The U.S. Air Force deployment to Manas, which has sparked intermittent controversy in the Kyrgyz Republic, has arguably been misunderstood by policy makers in Bishkek. Colonel Thomas Smith, the commander of the 376th Expeditionary Wing of the U.S. Air Force and the coalition forces at Manas, recently gave an interview to Vecherniy Bishkek in which he reflected on some of the problems and achievements set by the base. This was, of course, partly a prelude to handing the post over to his successor this summer but also to promote actively the less well-publicized American perspectives on the role and operational successes of this Western military foothold within Central Asia.
Manas was responsible for airlifting more than 130,000 military personnel, including 3,200 marines and servicemen from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as hundreds of tons of cargo, including military hardware needed for the battle zones. The presence of Western military forces, in Smith’s view, also provided indisputable benefits to the local economy. “The U.S. armed forces pay Kyrgyzstan $17.5 million a year for rent; Manas receives $21 million annually for services provided (takeoff, landing, parking, and others). The Manas air base annually spends $25 million to purchase construction materials and pay for the services of local enterprises, and this sum is increasing every year. Our Servicemen also spend about $800,000 in Bishkek shops and markets every year,” Smith noted.
Nonetheless, as Smith acknowledged, there have been problems, not all of which stem from external factors. Drunken brawls between locals and highly trained, professional U.S. servicemen, for example, have been one source of embarrassment for the commander. He has, however, set rules in place that “help” curb this specific problem, such as banning the consumption of alcohol for personnel on leave, while allowing “one or two” bottles of beer to be consumed by personnel if they remain on the base. Some problems are more serious than others, such as the aftermath of the case of Zachary Hatfield who shot a Kyrgyz driver dead and then returned to the U.S. without any clear resolution. Smith said, “As far as I know, an investigation is underway, and there are no results yet. I understand the anxiety of the local people. I have done a lot to prevent such things from happening again. Specifically, I have drawn men from the National Guard into the security service of Manas air base. They are former police officers, mature people, who have great experience and are well trained.” (Vecherniy Bishkek, June 12).
Smith also rejected suggestions that Manas could play any part, directly or indirectly, in the illicit smuggling of narcotics, pointing to how tightly the security of aircraft and all transit is controlled.
With regard to environmental issues, Smith pointed to the 19.8-gallon (75 liter) reduction in gas per in-flight refueling over the past year. He was unequivocal in his response to allegations made by the citizens of Chuy Region about the dumping of aviation fuel: there had been no such cases during his period of command. Ironically, only 11 days after Smith gave his interview, one such incident took place. On June 23 a U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker aircraft, responding to a serious on-board emergency, had to dump 30 tons of fuel above southern Kyrgyzstan. The release of this information from the base itself was swift and efficient. The press center noted that the incident on board the KC-135 had occurred due to “a drop in pressure in the system, which caused thick smoke and an acrid smell, which penetrated the pilot’s cabin.” It happened, according to the Manas press center, “approximately an hour before coalition aircraft were to be refueled in the air. Considering the seriousness of this situation, the crew took relevant measures to ensure their personal safety and that of the aircraft. The crew had to dump fuel to achieve proper weight and ensure safe landing.” The fuel was dumped at an altitude of 7,300 meters, which was “much higher than the level permissible for dumping fuel” in Kyrgyzstan (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, June 23).
Any U.S. commander of the Manas base faces similar frustrations–close scrutiny of every aspect of the U.S. military presence, while across the city at the Russian base at Kant, the controversy is notable by its absence. Although the base at Manas and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base Kant have very different operational tasks, which make any real prospect for cooperative operations unlikely, there is an appetite on the part of some CSTO officials to explore ways of deepening the role of the Kant base in Kyrgyz security. During an official visit to Bishkek on June 24, Nikolay Bordyuzha, the Secretary General of the CSTO, appeared to dismiss such cooperative ideas between Manas and Kant, confirming how politically as well as operationally difficult such activities would prove. Nonetheless, Bordyuzha suggested that since Kant was now being gradually reinforced, the time had come to consider expanding its role into border security and counter-narcotics support. For the Kyrgyz this exposes an uncomfortable strategic reality (ITAR-TASS, June 24).
Manas was designed mainly to support the antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom, with a lesser supportive role for ISAF’s logistical needs. Its contribution to Kyrgyz security, therefore, has only ever been an indirect consequence of its mission and tasking. Arguably, the CSTO base, now fully established and growing in terms of personnel numbers and deployment of aircraft, could be presented in the future as more actively affecting Kyrgyz security.