Hubris in the Heartland

The Western MSM (mainstream media) was abuzz the last few weeks about how Obama’s apparent extension of a hand to Russia did not make them willing to unclench their fist, citing the closure of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. This was linked to Russia’s announcement of 150mn $ in aid and 2bn $ of credit to Kyrgyzstan, which was widely interpreted to be a bribe, a snub to the US or in some particularly nutty cases open support of the Taliban – as SWP put it, “objectively chosen to aid 8th century religious fanatics”.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor state relying on remittances from its workers in Russia, workers who are now being laid off as construction grinds to a halt. It is the only country in post-Soviet Central Asia to have rejected the status of a “developed” country to be eligible for more funds from the World Bank and other international development organizations. Coupled with the economic crisis sweeping the globe, this money is small change to Russia but a life-saver to Kyrgyzstan.

The perception that this is a Russian anti-American machination arrogantly dismisses Kyrgyzstan’s own incentives. It has not been happy with the American presence (see below). It is in their interest to play off Washington against Moscow for more aid; but ultimately, Russia is far more important to their economic development. Nonetheless, it would make sense for them to announce the shutdown of Manas in Moscow, immediately after getting promised these loans and aid, because then American ire would be deflected towards Russia. (After all, the US does have a penchant for sponsoring color revolutions in countries it doesn’t like).

Finally, the claim that Russia is aiding the Taliban is totally bogus. Frankly, considering the number of US military bases dotting the Middle East (there’s fifty) means that this cannot be a serious concern, especially given that Russia has extended its own hand in offering transport of non-military supplies through Russia. This is despite the fact that the US has repeatedly snubbed Russia in that region (and elsewhere) – it explicitly supported the mujahedeen in the 1980’s via Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with dollars and Stinger missiles without holding their beliefs to much scrutiny, negotiated with the Taliban in hopes of being allowed to build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan and into Pakistan, bypassing Russian control – in stark contrast to Russia (and interestingly, Iran), who recognized the Taliban for the evil they are early on and supported the Northern Alliance against them and dismissed Putin’s overtures in 2002 acquiescing to an increased American military presence in Central Asia with abrogations of missile-defense treaties and colored revolutions. Getting ahead of myself here, but the point stands that Russia gains absolutely nothing from hindering NATO from effectively fighting the Taliban; when the alternative is doing this themselves.

I found the following article to be particularly insightful, which I see fit to quote in full – The Manas Disillusionment. I have highlighted the more significant parts.

Kyrgyzstan threatens to evict the US from the Manas airbase as Moscow trumps Washington with attractive aid packages, while Bishkek grows increasingly disillusioned with what it views as US usury, John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.

By John C K Daly for ISN Security Watch

If those inside the Beltway are to learn anything from their Kyrgyz experience, it’s that Reaganesque “trickle down” economics in fighting a conflict halfway around the world is unlikely to buy local hearts and minds, much less allies.

Meeting with his Russian counterpart on 4 February in Moscow, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that he had decided to close the US airbase at Manas – a move that will complicate President Barack Obama’s stated intention to surge an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and logistics for Operation Enduring Freedom.

When the Kyrgyz parliament votes on the president’s proposal, perhaps later this month, the measure is likely to pass, as Bakiyev’s Ak Jol party controls 71 of the legislature’s 90 seats. Under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the US will then have 180 days to vacate the base, located some 27 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek.

Manas was established on 4 December 2001 under the joint Kyrgyz-US SOFA agreement, which granted the Pentagon the right to use the airbase for a bargain rent of US$2 million annually. The Defense Department selected Manas because its 14,000-foot runway, originally built for Soviet bombers, could service US C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and 747s in their flight to Afghanistan. Of Kyrgyzstan’s 52 airports, Manas was the only one with a lengthy runway capable of supporting international flights. An adjacent 32-acre field was initially utilized for a tent city for US personnel, which beginning in mid-2004 was replaced by more permanent structures at a cost of US$60 million.

Manas is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and serves as the premier air mobility hub for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and coalition military operations in Afghanistan. According to the US Defense Department, Manas handles about 15,000 passengers and 500 tonnes of cargo monthly. Last year, coalition KC-135s stationed there flew 3,294 missions disbursing 97,226 tonnes of aviation fuel to 11,419 coalition aircraft over Afghanistan and supported more than 170,000 coalition personnel transiting in and out of Afghanistan.

Pentagon blindsided

Judging by Washington’s reaction, Bakiyev’s decision blindsided the Pentagon – though in reality it is the culmination of years of American obtuseness, arrogance and penny-pinching, the warning signs of which have long been visible.

There is an atmosphere of faint hope in Washington that the announcement is in fact a negotiating attempt by Bishkek to up the rent for the base, but the State Department and Pentagon have been scrambling to find alternatives, holding discussions with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan while dispatching negotiators as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey in case Bakiyev follows through.

