U.S. military officers show Kyrgyz journalists the Manas air base. (photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rachel Martinez
One thing that was notable about the early coverage of the U.S. air force refueling jet crash on Friday was how unpoliticized it was. The air base at which the KC-135 Stratotanker was based, Manas, is a very sensitive issue in Kyrgyzstan, and any developments there are closely parsed for their political and geopolitical meaning. This crash, in which three U.S. airmen were killed, would seem to be a human tragedy and possibly an aviation safety story, with no political angle. When I noted on twitter that the Kyrgyz press focused primarily on the search for victims and, somewhat surprisingly, avoided any political angles, the press secretary of the president of Kyrgyzstan, Kadyr Toktogulov, responded, "what kind of political speculation could there possibly be?"
Well, now we're starting to find out. 24.kg reported that the Americans were "obstructing the examination" of the bodies of the crew members killed in the crash:
Representatives of the Transit Center at Manas didn’t let the investigation agencies to examine the bodies of the crashed airplane casualties, the special investigation group told 24.kg news agency today.
It’s noted that, despite promises of the U.S. side not to interfere and assist in investigation of the plane crash, the transit center officers decided to take the bodies of pilots away.
The bodies of the three crew members were taken to the airbase. Local investigators have no information about further actions of the Transit Center at Manas.
Also, the investigation group noted that the filling station at the base is cordoned off; however, American officers do not let Kyrgyz investigators to the base.
KC-135s on the tarmac at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
A U.S. Air Force refueling jet has crashed in Kyrgyzstan near the Manas air base, according to Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS).
The plane exploded in mid-air, said a local official, reports Kloop.kg: "The former mayor of the Panfilov region Taalaybek Sydykov said in an interview with Kloop.kg, that... 'Residents of the region who were working in the fields say that there was an explosion in the air and the plane fell behind the mountains.'" A couple of twitterusers reported the same.
An MChS official told AFP that the plane, apparently KC-135 Stratotanker, crashed after taking off:
"According to my information, the plane broke up into three pieces. Information on the dead or wounded is being clarified. All the rescue services have gone to the scene," the ministry's press secretary Abdisharip Bekilov said.
The plane crashed near the mountain village of Chaldybar, around 200 kilometres from the capital Bishkek and close to the border with Kazakhstan, the emergency ministry spokesman said.
Information about who may have been on board is still sketchy, but CA-News reports, citing MChS sources, that there were five crew members on the flight.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake meets Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev January 16 in Bishkek.
The U.S.'s top diplomat dealing with Central Asia, Robert Blake, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and if we are to believe Press.kg, all over Bishkek, "even in schools and kindergartens, for three days they are saying 'Blake is coming! Blake is coming!'" Journalistic hyperbole aside, this was a highly anticipated visit, as it seems that negotiations over the U.S.'s Manas air base are starting in earnest. Before Blake left, he told Voice of America's Russian service that he would be discussing extending the lease for the base, which is now scheduled to expire in 2014. "Manas has a huge significance for the U.S. from the point of view of logistics," he said.
In Bishkek, Blake met with President Almazbek Atambayev and other officials, and while of course the details of the discussions were not divulged, Blake did make an interesting statement to the press after his meetings. He was asked if the U.S. might use the newly established French transit center in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and he didn't say no. After it's determined what sort of U.S. troop presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014, the U.S. will assess what sort of facilities it needs in Central Asia, he said:
Once those important decisions [on troop presence in Afghanistan] are made, then we’ll be in a better position to plan for ourselves what kind of facilities we might need either in Afghanistan or in the wider region. Again, I don’t want to speculate on the future of what those might be.
Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev's wishes for the U.S.'s Manas air base are well known: he wants it to become a civilian transport hub after the U.S. leaves, which Atambayev has said should be in 2014. The U.S.'s own plans for its military posture in Afghanistan are up in the air, and its plans for continuing using Manas are contingent on that, but it has at least demonstrated some interest in helping Kyrgyzstan transform the base into this civilian logistics center.
But now, the plot is thickening: Russia is getting involved. Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Transportation and Communication announced that a delegation of Russian government and business aviation officials visited Manas recently and held "consultations on the creation of a joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center" at the airport.
The announcement made no mention of the U.S.'s air base at Manas, the airport outside Bishkek which also operates as a civilian airport. But the idea of Manas becoming a logistics center is so tied up with the U.S. leaving, that the message here is unmistakeable: Russia is hoping to take the place of the U.S.
Russia has been making some pretty aggressive moves in Kyrgyzstan lately. The state gas company Gazprom has tried to take full control of Kyrgyzstan's gas company, and the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.'s. Is Russia now trying to gently show the Americans the door out of their air base?
The U.S.'s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan could be a target for "enemies," there's no way to be sure that corruption has been rooted out from the lucrative fuel contracts for the base, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan's strongest military partner. That's according to Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan who made her first visit as ex-president to Washington this week. She was in town to receive an award from the Eurasia Foundation, and also took a bit of time to sit down with The Bug Pit to discuss some of the big issues in Kyrgyzstan and the region. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
The Bug Pit: It's been argued that the focus on Afghanistan has distorted the U.S.'s policy toward Central Asia and made it “oversecuritized.” Do you agree?
Otunbayeva: No, it's not fair.... The United States responds to all our needs immediately. When we had the tragedy in 2010, we had two [military] bases, Russian and American. None of them were involved in our internal affairs, but the U.S. responded to our tragedy immediately, with the OTI program. Of course, I can't deny that that Manas is a tool for the U.S. But I don't think Kazakhstan or Tajikistan either will tell you that now only Afghanistan is the highlight of our relations, no.
