Q+A: High stakes for U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan

WASHINGTON Fri Apr 9, 2010 1:32am IST

People gather in front of a building housing government offices and the parliament in Bishkek April 8, 2010. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

People gather in front of a building housing government offices and the parliament in Bishkek April 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Vladimir Pirogov

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The future of a U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan could have important implications for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and U.S. relations with Russia.

Here are some questions and answers about issues surrounding the Manas base, whose future is uncertain following the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE BASE?

Pentagon officials say Manas has been central to the war effort, allowing around-the-clock combat airlift and airdrop, medical evacuation and aerial refuelling.

It has been particularly important for getting U.S. forces into Afghanistan. Just last month, about 50,000 troops passed through the base on their way into and out of the country.

Still, Pentagon officials say there are other options for troop transport should the United States lose Manas, asserting the base itself is not "essential" to the war effort.

Last year, General Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, told lawmakers in Washington: "If we had to fall back to other locations, we could do that. We have a plan, we have a back-up. It's harder. It's more expensive, it's more ... intensive."

Still, it's unclear whether losing Manas might affect the timetable for U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 additional forces into Afghanistan.

IS RUSSIA INVOLVED?

Russia has resented the spread of U.S. influence in the region and, in particular, the United States' establishment of the air base at Manas. Russia also has a base in Kyrgyzstan and a senior Russian official suggested on Thursday Moscow would urge that country's new leaders to close the U.S. base.

The official, who asked not to be named, said: "In Kyrgyzstan there should be only one base - Russian."

Obama has been at pains to "reset" relations with Moscow strained under the Bush administration. It's unclear whether Manas might threaten recent momentum, which has included Thursday's signing of a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaty.

WHAT IS KYRGYZSTAN GOING TO DO?

Kyrgyzstan's self-proclaimed new leaders said they aimed to close the U.S. air base. An official told Reuters that the new government's close relationship with Moscow meant there was a high probability "the U.S. air base's presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened."

Still, in the past, Kyrgyzstan has used such controversy as leverage to squeeze more money from Washington.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan's now-deposed government initially ordered U.S. forces out of the country, but then allowed them to stay after Washington agreed to pay more to the impoverished country to keep Manas open.

IS THE BASE OPERATING?

The Pentagon has said the base is conducting "limited operations," but it is not giving details about how many flights are taking off or landing. Clearly, operations have been reduced -- potentially putting pressure on other parts of the supply chain to Afghanistan and even causing delays, if the situation persists.

WHAT OTHER LOGISTICAL OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE?

U.S. military officials say it's still premature to discuss what exactly they would do if they lose Manas.

But the U.S. military's Transportation Command says only about 20 percent of the cargo to Afghanistan goes in by air. Around 50 percent of the cargo goes through Pakistan, mostly arriving into the port of Karachi and then travelling by land into Afghanistan.

The remaining 30 percent of cargo goes through what is known as the northern distribution network, a rail and road system that includes Central and South Asian states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and Georgia.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Mohammad Zargham)

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