate with Washington, Bishkek spoke openly about it only after Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is interested in having NATO remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 (The Hindu, March 19, see EDM March 27).
Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev’s rhetoric regarding the US base changed gradually, as US-Russian relations evolved from uncertainty before the Russian presidential elections in March to closer collaboration on Afghanistan and Moscow’s agreement to open NATO’s air base in Ulyanovsk. Earlier this year, Atambayev invited NATO-member Turkey to use the Manas base in 2014 when US troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan. Later, the Kyrgyz President agreed to retain some US presence at the Manas airport only for facilitating transfer of non-military cargo (www.24.kg, April 2).
At a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, Atambayev once again reiterated his position saying that, starting in 2014, the United States will only be able to transfer civilian cargo through Manas. “Kyrgyzstan is interested in a long-term, partner and friendly relation with the United States,” the Kyrgyz President told Blake (www.akipress.kg, April 2).
Meanwhile, Atambayev faces domestic opposition, which demands the expulsion of the US from the Manas base even before the 2014 deadline. Various nationalist and pro-Russian groups stage rallies against the US base in front of the parliament and near the US Embassy in Bishkek on a regular basis. The most recent such rally took place before Blake’s arrival. Over a dozen protestors gathered in central Bishkek to demand that US personnel leave Kyrgyzstan by mid April, because, according to one of the protests, Washington “is planning to start a war with Iran this June.” Should this happen, Atambayev will face impeachment, the protestor argued (kloop.kg, April 2).
The protests in Bishkek are largely fueled by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s recent allegations made that the Manas base may be used in a military conflict against Iran (www.rianovosti.ru, February 24). To date, the rumor has been publicly addressed by US officials, including US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Pamela Spartlen, Robert Blake and US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in a post on his Twitter account.
Bishkek still leaves space for backtracking on its statement regarding the US presence in the country by stating that the ultimate decision will depend on the national interest, public opinion and Kyrgyzstan’s security. However, the real reason behind Bishkek’s cautious approach is the still lingering possibility that US-Russian relations might deteriorate before 2014 and Kyrgyzstan will once again be pressured to expel the United States from the Manas base.