A US air base in Kyrgyzstan is threatened with closure while the US seeks to expand its military presence in Afghanistan, nearly doubling the number of soldiers to 60,000. IWPR writes that the “government bill submitted on February 4 which proposes that the air base agreement should be annulled. The debate will take place in the next week or so, and the bill is more than likely to be passed since the legislature is dominated by the pro-Bakiev party Ak Jol.”
If the bill is passed, the US will have 6 months to withdraw. It’s expected that the US and Europe will fiercely negotiate to retain the base during this period, and they may well succeed. One of the major sticking points seems to be that the government believes the lease payment it receives is much too small. Faced with growing financial difficulties during a time of global economic recession, the government may well be trying to find greater fiscal security.
According to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, the US pays $63 million in rent per year for the facility. He says that the base is “pretty inexpensive from the U.S. point of view when you consider what it gives us in terms of access in the region.”
Paul Rogers’, of peace studies at Bradford University, says that the closure “would be a painful event in any circumstance, not least as it may involve the Bishkek government making a deal with Russia that would further signal a changing geopolitical balance in the region. But the troubles the US and its allies are facing in Afghanistan means that this is a particularly bad time to be threatened with a loss of facilities and influence in another part of central Asia.”
US and NATO supply lines to Afghanistan are becoming increasingly untenable. In Pakistan, through which the vast majority of military supplies pass, the fighting has grown even more pitched. Militants, on Tuesday, blew up a key bridge that lead to the Khyber Pass. This left a number of supply convoys stranded. Following this 10 trucks carrying material for NATO troops were attacked, after they were stranded due to the damaged bridge. “Militants sprinkled oil and then fired rockets at a terminal in the border town of Landi Kotal” late on Tuesday, said local government official Rahat Gul. “The attack triggered a blaze that gutted eight containers mounted on lorries and badly damaged two others,” he said.
The main alternative routes that the US has been investigating run down north of Afghanistan. This would require that they pass through the Central Asian countries, where Russian influence is significant. The focus has been on Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian state that has a US military base left on its soil. In 2005, Uzbekistan expelled US troops from its territory.
Kyrgyzstan has for years now threatened to do what it’s neighbour Uzbekistan did and shut down the US base on its soil. For weeks now rumours and unofficial Kyrgyz government announcements have suggested a growing move to threaten the base’s closure. The latest threat comes from Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
President Bakiyev was visiting Russia at the time, meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev. The Washington Post reports that, following the meeting, “Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid, and also to write off $180 million in debt and build a $1.7 billion hydropower plant.”
U.S. payments to Kyrgyzstan currently total $150 million a year, of which about $63 million is rent for the Manas base. “We hope to continue those discussions because Manas is vitally important to our operations in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Morrell added, however, that “we can continue without it, obviously.”
…The Manas base is “pretty inexpensive from the U.S. point of view when you consider what it gives us in terms of access in the region,” the official said. “I don’t know what price the United States is willing to pay . . . but at the same time I don’t know whether we’re willing to be held hostage.”
President Bakiyev states that the political cost of keeping the Manas base has increased, especially following an incident in which a Kyrgyz civilian was shot by a base guard at its entrance. Kyrgyzstan’s government has requested to try the US soldier and been refused. The President and other politicians have, in the face of public anger, expressed concern for what this means for Kyrgyztan’s sovereignty. This has been forwarded as the main reason for considering the US base closure unless the pact is renegotiated.
You can learn more about Russian involvement and have a little more background on the supply routes by reading an earlier post titled Military Supply Routes to Afghanistan Reflect US and Russian Regional Competition.
A suicide bomb detonated in Kabul, at 9:45 am. The bomb went off by the German embassy, on the road connecting the embassy to a US military base Camp, Camp Eggers. Afghan hospital officials claim that three Afghan civilians were killed and 21 injured. The New York Times asserts that the blast was timed to match growing traffic on the road. Baktash Siawash, an Afghan blogger near the site of the explosion, claims that the attack was a strike on both the Germans and Americans because of its location between the embassy and military base. The Taliban has claimed responsibility.
That the Afghan government and international forces cannot keep the capital city safe from such attacks is painful evidence of the eroding security situation throughout the country. The worst of these attacks in Kabul struck the Indian embassy on 7 July 2008. About 60 people were killed in that attack.
Australia is quietly reviewing its role in Afghanistan as its key partner, the Netherlands, is due to withdraw sometimes in 2010. The Age reports that the Dutch withdrawal would leave Australian troops, who are paired with the Dutch, “without support now provided by the Dutch, including attack helicopters.” It’s doubtful Australia will withdraw, especially in the face of growing US military commitment. They may either reorganize their 1000 troop mission or even add more resources to make up for the Dutch departure.