The Pentagon was so certain that it was secure in Manas that last October the Army Corps of Engineers issued a pre-solicitation notice for potential contractors for up to US$100 million in improvements to the base. There were rumors that the Pentagon was also seeking an additional 300 hectares for expanding the base.

Moscow trumps Washington

While both Bakiyev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev strenuously deny it, generous Russian loans totaling US$2 billion and a non-repayable US$150 million grant, announced the day before Bakiyev made his pronouncement, undoubtedly played no small part in the decision.

To put the proffered assistance in context, Moscow’s financial aid is worth double Kyrgyzstan’s current annual GDP, and the Russian assistance stands in stark contrast to Washington’s fiscal policy over the years towards Kyrgyzstan, which has never offered the country any loans.

But Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to haggling, and for now parliament has decided to delay the vote on closing Manas until it receives the first tranche of Russia’s promised US$450 million.

Besides the US$150 million outright grant, the Russian aid includes US$300 million in preferential credit for 40 years at a symbolic interest rate of 0.75 percent, with a grace period of seven years before the first payment is due.

An intergovernmental agreement signed during Bakiyev’s Moscow visit sets up a joint venture between Kyrgyzstan’s Elektricheskie Stantsii and Russia’s Inter RAO EES, and the bulk of the loan (up to US$1.7 billion) will go towards the construction of the 1,900-megawatt Kambar-Ata Hydroelectric Power Station-1 on the Naryn River.

Kambar-Ata epitomizes why Russia is currently in the ascendancy in Kyrgyzstan and the US is being shown the door. It is an indigenous energy project that has direct bearing on the quality of life for the average Kyrgyz. In contrast, the US for the last eight years has displayed indifference to Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector, as it is devoid of exportable hydrocarbons, viewing the country instead solely in military terms.

While much western commentary implies that the loans were ad hoc arrangements, in fact they represent part of US$2 billion in assistance to Kyrgyzstan first promised by then-president Vladimir Putin in August 2007, which in turn built upon a 15 December 2006 Russian-Kyrgyz agreement to spend US$1 billion to construct the Kambar-Ata-1 and Kambar-Ata-2 hydroelectric cascades. The project is a massive undertaking which on completion could not only supply electricity not only for domestic consumption but also for export to Afghanistan, China and Pakistan.

Against such largesse, Washington’s fiscal assistance to Kyrgyzstan looks miserly indeed. However, the Pentagon insists that the US has given Kyrgyzstan more than US$150 million annually in aid. Furthermore, it insists that it has been paying US$63 million in rent for Manas, but other sources, including the Kyrgyz government, say otherwise.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, funded by the US Congress, the US paid US$2 million a year to use Manas for the first five years of the base’s operation. In 2006, this was increased to US$17.5 million, while the US funded other in-country programs that totaled approximately US$100 million. On 6 February, Kyrgyz Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova corroborated the RFE/RL figures to parliament, according to Informatsionnoe agentsvo 24 press klub in a  6 February report.

“There is not in Kyrgyzstan a single bank representing the interests of the United States, the trade balance is small, there is no major investment project involving US firms. There is sufficient economic potential, but very little use is being made of it, unfortunately,” Informatsionnoe agentsvo Regnum quoted Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov as saying on 7 February.

And for the average Kyrgyz, there has been no “trickle down” of the loudly proclaimed American assistance.

Kyrgyz disillusionment

The potential utility of Manas for the Pentagon is not limited to operations in Afghanistan; the fact that it is only 320 kilometers from the border with China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang means that tankers based at Manas put US aircraft within range of China’s nuclear test site facilities at Lop Nor in Xinjiang. Manas is a sore point with both the Russians and Chinese as it affords the US military the ability to snoop on their military activities.

Unease over the Pentagon’s possible uses of the airbase is not limited to Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors. Kyrgyz lawmakers have grown increasingly apprehensive with what the Pentagon might do with its untrammeled access to Manas.

On 21 May 2007, lawmaker Almanbet Matubraimov quoted remarks by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that in case of a military offensive against Iran, the first air attack would be delivered from Manas, to which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised that Iran would immediately reply by targeting the site from where the attack was launched, Informatsionnoe agentsvo AKIpress reported.

Two years after Manas was established, Russia founded its own airbase at Kant, its first outside of Russian territory since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, under an agreement within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet regional security bloc that besides Russia includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Belarus. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world with both American and Russian bases on its territory.

At a popular level, Kyrgyz disillusionment over Manas developed gradually. When the base opened people hoped that there would be employment opportunities, but the only Kyrgyz hired to work were employed largely as janitors. According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, in 2005-2006, the salaries of these workers were not even paid. ISN Security Watch has not been able to independently confirm this report.

Shortly after Manas began operations, the Pentagon signed contracts with Manas International Services Ltd. and Aalam Services Ltd., the only two aviation fuel suppliers in Kyrgyzstan. Both companies were controlled by relatives of then-president Askar Akayev. In addition Aydar Akayev, the president’s son, was a part owner of Manas. The Pentagon also agreed to international civil aviation rates for the daily take-offs and landings of military aircraft at Manas to Akayev’s cronies as well.  None of these Manas-related revenues were reported in Kyrgyz government budgetary statistics.