BP: Manas has strengthened your relations with the U.S. and brought the government a lot of revenue, but it's also led to a lot of corruption, including at very high levels. Overall, is Manas a good thing for Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly said he wants to create a "civilian transport hub" at the country's main airport in Manas after the U.S. moves its air base out (at an as-yet-undetermined time). And it looks like the U.S. government is trying to help Kyrgyzstan in that effort: the U.S. Trade and Development Agency is seeking bids for a business plan for just such a proposal. From the call for proposals:
As the Manas Transit Center and the U.S. military reduce operations at Manas International Airport, Manas International Airport Company is now considering how best to use the existing assets that will become available for civilian operation. Kyrgyzstan’s President Atambayev has expressed an interest in trying to make the Manas International Airport into a hub airport.
Recent statistics would support greater civilian passenger and cargo operations; from 2007 to 2011, civilian passenger traffic increased nearly 175% to nearly 1.6 million passengers per year. General operations increased by 118%, however, total civilian cargo volume (in tons) dropped about 16% to nearly 21,500 tons (which is consistent with the worldwide air cargo decline resulting from the recession). Manas International Airport is expected to share in the general air cargo volume growth in Asia, which is projected at more than 6% annually through 2029.
The contractor will assess "assess the regulatory and market conditions, as well as the developmental impacts associated with the Project, including infrastructure improvement projects needed to support the business plan" and "work directly with the Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Kyrgyz Republic and Manas International Airport company."
The arrest of former Kyrgyzstani first son Maxim Bakiyev in the U.K. earlier this month, and Washington's request to extradite him for financial crimes in the U.S., has prompted speculation that Bakiyev might be a bargaining chip in future negotiations between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan over the Manas air base.
Kyrgyzstan wants to try Bakiyev for crimes he committed in that country while his father Kurmanbek was president. The U.S. wants Kyrgyzstan to keep allowing it the use of Manas. So, the thinking is, the two sides can make a deal: the U.S. would extradite Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for an extension of Manas's lease.
The U.S. also could use information that Bakiyev gives them to in effect blackmail the current Kyrgyzstan government, speculates knews.kg:
Maxim Bakiyev for the Americans is a powerful lever for influence on Kyrgyzstan, for its military presence in the country. It's not difficult to imagine, that the disclosure of this or that information connected with the [Manas-related] schemes could carry wide resonance in society, leading to a new wave of protests and demonstrations.
Mars Sariyev, an independent political analyst in Bishkek, said Maksim Bakiyev’s arrest could have been prompted by the Kyrgyz government’s refusal to renew the lease, a position that President Almazbek Atambayev reiterated during a recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia also operates a military facility in Kyrgyzstan — Kant Air Base.
American airmen at the Manas Transit Center outside of Bishkek could be smuggling drugs on their military planes, says a senior Kyrgyz official, and their cargoes should be subject to inspection by Kyrgyz authorities.
The recommendation came from the head of Kyrgyzstan’s drug control agency, Vitaly Orozaliyev, who was speaking before a parliamentary committee on June 5, 24.kg reported.
According to Orozaliyev, under current agreements neither the cargo that comes to Manas, nor its workers, are subject to searches. “Yes, there’s been information about narcotics. We have held talks with our Russian and American colleagues about this and believe it would be right to raise the issue of searching cargo shipments coming into the transit center.”
It’s been known to happen elsewhere.
Maybe Orozaliyev has seen “American Gangster,” the 2007 Ridley Scott film based on the true story of Frank Lucas. Lucas collaborated with American troops in Vietnam to ship home high-quality heroin (in coffins of dead servicemen) and build a narcotics empire in New York in the 1970s.
Since then, the heart of the heroin industry has shifted from Southeast Asia to Afghanistan, which now produces over 90 percent of the world’s opiates. And the trade in Afghan heroin through Central Asia is worth billions of dollars. So at the tail end of another disastrous war in an opium-rich region, it’s not hard to follow Orozaliyev’s logic.
The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
Leon Panetta speaks with the Manas Transit Center commander, Colonel James Jacobsen
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Bishkek on Tuesday, meeting with Kyrgyzstan officials to discuss extending the lease of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates there. Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, has consistently said that he wants the U.S. out of there by 2014, and the U.S. seems to be treading carefully, giving the soft sell and not seeking to renegotiate the base's lease just yet. From the Armed Forces Press Service:
A senior defense official said that arrangement is in place through July 2014, and that the secretary will not negotiate any additional use of the facility on this trip. Rather, the official added, the visit is intended to underscore to the Kyrgyz government and to Atambyev, who was inaugurated in December, that the United States government views its relationship with Kyrgyzstan as central to Central Asian regional security.
Still, extending the base lease was still clearly on the agenda, even if implicitly. Via Reuters:
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no negotiations to keep Manas past 2014.
Still, the official suggested that the Pentagon wasn't taking Atambayev's position on Manas as the final word on the matter, saying there may be some "wiggle room."
Using the phrase "wiggle room" suggests that the U.S. is looking for a short-term extension -- i.e.long enough to get troops and equipment out of Afghanistan -- but not to stay in the base indefinitely. Atambayev presumably wouldn't have a problem with that -- as long as the price is right. This is probably the first step in a long process.