Don't Play It Again, Stan: The US Base Is Crucial to Operations in Afghanistan, So Threats to Close It Are Usually a Ploy for More Dollars. This Time It Could Be for Real

By Neuss, Sorrel | New Statesman (1996), February 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Don't Play It Again, Stan: The US Base Is Crucial to Operations in Afghanistan, So Threats to Close It Are Usually a Ploy for More Dollars. This Time It Could Be for Real


Neuss, Sorrel, New Statesman (1996)


A little-known Stan in central Asia has the US hanging by a thread. On Tuesday 3 February, Kyrgyzstan threatened to evict all 1,200 US troops stationed there, apparently at Russia's request, and by Friday the government's decision was "final". Washington has used Manas airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as a launch pad for crucial operations in Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. It is the gateway for US and coalition troops into Afghanistan and the sole refuelling point for in-flight aircraft. If its closes, Nato will have to rethink plans to send more troops into the country later this year.

The US-Kyrgyz agreement on Manas has always been troubled. Governance in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been blighted by corruption, and the parliament routinely threatens to kick America out when it is strapped for cash in order to extract millions more in rent. But recent calls by politicians from the ruling Ak Zhol party for the base to go were louder than usual. Richard Hipkin, a British pub manager in Bishkek whose biggest-paying customers work at the base, says: "This is as far down the line as it has ever got."

The furore began when Dmitry Medvedev offered to write off Kyrgyzstan's debts and lend the impoverished nation $2bn if it agreed to close the base. Russia's deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, has denied that this is the case and the Kyrgyz prime minister, Igor Chudinov, is adamant that parliament's decision to vote on the base's future this month has nothing to do with money. Very few believe them. A foreign ministry official says: "The government is just holding out to see if the US will match that offer, but I don't think they can."

Russia can easily buy Kyrgyz acquiesence. The global food crisis, high wheat prices and the credit crunch have hit the republic hard. A national power shortage has also disrupted production and fuelled political tensions, springing the usually disorganised opposition Social Democratic Party into action.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan's coal mines were seized by regional clan leaders and fell into disrepair. The bulk of electricity now comes from one hydroelectric power station, which for the past year has been working at very low capacity due to -30[degrees] temperatures in winter which have kept water frozen in the mountains, and low rainfall in summer. As the power station almost ground to a halt, most of the country had to survive on six hours of electricity a day at the height of the crisis, in the autumn.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Over shashlik, I unwittingly made my friend Dinara cry by talking about the power cuts and rising poverty. Up the road, huddled around candles at the Metro American bar, private military contractors were downing shots of Russian Parliament vodka, talking about whether it was better to take girls they fancied to Istanbul or the Maldives over Christmas.

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