Editor's Note: The State Department confirmed that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns arrived in Moscow on Wednesday and will discuss the use of the Manas military base in Central Asia with Russian officials.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/02/03/kyrgyz.base/art.manas.base.afp.gi.jpg caption="AA U.S. troop guards the main access checkpoint to the Manas Air Base on December 18, 2008."]
AC360° Editorial Producer
You might never have heard of it, but there's a tiny, impoverished Muslim country that's been playing a crucial role in America's "war on terror." And now it says it doesn't want to do that any more.
Kyrgyzstan, lodged between China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, says it will close a key U.S. airbase that supports operations in Afghanistan. The country’s president says the U.S. base will have to find a home elsewhere.
After the so-called 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kyrgyzstan became known as an islet of democracy in a region that is home to some of the world’s most entrenched dictatorships. The largely peaceful protests swept to power a new president who promised to liberalize the press, fight corruption and bring more democracy to Kyrgyzstan.
Leasing the Manas Air Base to the U.S. made the country a little-known but special American ally. The base was set to become even more important as the U.S. began preparing for a major troop gear-up in Afghanistan. President Obama has said the war there is one of his top foreign policy priorities. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, said last month that the base would be essential for the troop increase.
Now, with the imminent closure, there isn’t anywhere else in the region for the U.S. military to anchor its support operations in Afghanistan. Yes, there's the U.S. base in Bagram. But the Kyrgyz base has given the U.S. broader access to the region, and served as a vital station for refueling aircraft.
The U.S. air base in repressive Uzbekistan got booted in 2005 when the U.S. complained about human rights abuses, and the Kyrgyz base became the sole regional support for forward Afghan missions. And it’s no small operation. Run on the outskirts of the capital Bishkek, the base has close to 2,000 troops and contractors and runs around-the-clock air support missions.
Why did Kyrgyzstan decide to kick out the U.S.? Money, lots of money from Russia. The announcement came just after Russia agreed to give Kyrgyzstan over $2 billion in aid, a number that dwarfs the $150 million the U.S. had been giving.
During a visit to Moscow earlier this week, the Kyrgyz president said the issue comes down to the price the U.S. is willing to pay to keep the base open. But yesterday he sent a pretty definitive message that closure is imminent, forwarding a bill to the Kyrgyz Parliament to close the base.
The U.S. has been quick to say no final decision has been made. "It is a hugely important air base for us," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters. "We are hopeful that we can continue our good relationship with the Kyrgyz government, and can continue to use Manas in support of our operations in Afghanistan.”
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. can salvage the relationship with Kyrgyzstan - or the base, anyway. But Russia is certainly counting the closure announcement as a victory in its struggle for regional influence over governments, the military, and oil pipelines. As one U.S. embassy official told me during a visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2007, "Russia is a clearly a player."
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