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Kyrgyz Threat Sends U.S. Scrambling For Alternative Supply Routes

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said the decision to close the base is 'final.'
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said the decision to close the base is 'final.'
The United States is scrambling to find alternative supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan after Kyrgyzstan's government said that its decision to evict U.S. troops from Manas International Airport is final.

For the past seven years, Manas has served as a vital link in an air bridge for the logistical support of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But the strategic significance of Manas has been magnified in recent months by the intensification of militant attacks in Pakistan that have choked NATO's overland supply routes into Afghanistan.

Among the options reportedly being explored by Washington are possible routes through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia.

In Dushanbe, U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to discuss how Tajikistan might become part of a new supply corridor.

Following the meeting, Jacobsen said she and Rahmon "talked about Tajikistan's full readiness to support transit of commercial cargo to Afghanistan from the U.S." She said this was also discussed during the recent visit of the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, and discussions are continuing.

"Apart from that, I can tell you that we are expecting a new delegation from the U.S. to define questions regarding the transit of commercial cargo to Afghanistan," Jacobsen added.

Jacobson also suggested that Washington is exploring whether other former Soviet republics in Central Asia might become part of supply routes for U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

A base in Uzbekistan that the U.S. used until 2005 may also be an option.
"We want to use the Central Asian territory for transit of commercial cargo -- for instance construction supplies, food products, fuel, gasoline and so on," Jacobsen said. "Of course, we will continue our work with Pakistan too. But it is nice to have many options that we have now."

Reuters quoted U.S. diplomatic sources in Kazakhstan as saying that talks also are under way with officials in Uzbekistan about allowing U.S. forces to use Uzbek military facilities once again.

Air fields in Uzbekistan served as a hub for missions to Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in the summer of 2005 after Washington criticized a government crackdown on demonstrators in the Uzbek town of Andijon in May of that year.

Cooperation, For A Price

Russian and Western experts say Moscow is playing a double game on the issue. On one hand, the Kremlin appears to have encouraged Kyrgyzstan to close the Manas facility to U.S. forces -- offering Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev more than $2 billion in financial aid and loans before he announced his eviction decision. Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on February 6 to accept that financing from Russia.

On the other hand, Moscow says it is ready to allow the use of Russian territory as part of an overland supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on February 4 that Russia and its former Soviet allies want to cooperate with Washington to help stabilize Afghanistan. But he appeared to link any cooperation with changes in U.S. policy.

Specifically, Russia wants a halt to NATO expansion near its borders, and the cancellation of Washington's plans to base components of a U.S. missile-defense system in Central Europe.

Clinton described the Kyrgyz decision as "regrettable."
During the past week, Russian officials have issued new warnings against the plans to place a radar facility in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland. Some experts see that debate as a symptom of a deeper contest between Moscow and Washington for influence in Central and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia.

Admiral William Fallon, the former head of the U.S. military's Central Command, told AP he thinks Moscow's principal motivation for encouraging the closure of Manas is to reassert Russian influence in Central Asia and remove a visible U.S. presence from former Soviet republics.

Kyrgyz Decision 'Final'?

For his part, Kyrgyz President Bakiev told reporters in Moscow that there was no political motive behind his decision. He said the $63 million paid by the United States each year for use of the Manas facility is simply no longer enough.

Although the government in Bishkek says there are no discussions with U.S. officials that might reverse Bakiev's decision, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested in Washington on February 5 that negotiations are still under way with Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry.

"It is regrettable that this is under consideration by the government of Kyrgyzstan," Clinton said. "We hope to have further discussions with them, but we will proceed in a very effective manner no matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyzstan government's deliberations might be."

Draft legislation on the closure was submitted on February 4 to Kyrgyzstan's parliament. It must approve the bill before it takes effect. But lawmakers have delayed until next week a debate and vote on that bill.

Critics of Bakiev's government say the announcement that his decision is final -- before any vote by lawmakers -- shows that Kyrgyzstan's parliament serves more as a rubber stamp for Bakiev than an independent legislature.

RFE/RL's Tajik and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report

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