Friday, February 20, 2009

Manas Air Base 'not irreplaceable,' official says

by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden, American Forces Press Service

Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted Feb. 19 to close Manas Air Base, a key logistics hub for the U.S. military, but a senior Pentagon official said the base closure would not affect operations in Afghanistan.

"[Manas Air Base] is an important base for operations in Afghanistan, but it's not irreplaceable," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters here Feb. 19. "If it's not available to us, we'll find other means."

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev still must sign the bill for the eviction to be official. If he signs the bill, troops will have 180 days to withdraw, based on a previous agreement made by the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments, he said.

Pentagon officials are aware of news reports that Bakiyev intends to close the base, Mr. Whitman said, but the United States hasn't received any official notification or orders to withdraw its military forces. "Our operations there today remain normal," he said.

Defense Department officials are considering what it may be able to offer the Kyrgyz government to continue operations, but will not agree to any price, Mr. Whitman said. Other options in the region are being considered, he said, but he would not give specifics on countries or the status of discussions.

"We remain in close contact with allies in the region," he said.

Russia and Kazakhstan reportedly have given the United States permission to transport nonlethal equipment and supplies by train into Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also reportedly are being considered.

The United States pays $17.4 million a year to use Manas Air Base, a major logistical and refueling hub supporting international troops in Afghanistan. The United States and Kyrgyzstan signed a "protocol of intentions" in 2006 that allowed the United States to renew the arrangement in one-year increments through July 2011. The air base has been facilitating U.S. troops since 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

About 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo transit through Manas each month. About 1,000 troops, most of them American, but some from France and Spain, are assigned to the base.

President Barack Obama authorized 17,000 more troops this week to reinforce international forces in Afghanistan, and Whitman said there will be no disruption in current or future operations there.

"The announcements we made are going to go forward with no disruption," he said. "If we are no longer permitted to use that base, we will start to transition our activities elsewhere."