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Page last updated at 18:39 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

US options after Kyrgyz base closure

By Vanessa Buschschluter
BBC News

US air base in Kyrgyzstan
Manas is the only US air base in Central Asia

US officials are looking for alternative ways of transporting soldiers and goods to Afghanistan after a vote in the Kyrgyz parliament to close the only US base in the country.

The Manas airbase near the capital, Bishkek, was set up by the United States in 2001 to support Operation Enduring Freedom - the US-led fight against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan was chosen because it offered coalition forces unrestricted overflight rights for aircraft flying combat, humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions.

After the US was ordered out of Uzbekistan in 2005, following a dispute with the Uzbek government over human rights, Manas has been the only American airbase in Central Asia.

Transport hub

An average of 15,000 US soldiers go through it every month on their way in and out of Afghanistan.

MANAS AIRBASE IN FIGURES
Two hours' flight time from Kabul
15,000 US soldiers pass through every month on their way in and out of Afghanistan
Houses 1,000 US soldiers alongside 100 Spanish and French troops
Home of large tanker aircraft used for in-air refuelling of fighter planes
3,294 refuelling missions flown in 2008 providing 11,419 aircraft with fuel over the skies of Afghanistan
Used to transport relief supplies to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake
Those on their way in arrive in huge transport planes and, after a day or two on the base, get ferried to their posts in smaller aircraft, which are less easy targets for militants.

The base is also home to large tanker aircraft used for in-air refuelling of fighter planes on combat missions over Afghanistan, and it acts as a funnel for anything the troops could need: from medical supplies, food and uniforms, to building materials.

Both the State Department and the Pentagon have acknowledged the importance of the Kyrgyz base.

The US has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama is expected to almost double that number as part of his plans to step up the war effort there.

But they are also at pains to stress US operations in Afghanistan will not be seriously disrupted.

"We never have a single point of failure," Major John Redfield, a spokesman for the US military, told the BBC.

"We are just going to find other means of supplying the folks in Afghanistan."

Alternative routes

So which route will the US choose?

At present, about 75% of US military supplies - everything from fuel to heavy equipment - passes through Pakistan.

However, the route, which winds hundreds of miles from the port city of Karachi through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan-Pakistani border, is slow and dangerous.

It has also become a target for militants seeking to disrupt the Nato and US supply chain.

Six people were wounded earlier this month when a suicide car bomber blew himself up at a Pakistani security post on the pass.

The attack came shortly after the main bridge linking Pakistan to Afghanistan had reopened, after repairs to bomb damage.

There are other options too.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan's location and infrastructure would make it the best solution to the US's logistical dilemma.

It boasts the Karshi-Khanabad airbase which until 2005 allowed US troops ready access to the Afghan border, and controls one of the few rail links into northern Afghanistan.

The commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, travelled to Uzbekistan this week to hold talks with President Islam Karimov and senior Uzbek officials.

The discussions are widely believed to have focused on finding alternative supply routes for US soldiers in Afghanistan - reopening the airbase at Karshi-Khanabad would be one way of doing this or giving US forces wider access to a German base at Termez.

At present US soldiers are only allowed to pass through Termez if they are attached to Nato forces.

But while the Uzbek route would be a good one from a purely logistical perspective, it would be politically difficult for Washington to restore military co-operation with one of the most authoritarian countries in the region, according to Cory Welt of the Eurasian Strategy Project at Georgetown University.

Kazakhstan and Tajikistan

The Kazakh government has a warmer relationship with the US, and has offered to allow the transit of non-military cargo on land.

US aircraft carrying out military operations in Afghanistan are also allowed to land at the military section of Almaty airport in emergencies, but not as a matter of routine.

However, unlike Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan does not share a border with Afghanistan, so any cargo transported by land would still have to go through Uzbekistan to reach US troops.

Tajikistan has offered the US a land corridor for commercial and humanitarian supplies.

But the Tajik president, Emomali Rakhmon, has stressed that goods transported through his country would have to benefit the Afghan population.

Robert Gates on 23 February 2001

The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas

Robert Gates, US Defence Secretary

"They should be destined not only for the military but it is also important they are used for the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

A delegation from the US Transportation command, the deployment and distribution arm of the US Department of Defense, is in Dushanbe this week to assess the country's transit routes.

As part of his five-day visit, Rear Admiral Mark Hanitchek is expected to inspect a new bridge over the Panj river. The bridge, part-funded by the Americans, could constitute a major new crossing point into Afghanistan.

But there is still the question of how to get supplies to Tajikistan in large volumes in the first place.

Northern route

One possible route about to be tested is the Northern Distribution Network. At the heart of the new network is the Baltic sea port of Riga in Latvia.

Latvia has been a staunch ally of the US, and the Latvian foreign minister, Maris Riekstins, reiterated his support for the US effort in Afghanistan after talks with his Estonian counterpart on Wednesday.

"I think this is a very important project, supplying American troops fulfilling their mission in Afghanistan," Mr Riekstins said.

A first shipment of 100 containers of commercial supplies has already arrived in Riga and will soon be loaded onto trains destined for Afghanistan. The US embassy in Riga would not confirm any dates but said the cargo would cross "several countries by rail".

According to the the US embassy's charge d'affaires, "if successful, the amount of goods shipped could increase to 20 to 30 trainloads per week".

The Estonian Foreign Minister, too, has said his country may allow the US to use its ports for trans-shipment.

"There are talks with our ports and railway... and I guess that also in the foreseeable future the first trains will go from some Estonian ports through Russia to help with supplies to Afghanistan," Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said.

Conflicting messages

The downsides of the Northern route are both its length and the fact that it has to cross through Russia.

While Moscow has given Washington permission to transport non-military supplies to Afghanistan by rail, the US government has been critical of Russia's stance on Manas.

The Kyrgyz government has denied any link between the closure of Manas and a generous aid package, which Moscow announced on the same day that Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev spoke of his plan to oust the US military from base.

But US defence secretary Robert Gates sees a connection between the two.

"I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas," he said on Thursday.

"On one hand you're making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan and on the other hand you're working against us in terms of that airfield which is clearly important to us."

Arab states

A spokesman for the US military, Major John Redfield, said another potential option would be an extension of the air supply routes from Kuwait and Qatar.

The Pentagon already has airbases in both countries, but Major Redfield told the BBC that flying supplies in from the Arab states would be three or four times more expensive than using trucks, trains or ships from countries neighbouring Afghanistan.

Before it can come into effect, the closure order for the Manas airbase has to be signed by the Kyrgyz president.

From the day of signing, which is only considered to be a formality, the US will have 180 days to leave the base.


EXISTING/POSSIBLE SUPPLY ROUTES TO TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN
map of Central Asia

1. Manas airbase: the only US base in Central Asia, a vital transit point for Nato and US operations. Kyrgyz government wants it closed

2. Karshi-Khanabad airbase: US forces were ordered out in 2005. Uzbekistan may agree to allow it to be used for non-military transports

3. Bridge over Panj river: part-funded by the US, it was completed in 2007. May serve as another supply route into Afghanistan
4. Khyber Pass: most supplies to US and Nato troops come through Pakistan. Increasing number of attacks in the area mean the US army is looking for back-up routes



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SEE ALSO
US faces fresh Afghan obstacles
19 Feb 09 |  Americas
Kyrgyz MPs vote to shut US base
19 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz closure of US base 'final'
06 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
New Afghan supply routes probed
31 Dec 08 |  South Asia
US 'not returning to Uzbek base'
10 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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