Reports: U.S. Has Agreed To Leave Kyrgyzstan Air Base
Kyrgyzstan news media have reported that the U.S. has agreed to close the Manas air base it operates there, and U.S. officials have declined to deny the reports, making it seem more likely than ever that this is in fact the end of the line for the beleaguered base.
Last week, a U.S. State Department team headed by Ambassador Eric John, Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, visited Bishkek. The U.S. embassy statement about his visit only mentioned Manas in passing: "Kyrgyzstan’s support of international efforts in Afghanistan through its hosting of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport is one facet of this overall cooperation."
Today, news agency KyrTag reported that the Kyrgyzstan side informed the U.S. that their last day would be 11 July, 2014:
"We discussed this in the recent meeting with the working group from the U.S. The discussion was conducted in the framework of the well known position of Kyrgyzstan on this question," said [Erines Otorbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs].
Otorbayev added that the American side must start removing military objects and personal equipment by 11 July, because after that day there should not be any U.S. military presence at the Manas airport."
(Yes, that second sentence is a bit confusing.)
Novaya Gazeta also reported that the two sides agreed last week that the deadline would be July 11, 2014 (though, they then followed up that statement by "reporting" a lot of unfounded speculation about the recent visit to Bishkek of Donald Rumsfeld.) And the Times of Central Asia reported that " Last week a U.S. Government team led by Ambassador Eric John visited Bishkek to discuss the closure of the Transit Center at Manas with the Presidential Administration of Kyrgyzstan. The sides agreed that the TCM will close on July 11, 2014."
The Times of Central Asia is not known for breaking big stories, but I asked spokespeople for the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and they would not confirm or deny that statement. And an embassy official told The Bug Pit only:
The U.S.-Kyrgyzstan Transit Center agreement expires in July 2014. President Atambayev has stated repeatedly that he will honor the terms of the current agreement. The negotiations last week focused on the full range of our bilateral security cooperation issues, including the Transit Center in the context of the expiration of the agreement.
The Kyrgyzstan government has been speaking consistently and categorically that they want the U.S. out of Manas by July 14. But the U.S. statements have required a bit of reading between the lines. When the government of Kyrgyzstan announced the law annulling the current base lease in May, the State Department's response suggested that they were not taking it as the final answer. These new statements suggest a lot more resignation. That's far from proof of anything, but the circumstantial evidence is starting to pile up. Is the U.S. really going to leave Manas in a year?
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.