Will the Closure of Manas Airbase Strengthen U.S.-Turkish Relations?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 35

The Kyrgyz parliament’s vote to close down Manas Airbase puts at risk supply routes for international forces operating in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. decision to bolster the American military presence in Afghanistan (EDM, February 20). The attempts to find alternative routes in the wake of this controversial decision highlight the strategic cooperation between Turkey and the United States and the role Turkey could play in maintaining a supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Referring to some Russian and American experts, the Turkish press has speculated that the United States may try to find another base in Central Asia to compensate for the loss of Manas. Given the growing Russian influence in the region and the declining credibility of the United States following the Russo-Georgian war in the summer of 2008, however, they claim that the United States would have a hard time securing a new base agreement. If the Americans fail to convince Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to accept U.S. requests, according to the Turkish press, the United States then would request a military base in Turkey’s Black Sea town of Trabzon (Hurriyet, February 19; Evrensel, February 20; Yeni Safak, February 20).

As the speculation mounted, the question of whether the United States had indeed knocked on Turkey’s door was raised to Metin Gurak, the spokesman of the Turkish military, during his weekly press briefing on Friday, February 20. Gurak stressed that as of the briefing Turkey had received no such request (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, February 20).

The same day, U.S. military sources announced that they had been able to secure the cooperation of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to allow transportation of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan through their territories (AFP, Friday 20). In a development that apparently lends support to the Turkish press reports, Retired Air Force General and chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, told 6 News, a private Turkish news station, that although the decision of the Kyrgyz parliament would not disrupt U.S. operations, it would make maintaining the supply routes more inconvenient and possibly more expensive. Noting that Manas was used mainly for refueling purposes, he emphasized that other bases in the Middle East, including in Turkey, could also host refueling tankers but with more operational costs involved. Myers said that the United States was seeking its NATO allies’ support and emphasized his belief that Turkey and the United States would maintain their constructive cooperation in Afghanistan (Star, February 20).

Indeed, since the beginning of military operations in Afghanistan following September 11 and the subsequent launch of international stability operations, Turkey has provided military assistance to the U.S.-led coalition, in both the context of the transatlantic alliance and Turkish-American strategic ties. During the initial operations leading to the fall of the Taliban regime, the United States used Turkish airspace and Incirlik Airbase for the campaign, although Turkey did not deploy combat troops. Turkey has also actively participated in the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and commanded this NATO mission for two terms.

Can Turkey offer Trabzon? Analysts maintain that Trabzon offers many advantages in terms of its key location, which allows access to Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Caucasus theaters; and therefore it is reportedly of interest to U.S. military planners. However, Turkey has previously declined American requests for setting up a base in Trabzon. Following the fall of Manas, the U.S. may press with a renewed proposal, but it is unlikely that the Turkish government would make such a politically risky decision. Also, Trabzon is one of the Anatolian cities where nationalist feelings and anti-Americanism run high; and, short of drastic U.S. actions to restore the deteriorating American image in Turkey, stationing U.S. personnel in the area might be a politically bad decision.

Therefore, claims about possible requests concerning an airbase in Trabzon might be exaggerated. Nonetheless, it is the case that as Afghanistan emerges as a major issue on the agendas of NATO and the Obama administration, Turkey is coming under pressure about its role in Afghanistan. Diplomatic sources believe that during his conversations with the Turkish prime minister and president, President Obama might have requested his counterparts to commit more Turkish troops or other forms of military contributions to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (EDM, February 19).

Subsequent developments support such a conjecture. NATO defense ministers met in Poland in an informal meeting on February 19 and 20 to discuss the agenda for the next summit in April. They welcomed the U.S. decision to raise troop levels but underscored the need for civilian contributions to be boosted as well (www.nato.int, February 20). Upon his return to Turkey from the meeting, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul told reporters that he had had a chance to discuss Turkey’s contributions with its alliance partners. Noting that Turkey’s direct aid to Afghanistan amounted to $200 million, he said that Turkey assisted in the training of the Afghan military and police. Gonul also said that he had met separately with the Afghan and American defense ministers and discussed ways in which Turkey’s contributions might be increased (www.trt.net.tr, February 21).

In addition to Turkey’s possibly increased role in Afghanistan, Turkey is one of the major exit routes for U.S. planes withdrawing troops from Iraq (Hurriyet Daily News, February 23). These developments have an element of irony. The Turkish Parliament’s refusal to allow American forces to use Turkish territory to launch the northern front against the Iraqi Army in 2003 led many to claim that the Turkish-American relationship would go south. Soon after the fall of Baghdad and in a mood of triumph, some even speculated that the United States might punish Turkey by closing down the Incirlik base as part of its plans to relocate military bases worldwide. Only a few years after the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns began, the United States had to abandon many of its positions in its new-found allies and might be requesting the use of Turkish territory.

The Kyrgyz parliament’s decision highlights both the importance of having a long-term and reliable ally in an area of strategic importance to U.S. interests and the mutual dependence between Turkey and the United States.