A KC-135 Stratotanker, on the ramp at Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan. U.S. forces will soon leave the country, following a Kyrgyz decision to end the basing agreement (Wikipedia photo)
That ad hasn’t appeared in a Central Asian newspaper, but it’s probably just a matter of time. As the United States and its NATO partners prepare to ramp up ground operations against the Taliban, the alliance has lost access to Manas Airbase, a critical installation located in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
NATO’s eviction from the airfield is hardly a surprise. Relations between Washington and Bishkek have been on a downward slope for some time. The so-called “Tulip Revolution” of 2005 deposed the authoritarian (but pro-western) regime of President Askar Akayev. He was eventually replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who adopted a much tougher line in dealing with the United States. Bakiyev’s government narrowly approved an extension of the basing agreement in 2006.
This time around, Mr. Bakiyev cast his lot with Moscow, which worked behind the scenes to secure NATO’s ouster. The Russians recently offered $2 billion in financial aid and credit to Bishkek, in exchange for giving the U.S. and its allies the boot. That’s why Bakiyev announced closure of the base earlier this week, and Kyrgyz officials said there is “virtually no hope” of a reprieve.
Manas AB has long been a vital hub for operations in Afghanistan. Thousands of troops (mostly Americans) and more than 500 tons of cargo flow through the base each month, in support of the Afghan campaign. The Kyrgyz base is also essential for air refueling missions that support combat sorties over Afghanistan.
Operating from Manas, U.S. and NATO tankers can provide maximum offloads to fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft operating in Afghanistan. Staging from other locations would not only decrease on-station time for refueling aircraft, it would also require the generation of additional sorties, to make up for longer transit times and reduced offload capabilities.
As we’ve noted previously, air refueling is one of those critical “force multipliers” that is often taken for granted, at least outside the military. But sustaining air operations in South Asia requires a robust tanker capability, and that means access to airfields in the region. That’s why the loss of Manas is a serious blow.
To be fair, the Kyrgyz decision can’t be blamed on the Obama Administration. They inherited a deteriorating relationship from the Bush team, and it was probably too late to avert the loss of Manas AB. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that the new national security team was properly focused on this issue–until it was too late.
As a fallback plan, the White House, State Department and DoD are trying to repair relations with Uzbekistan, in hopes of regaining access to airfields in that country. U.S. forces were booted from that country four years ago, after Washington criticized the country’s heavy-handed response to civil unrest, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.
The loss of Manas will put even more pressure on overland supply routes into Afghanistan. Those lines of communication have grown increasingly tenuous over the past year. Taliban fighters routinely interdict supply lines through Pakistan, forcing the U.S. to seek new routes through Russian territory. Those corridors will remain open only as long as Moscow allows.
Could Washington have averted the expulsion from Kyrgyzstan? Diplomats and the pol-mil crowd at the Pentagon will be debating that one for years. But it’s clear that the U.S. didn’t help itself in the matter. By losing access to Uzbek airfields, Washington gave Bishkek–and Moscow –even more leverage in the matter.
There is also evidence that we didn’t pay enough attention to resurgent Russian influence in its former Central Asian republics. Moscow literally “bought” Manas back for a cool $2 billion, more than the United States was willing to pay. Now, military planners are reportedly contemplating a “new” air route through the United Arab Emirates.
While our basing rights in that country are secure, the air bridge from the Persian Gulf is approximately 40% longer. That means more flights, more fuel and more expense to meet current operational requirements. Those costs will rise even more with the planned troop surge in Afghanistan.
Finally, we wonder if a couple of high-profile “incidents that involved U.S. military personnel influenced the Kyrgyz decision. In December 2006, a local truck driver was shot and killed at Manas AB by a U.S. military member, who claimed the man threatened him with a knife. While the service member was exonerated, the shooting was widely condemned by Kyrgyz politicians and in the local press.
The fatal incident came only three months after the purported “kidnapping” of Air Force Major Jill Metzger, a personnel officer on a temporary duty assignment to Manas. Metzger disappeared from a shopping trip to a Biskek mall, then reappeared three days later with wild claims of a kidnapping and long-distance dash from her captors (the Major is a champion marathon runner).
Teams of FBI agents and representatives of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) quickly descended on Kyrgyzstan and discovered that Metzger’s “story” had more holes that a block of Swiss cheese. But by that time, Major Metzger was back in the United States, claiming that the incident had left her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Incredibly, an Air Force board agreed, and Metzger was placed on temporary disability retirement list–with full pay–less than a year later.
Since then, Major Metzger has participated in at least one marathon and other running events. That’s a rather remarkable feat, given the fact that many PTSD victims are unable to leave their homes. We rather doubt that Metzger has given much thought to U.S.-Kyrgyz relations since leaving Manas, but give credit where it’s due: in her own, feckless way, the good Major created an international incident and helped undermine ties between Washington and Bishkek. And the Air Force has allowed her the perpetuate the fraud.
Maybe the proposed air route from Dubai to Afghanistan could be called the “Metzger Corridor.”