POREG VIEW: Marking her visit to Kyrgyzstan, which is in the process of forming an elected government, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has announced that the US would retain the Manas airbase near the capital Bishkek till NATO completed its troop pullout from Afghanistan in 2014. The announcement is in line with the decision taken at the recent NATO meeting at Lisbon. There is no finality about the date though. And Clinton herself has indicated that America might use the base even after Afghan mission was accomplished. “Then we will look to see if there is any continuing mission” for US troops at Manas, she told a news conference.
The Manas airbase has acted as a crucial hub for the war in Afghanistan since it opened at the end of 2001, but it has discomforted Russia, which objects to a US military base in its former sphere of influence. The base has also proven unpopular among Kyrgyz citizens.
Opened in end 2001, Manas air base has been mired in local controversies. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had allowed the base, was thrown out in April revolution. And in the October general election, the base became a political football with one of the parties, Ata-Zhurt, pledging to oust the US. It had won most votes but has failed to cobble up a ruling coalition.
For the Americans, Manas is a strategically important air base. It is their safe alternative to the NATO supply routes through Pakistan. As the WikiLeaks cables show, the US is deeply suspicious of Pakistan intentions vis-à-vis Afghanistan and needs an insurance, which Manas provides.
Deposed President Bakiyev used the base as a bargaining chip to win concessions and payments from both the United States and Russia, which was and is still not happy with American troops in its Central Asian backyard. His son, Maksim Bakiyev, is a partner in the Gibraltar registered Mina Corporation and Red Star Enterprises that had entered into a $315 million contract for jet fuel supplies to the base.
In a clever move, America has brought into the picture to a newly created Kyrgyz state-owned corporation and thus effectively snapping ties with Bakiyev to the relief of his successor Roza Otunbayeva. “We have had some serious issues regarding the air base that we have worked to answer and resolve,” Mrs. Clinton said during a lively chat with students after meeting the President.
It is too early to say that the last word has been heard on the Manas controversy. Much would depend on how the new ruling coalition looks at the issue and how effectively President Roza Otunbayeva and her overseas supporters manage to checkmate Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who is trying to stage a comeback in his erstwhile strongholds in the south of the county.