Facing the loss of a key airbase in Kyrgyzstan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have tried to assure us that "no base is irreplaceable."
We'll soon find out if Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton are correct. Yesterday, the Kyrgyz Parliment voted overwhelmingly to cancel to U.S. lease on Manas AB, near the capital of Bishkek. Without access to the installation, the Pentagon will find it more difficult to increase troops levels in Afghanistan, a move ordered by President Obama earlier this week.
By a 78-1 margin, Parliament members supported the government's plan to end the American presence at Manas. Once the measure is signed by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, U.S. forces will have 180 days to vacate the base, which has served as a critical point for airlift and air refueling operations in support of the Afghan conflict.
Despite the Kyrgyz decision, Mr. Gates doesn't seem overly concerned. According to the Associated Press, the defense secretary still believes that Washington can reach a new lease agreement with Bishkek:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Poland for NATO talks, said the United States would consider paying more rent to continue using the strategic base. Speaking after the parliament vote in Kyrgyzstan, Gates said he considers talks still open over the future of the base.
Gates also accused Moscow of pushing Kyrgyzstan to close the base. The Russians have denied that, but Bakiyev announced plans to end the lease arrangement after Moscow promised more than $2 billion in aid--substantially more than the U.S. pays in rent.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the U.S. has "yet to receive any formal notification of a change in status of Manas so our operations there continue as normal.”
But the real question is what happens when--and if--that notification is received. The U.S. has received permission to send non-lethal supplies through Russia and Kazakhstan. American officials are also studying logistical options in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Collectively, they provide some flexibility in maintaining the so-called "northern route" into Afghanistan. Those corridors have become increasingly important in recent months, with the Taliban interdicting southern supply routes through Pakistan.
Still, there are limits to what can be shipped through Russian and Kazak territory. Uzbekistan once allowed U.S. military forces on its soil, but that agreement ended in 2005. U.S. logistical teams are unsure how much material could be transported through Tajikistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan also represents our best--some would say only hope--for a "new" airbase in the region. As we've noted previously, basing rights in Kyrgyzstan were critical for resupply and refueling operations in the Afghan War. Tankers flying from Manas could spend more time over Afghanistan, providing greater offloads to fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. The Kyrgyz base was also a critical hub for personnel and air cargo; by one estimate, more than 15,000 troops--and 500 tons of cargo--moved through the installation each month.
If the Uzbek option falls through, USAF tankers will probably move to bases in the Persian Gulf. They can still reach Afghanistan from those locations, but their loiter time and fuel offloads will be significantly decreased. That means more sorties, fuel and money to provide the same level of support. And with Mr. Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan--and the requirement for more air missions--the bill for the tanker mission will be even higher.
Maybe Mr. Gates (or someone else) can pull a rabbit out of the hat and preserve our basing options in Kyrgyzstan, or make similar arrangements in a neighboring country. Unfortunately, such thinking appears to be optimistic--at best. Officials in the Bush and Obama Administrations took their eyes off the ball, and our military forces may pay the price.
With the lease at Manas up in the air--and strained relations between Washington and Bishkek --Moscow found a way to fill the vacuum, promising the financial aid needed to eject U.S. forces and increase Russian influence in the region. In this latest variation on the "Great Game," the Kremlin looks like a winner, while the U.S. scrambles to save face and find a new airbase.
So why can't we base anything in Afghanistan?
We can, but you don't want tankers and strategic airlifters at a base that could be targeted by incoming rocket or mortar fire. A single C-17 costs $200 million. A refurbished KC-135 is about $40 million. That's why the Air Force prefers to base them at more secure locations in a nearby country.
I would guess the administration is looking hard at Tajikistan, too. The French used the Dushanbe airport as a base similar to Manas. The problem is that ground transportation to Dushanbe from the north is difficult. The Chinese were building a tunnel and new road to allow all-weather transport from the Fergana Valley south without detouring through Uzbekistan, but...
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