Afghan supply base eviction prompts U.S. access scramble

Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan serves as a U.S. supply route for troops and supplies into Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan said Friday its president has ordered the closure of U.S. military’s only base in Central Asia, further squeezing access for troops and supplies heading into Afghanistan.

However, the closure comes as two other central Asian nations — Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – reportedly agreed to allow transit of U.S. cargo en route to Afghanistan. Russia’s Interfax news agency reported the Kyrgyz foreign minister has formally notified the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek. Officials have said the U.S. military has 180 days to withdraw from the Manas base after notification. With increased militant attacks on land routes through Pakistan and no likelihood of access through Afghanistan’s major western border with Iran, the United States is under pressure to establish new supply chains from the north. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday his country hopes to retain the base in Kyrgyzstan — a small landlocked Central Asian nation west of China that is home to about 5 million people — but was considering alternatives. “I continue to believe that this is not a closed issue and that there remains the potential at least to reopen this issue with the Kyrgyz and perhaps reach a new agreement,” Gates said at a NATO meeting in Krakow, Poland. Watch why Kyrgyzstan wants to close the base » “If we are unable to do that on reasonable terms then, as I have suggested, we are developing alternative methods to get resupply and people into Afghanistan.” He said one option may be to pay larger fees to Kyrgyzstan, but the U.S. was also looking elsewhere. “Manas is important, but it is not irreplaceable,” he said. Manas’ closure could deal a significant blow to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan just as President Barack Obama plans to step up U.S. troop levels to halt a resurgence of the country’s former Taliban rulers. How far is Manas from Afghanistan View our map » The air base currently employs more than 1,000 servicemen, 95 percent of whom are Americans, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. The base is used to transport personnel and cargo to Afghanistan and to refuel aircraft.

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Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which both border Afghanistan, have agreed to allow U.S. cargo to be transported to Afghanistan through their countries, Interfax reported Friday. A Tajik government statement said only that the two sides discussed the issue, but a spokesman for the Tajik foreign ministry told CNN that “practically all issues” to allow U.S. cargo transit have been resolved. The efficacy of the deals with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would still depend on how much access the United States would have for flights and cargo, and it is unlikely they will fully replace capacity lost in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile U.S. General David Petraeus, who oversees the war in Afghanistan, was in Uzbekistan, which also lies over the northern Afghan border, this week for talks on Afghanistan and other regional issues.

A Pentagon spokesman told CNN that his discussions included the regional supply network into Afghanistan. The U.S. military leased a base in Uzbekistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But after Uzbek troops were accused of killing at least 150 people during a demonstration in 2005, the autocratic government of President Islam Karimov came under criticism from Washington and severed most of its military ties with the United States.