Closure of Kyrgyz base a blow to US war in Afghanistan

The parliament in Kyrgyzstan has voted for the closure of the US air base at Manas.

The president is most likely to approve the bill thus depriving the US of the only reliable route to deliver cargo and troops to Afghanistan.

The presence of American soldiers in the country for the last eight years has been a source of tension for the local population – sometimes with deadly consequences.

Gulmira Bektenova's life has been scarred forever. She lives in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and on one evening seven years ago she along with her friend were run over by an SUV driven by an American officer serving at the Manas base.

Her injuries were so bad, Gulmira's spleen had to be removed, her liver was damaged and she suffered a major brain concussion.

“The road was clear. We started crossing and all of a sudden we saw bright lights, heard the sound of car breaks, then there was a hit and I don't remember anything after that,” she says.

The officer's name has never been made public and some sources suggest he was drunk during the incident. Other reports say he avoided the drug check due to diplomatic immunity enjoyed by all staff at the base. And it is known this man remains unpunished.

This wasn't the only incident involving American soldiers and locals. In 2006 a Kyrgyz citizen was shot dead by a US serviceman at the base. There have also been reports of fights between military staff and the local population.

That's why, for some, the news that the parliament is considering closing the base is more than welcome.

The effect the base has on the lives of local children is also causing concern. There have been reports of American planes dumping excess fuel mid-air which rains down on surrounding villages.

Around 15,000 personnel and 500 tonnes of cargo pass through Manas each month.

“This base is extremely important because the transit of cargo to Afghanistan from Pakistan is becoming increasingly difficult. Seventy per cent of supplies sent by the Americans do not reach their destinations,” said military analyst Viktor Litovkin, stressing the importance of the facility.

The president is yet to have the final word on Manas's closure. If passed, the US will have 180 days to get out. With around 30,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, the closure of Manas could be a major headache for the Obama administration. He's just announced he's sending 17,000 more troops in the near future.

Alternatives to Manas

The US has repeatedly said that while the Manas base is important for them, it is possible to find a substitute for it. The Pentagon is now considering the possibility of transferring the base to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

On Wednesday talks on the issue were held between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and US strategy chief Rear Admiral Mark Harnitchek.

Earlier, Tajikistan has expressed its readiness to co-operate more closely with Washington and NATO. During talks with NATO’s secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer last week Rahmon said, “NATO is essential for providing security in Afghanistan and it should first of all set up ties with its neighbours – Iran and especially Tajikistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan.”

On Tuesday the commander of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq General David Petraeus discussed the same question with Uzbek president Islam Karimov.

“Uzbekistan has some experience of military co-operation with the US. So if Tashkent gets a good offer, it is most likely to be accepted,” the Russian newspaper Nezamisimaya Gazeta quotes Kyrgyz political analyst Azamat Temirkulov as saying.

It should be noted, though, that diplomatic relations between the two countries have been tense since the end of 2005, when the US was forbidden to use the Khanabad air base.