Following the “Tulip Revolution” which deposed Akayev, the two entities came under the scrutiny of the Kyrgyz government and FBI, but the Pentagon stoutly maintained its innocence regarding the US$207 million it spent on inflated fuel contracts. The new president, Bakiyev, insisted that the US make US$80 million retroactive lease payments and assist in recovering the allegedly purloined contract money. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman responded that “any possible misappropriation of funds is an internal Kyrgyz matter.”

Other simmering complaints included a 26 September 2006 aircraft collision involving a KC-135 and the presidential Tu-154, for which the Americans declined to take responsibility, and the reportedly frequent dumping of tonnes of surplus fuel over Kyrgyz farms adjoining the base.

Things came to a head on 6 December 2006, when 20-year old US soldier Zachary Hatfield shot twice and killed 42-year-old Kyrgyz Aleksandr Ivanov, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz, at the airbase’s entry gate. Ivanov worked for Aerocraft Petrol Management, which provides fuel services for Kyrgyz and international civilian aircraft. Hatfield maintained that he fired in self defense after Ivanov approached him with a knife. Adding to local anger was the fact that at the time of the shooting Ivanov was about 5-6 meters away from Hatfield and Ivanov’s knife was found 20 meters away from the site of the incident, while rumors swirled that the guard was drunk at the time of the incident.

The Kyrgyz government insisted that Hatfield be handed over for trial, but the US military spirited Hatfield out of the country on 21 March 2007 even as talks about Hatfield’s legal status were ongoing. Adding insult to injury, the US government initially offered Ivanov’s widow US$2,000 in compensation, an amount that Galina Skripkina, a lawyer representing Ivanov’s widow, described as “humiliating,” according to a 12 March 2007 Associated Press report.

Despite the Kyrgyz disillusionment, there are experts who believe that Bishkek’s latest threat is ill-advised. Dr S Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, told ISN Security Watch that Kyrgyzstan’s move to close the Manas air base “is the wrong action done at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

“It will send the clear signal that Kyrgyzstan has abandoned a balanced foreign policy. But it is not too late for the Kyrgyz Republic and US to work together to correct it,” he said.

Blinded by the perfidious Russian bear

Given the obvious disenchantment with the deal, only the most blinkered of Washington bureaucrats can have been surprised by Bakiyev’s 4 February announcement.

While recidivist Washington cold warriors are quick to see the perfidious Russian bear behind their ouster, in fact the Kremlin has thrown Kyrgyzstan a desperately needed fiscal lifeline even while Russia (along with the former Soviet Central Asian republics) has a desire to see ISAF stabilization efforts succeed in Afghanistan.

Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, succinctly summed up Moscow’s current thinking when he said, “In the event of NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” the International Herald Tribune reported on 24 January.

If the Obama administration is serious about making Afghanistan the focal point of its anti-terrorist operations, it might be forced to reexamine its relationship with Kyrgyzstan. Russia, China and India all have an interest in seeing the pacification efforts in Afghanistan succeed, and Russia has offered to open a supply route for non-military supplies, along with several Central Asian nations.

Washington may yet have an opportunity to remain at Manas, as Melis Erjigitov of the parliament’s press service stated on 11 February the Manas base closure bill was not on parliament’s agenda for February. But this is not likely to happen if Washington refused to change its mindset and one-up Russia in terms of aid.

Is Washington prepared to let Manas go? That is unclear, but a 10 February statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicates that Washington may give up and look elsewhere. “Manas is important, but not irreplaceable,” Gates said in a quote carried by the Washington Post on 11 February.

Regulars here will know that I don’t see Chavez as the demonic dictator he is frequently portrayed as in the media. In particular they’ve been having a field recently when Venezuelans voted in favor of overturning term limits for certain classes of elected officials, including the Presidency (and thus joined the leagues of such totalitarian regimes like the UK or Australia). Venezuela’s Referendum: Media’s Double Standards has more…

With Sunday’s Venezuelan referendum on term limits, we can expect to hear a lot about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s “plan to become president for life” and its reflection on “Venezuela’s battered democracy”–as the New York Times editors put it ( around the time of Venezuela’s last (failed) term limits referendum.

But when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s efforts to change a constitutional prohibition barring a president from serving more than one term succeeded in 2005, the U.S. media took little notice, and Uribe’s reputation as the U.S.’s favorite ‘democrat’ in the region remained intact.

…It would seem the role of U.S. reporting and opinion on Venezuela (and Colombia) is less about informing the public about real threats to democracy and human rights in Latin America than it is about serving as a propaganda arm of U.S. foreign policy. One would be wise to remember this when reading about Venezuela’s referendum this weekend.

Finally, lots of stuff seems to be crashing into each other recently, from satellites to nuclear subs. Freaky. And not a bad metaphor for what is going on with the global economy. More on that this weekend, hopefully.