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U.S. Moves Suggest Afghan NATO Supply-Route Talks With Kyrgyzstan

A U.S. cargo plane on the runway at the Manas air base. Kyrgyzstan is expected to issue an order evicting the U.S. forces soon.
(RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's eviction of U.S. forces from an air base in the country was already seen as a setback for NATO's efforts to expand its presence in Afghanistan.

That's because the air base at Manas, whose lease to the U.S. forces came closer to ending with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev signing off on a parliamentary bill calling for their eviction, has long served as a key staging post for the alliance's military operations in Afghanistan.

Bakiev's signature is the final step before Kyrgyz authorities issue a notice that will give the United States 180 days to vacate the facility, used as a transit point for 15,000 troops and some 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

Now, defense ministers from NATO countries meeting for a second day in Krakow, Poland, will have to address another setback: The government in Pakistan's Punjab Province has cancelled a private deal on a new supply terminal for overland NATO deliveries into Afghanistan from the port city of Karachi. They say the deal was cancelled because of security concerns.

The main land route into landlocked Afghanistan passes through Pakistan's lawless Khyber tribal region and another land crossing through the southwest province of Baluchistan. Regional insurgency is rife in those areas and pro-Taliban militants have been focusing attacks on bridges, terminals, and even convoys of NATO supply trucks.

Alternative Routes

With the pressure growing on NATO's logistical support, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed at the NATO gathering in Krakow that Washington is now in talks with several other countries about alternative supply routes that would replace Manas.

Still, Gates suggested that talks on the future of the base are still open and that there could be negotiations with Bishkek about the amount of money paid for maintaining a U.S. presence at Manas.

He told reporters in Krakow on February 19 that the Pentagon is looking to see if there is justification for Bishkek to receive a larger payment. But he said Washington was "not going to be ridiculous about it."

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are possible alternatives. U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Harnitchek has been in Dushanbe for talks with Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi on the issue.

Harnitchek said in Dushanbe on February 19 that Tajikistan has agreed in principle to the use of its railways and roads for the transit of "nonlethal" military supplies into Afghanistan:

"Clearly any nation that shares a border with Afghanistan is important, and because the distance to our bases in Afghanistan is likely the shortest from Tajikistan, so by extension, Tajikistan is very important," Harnitchek said.

Harnitchek also said Uzbekistan has agreed to the transit of cargo and that the Pentagon plans to send 50 to 200 cargo containers each week from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and then by land into Afghanistan.

But U.S. officials are emphasizing that no formal agreement has been signed yet.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on whether it had approved the transit of NATO supplies across its territory. General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, visited Uzbekistan on February 17 in what appears to have been an attempt to seek the use of the country as a transit route for supplies in Afghanistan.

Moscow Give And Take

Kyrgyz President Bakiev announced the pending closure of Manas earlier this month, complaining the United States was not paying enough rent for the base. His announcement came shortly after he secured $2.15 billion in aid and loans from Russia during a visit to Moscow.

That has led some observers to conclude that the Kremlin has had a hand in instigating the closure of Manas. But Russia also has offered the use of its railroad network for the overland transport of nonlethal military supplies into Afghanistan.

Patrick Moon, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said in Helsinki this week that the route would carry cargo from Latvia through Russia and Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan -- and eventually on to Afghanistan. He said the first trains could carry that cargo before the end of February.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of NATO defense ministers' meeting in Krakow, Gates warned that Moscow is trying to "have it both ways" by offering help in Afghanistan and undermining U.S. efforts there at the same time.

Gates also has sought to downplay the significance of Manas, saying that it is import but not irreplaceable.

Analysts see those remarks, and moves by the Pentagon to seek alternative supply routes, as a sign that price negotiations are still under way between Washington and Bishkek on the use of Manas.