Barack Obama’s much-talked-about plans for a stepped-up presence in Afghanistan may have taken a taken a step back now that neighboring Kyrgyzstan has decided to close a US military base operating in its country.
The Manas Air Base is part of a major US route for NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan. It has about 1,000 people working there and employs more than 320 Kyrgyz citizens. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell described the base as “hugely important” on Tuesday.
Tensions surrounding the base has intensified recently, with anti-NATO protests by Kyrgyz citizens growing after an American soldier shot and killed a civilian in December 2006. The soldier was transferred out of Kyrgyzstan and the civilian’s family offered compensation for their loss. Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees U.S. operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, has ordered the case reopened.
The country recently endured a two-week attack on its Internet service by what one Web security expert called a “cyber-militia” based in Russia.
The base pumps US$115 million a year into the Kyrgyzstan economy, which is the poorest in Central Asia. However, Kyrgizstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev cited the safety of his citizens as a major concern for closing the base. Bakiyev made the announcement after closing a multi-million dollar aid package from Russia, which gives Kyrgyzstan a $300 million, 40-year loan at an annual interest rate of 0.75 percent and writes off $180 million in Kyrgyzstani debt.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the decision to close the base “regrettable” Thursday, adding the closure will not affect US efforts to crush terrorist bases in Afghanistan. US officials note that the lease for the base still has another 18 months left and all efforts will be made to close the deal on an extended lease.