The U.S. is in talks with the government of Kyrgyzstan over the use of a military air base in the Central Asian nation, White House and Pentagon officials say.
Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday it was evicting the U.S. from the Manas air base, which is critical to U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Many analysts see the hand of Russia behind Kyrgyzstan's decision.
The U.S. military began running operations out of the Manas air base shortly after invading Afghanistan in late 2001. The site has evolved into a key staging point for U.S. and NATO troops and some supplies heading into Afghanistan. It is also where the U.S. bases its air-to-air refueling tankers used in the region.
Manas became the last remaining U.S. air base in central Asia when Uzbekistan evicted the American military from its soil in 2005. Using that as leverage, Kyrgyzstan has, in the past, threatened to close down Manas, says George Friedman, the CEO of the global intelligence company Stratfor and the author of The Next 100 Years.
"It's happened a number of times in the past where the issue is simply money," Friedman says. "The question we don't know the answer to is whether or not that's the primary issue right now."
Friedman says the timing of Kyrgyzstan's announcement is important: It came just hours after Russia offered the former Soviet republic $2 billion in aid. He says this puts the U.S. in an interesting position.
"The Russians have offered them money to close it; we're offering them money to keep it open," he says.
Friedman says the Russians have levers aside from money, including influence inside Kyrgyzstan and many old connections.
"So unlike previous times when the essential issue was the Kyrgyzstan government trying to shake down the United States for more cash," Friedman says, "this time it's more of a bidding war."
Many analysts say they believe Kyrgyzstan could carry through with its threat this time. Already, the government sent a decree to parliament on closing the U.S. air base.
Conflict In Afghanistan
Alexander Cooley, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, says one factor in Kyrgyzstan's action most likely has to do with President Obama's decision to make Afghanistan a priority.
Cooley says both Kyrgyzstan and Russia want to test the importance of that — for different reasons.
"The Kyrgyz see the importance of Afghanistan as only elevating the importance of their asset, which is in essence hosting the U.S. base," says Cooley, who wrote Base Politics, which examines U.S. bases overseas, including the one at Manas.
"Russia sees this as an opportunity to send a shot across the bow: 'We can influence the region; we can make life unpleasant for you,'" he says.
Moscow, for its part, says it is ready to cooperate with its former republics and the U.S. in fighting terrorism in the region, and has denied any connection between its $2 billion loan and Kyrgyzstan's decision to close Manas. Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin indicated its former allies can make their own decisions about dealing with the U.S.
"We should always keep in mind that even the five Central Asian states can give their own ideas on how they see the system of their own security and stability," Karasin says.
Search For Alternate Supply Routes
U.S. officials say they haven't received any confirmation that the base will be closed. They say they have other options, but gave no details.
Kyrgyzstan's decision comes at time when the U.S. is trying to find alternative supply routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan, where convoys are coming under increasing attack, Cooley says.
"They could potentially go back to the Uzbeks and get a deal done there. An old Soviet airfield in Turkmenistan is now being expanded as part of NATO operations, it could potentially do a deal with the Turkmens," Cooley says.
But, he says, in the short term, Kyrgyzstan's decision is certainly going to be a blow to the U.S. at a time when it is trying to expand operations in Afghanistan.