There’s more news of a possible Kyrgyz demand that the US close its air base within that country. A Kyrgyz official quotes in Hurriyet has said that, “the presidential decree on the annulment of the agreement with the United States is already prepared. In a matter of days it will be published in the Kyrgyz media.“
Hurriyet also writes that, “Russian officials have discussed extending Kyrgyzstan a 300-million-dollar (225-million-euro) loan as well as 1.7 billion dollars of investment in the energy sector of the ex-Soviet republic… ‘In exchange for such a large loan the Kremlin asked Bakiyev to voice the decision about the pull-out of the US airbase from Kyrgyzstan before his official visit to Moscow,’ the official said.”
Kyrgystan’s already fragile economy has recently been hit hard and it’s energy sector has at least in the past two years faced difficulties, even failing to provide adequate heating during the harsh winter months.
A base closure in Kyrgystan would handicap US ability to supply its troops stationed in Afghanistan, especially in the face of supply line disruptions by Taliban attacks at the main routes through Pakistan. The American Forces Press Service states that “the Khyber Pass route provides about 75 percent of the U.S. supplies to troops in Afghanistan.” Increased attacks on convoys in Pakistan as well as the added pressure of a likely troop increase adds pressure for the US to find additional routes. If Kyrgyztan closes the US base in its border then the US will in fact become more dependent on Pakistan for supply routes since no other Afghan neighbour has shown a willingness to provide such support.
An article in Radio Netherland Worldwide comments on the latest US tactic in Afghanistan:
Part of the plan includes an influx of troops and bringing local militias on board – a strategy similar to the one used to improve security in Iraq.
But the mission will be more difficult because Afghanistan is splintered by tribal rivalries and weakened by militant safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Afghanistan’s notoriously difficult terrain and dire infrastructure will also make efforts more challenging.
This seems a fair summary of some key strategic differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Iraq was also factionalised. I think one of the differences there was that of the three groupings of factions within Iraq, one (the Kurds) fully supported the US presence, while the largest one (Shia) had a majority of its elites conditionally cooperate with the US. As the Shia support eroded, the US faced much greater political opposition and sometimes violence. Afghanistan, on the other hand, does not seem to have a clear coalition representing its largest ethno-linguistic faction (the Pashtun), and other factions have traditionally had very fluid alliances that are prone to rapid changes.
One of Afghanistan’s senior generals has died in a helicopter crash. The New York Times reports:
The senior commander who was killed, Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sayar, was head of the 207th Corps and one of four regional commanders in the Afghan Army, responsible for the western zone of the country.
He was on a mission to visit army bases and posts in the province of Farah when his Russian-made MI-17 helicopter ran into bad weather and hit a mountainside on Thursday morning, General Azimi said.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin Wednesday asked Afghanistan to stop using illegal copies of Russian weapons. “It would be proper if such weapons were delivered from Russia and not from third countries,” Borodavkin said. The Moscow Times reports that Russian sale of arms has risen to a post-Soviet peak of $8 billion in 2008. It has traditionally been popular to use cloned versions of Russian weapons throughout many of the world’s conflict zones.
US and ISAF-NATO supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan have seen a number of disruptions of late. Supply routes are vital for any sustained military operation to have reasonable chance of success. DAWN covers the story: “A key route for NATO supply trucks through southwest Pakistan into Afghanistan reopened Wednesday five days after tribesmen blocked it over the killing of a man in a drugs raid, police said. Hundreds of trucks and tankers have been stranded since Friday along the highway between Quetta and the border town of Chaman due to the tribesmen’s blockade in the rural town of Qila Abdullah. The men were protesting at the recent killing of a tribesman during a joint raid by Pakistani paramilitary forces, anti-narcotics police and intelligence agents.” On Tuesday, insurgents struck a NATO supply depot in Peshawar (Pakistan).
The Khyber Pass is the main route from which foreign military supplies enter Afghanistan. This route has seen a lot of disruptions of late due to continued Taliban attacks targeting convoys and supply depots. US-led forces have been seeking alternate routes in order to decrease their dependence on the Khyber Pass, a route that forces them to pass through regions with high insurgent opposition. There are rumours that international troops’ northern supply lines may also be at risk. A Russian newspaper has reported that a key US airbase in Kyrgyzstan (north east of Afghanistan) could be shut down in exchange for a large Russian investment. Russian resistance to US military bases in the region are a response to NATO expansion to the borders of Russian, to the US’s establishment of new missile defence stations in eastern Europe, and also an outcome of heightened tensions following the short war in Georgia.
On Thursday, the Taliban shot dead a man they accused of spying for the US. The execution took place in Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency, part of the FATA. From DAWN: “The 30-year-old was abducted from Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, a month ago after a suspected US drone attack on a militant hideout in the area, they said. ‘He was gunned down before dawn and his body was dumped on a roadside near Miramshah,’ said an official who aked not to be named. A note placed near the body described him as a US spy.” The US has placed rewards for information on Taliban movements within Pakistan, which seems to be the source of some real anxiety and paranoia from groups of Taliban combatants who often pass through or temporarily camp in the region’s villages.
Two British marines die in an explosion in Helmland province. 9 have died since mid-December, for a total of 143 dead. A Canadian solider died on Wednesday during a raid on what’s described as a Taliban bomb-making factory.