Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Saturday, 21 February 2009

Kyrgyzstan leaves US out in the cold

As the Kyrgyz parliament decides to close the only US military base in the country, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes considers the strategic and political impact of the announcement.

Kyrgyz herdsmen looking after sheep (Photo: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Kyrgyzstan covers an area of 199,900 sq km (77,182 sq miles)
"Kurdistan?" One of my friends asked, "why are you going to Kurdistan?"

"Not Kurdistan," I said "Kyrgyzstan."

He should perhaps be forgiven for confusing it with Central Asia.

Mongolia may have Gengis Khan to put it on the map. Uzbekistan has the great Silk Road cities of Bokhara and Samarkand. Kyrgyzstan has Manas.

Who? No, I had never heard of him either.

Manas, it turns out, is the hero of the greatest epic poem of Kyrgyz history. He is a sort of King Arthur of the central Asian steppe, and a national hero in Kyrgyzstan.

Manas is also the name of an obscure American air force base. Obscure, that is, until two weeks ago, when the president of Kyrgyzstan suddenly announced that he was kicking the Americans out.

Warm welcome

Hence the reason for my arrival there, resentful, grumpy and exhausted at five o'clock one recent morning.

US military aircraftat the Manas US military base in Bishkek airport, Kyrgyzstan
Manas is the only American airbase in Central Asia
For some reason travel around former Soviet states always entails arriving at a grotty airport in the middle of the night.

As dawn broke, however, things started to look up.

To the south, the morning sun was now shining on the glorious snow covered peaks of the Heavenly Mountains.

At the high steel gates to the US airbase I was met by an extremely perky major who welcomed me with the promise of hot coffee.

Manas airbase is one of those peculiarly American creations. Outside the fence it is Central Asia, inside it is the mid-west of the United States.

A land of large white pick-up trucks, stars and stripes and huge, very polite people who insist on calling you "Sir".

Inside a high-tech briefing room the equally perky base commander, Colonel Bence, shook my hand enthusiastically.

"Welcome to Manas," he beamed, "it's really good to have you visit with us."


In the next few minutes I learned all about "outreach programmes" building schools, helping Kyrgyz war veterans and about the hundreds of Kyrgyz who work on the base.

KC-135 aircraft refuelling other fighter jets
KC-135 aircraft have been used by the US Air Force for more than 50 years
Colonel Bence kept talking about "partnering with the local community". It was all relentlessly positive.

But the truth, I knew, is that the Americans are here for one reason only, and it was sitting outside in the shape of 12 large aircraft.

There is nothing very sexy about a KC-135. It is a big drab grey airliner converted to be a flying petrol station.

But KC-135s are hugely important to American and British squaddies on the front line in Afghanistan.

Every time they get into a tight spot with the Taleban, they call in an air strike by fighter jets waiting in the sky above.

Those fighter jets can only remain airborne because of the KC-135s flying out of Manas. There is one circling high over Afghanistan 24 hours a day.

'Sold to Russia'

So now the Americans have a big problem.

Colonel Bence did not want to talk about it. So instead I went to talk to Bakyt Beshimov.

There is little to show for the eight years America has spent here
Mr Beshimov is a small dapper man, with Mongolian features, a trim moustache and an eloquent command of the English language. He is also the leader of the Kyrgyz opposition.

"Our president has sold our country to Russia for $2bn (1.4bn)," he says.

The decision to kick the Americans out of Manas came hours after Moscow gave Kyrgyzstan a $2bn loan. In Mr Beshimov's opinion it was no coincidence.

"This is another step in Vladimir Putin's plan to re-establish Russian control over our country and the whole of central Asia," he said.

"It is completely against our national interest to eject America from here."

Long-term influence

Mr Beshimov is one of the new breed of politicians in ex-Soviet states so beloved by Western politicians and Western reporters.

A fruit stall in Bishkek (Photos: MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Kyrgyzstan has a population of 5.4 million
It is easy to make the mistake of believing that Mr Beshimov, who speaks English and is fluent in the language of liberal democracy, is the future.

But drive through the pot-holed streets of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and it feels very different, very Russian.

The architecture is late Soviet brutalist. The street signs are all Cyrillic. In the markets and cafes the conversations are all in Russian.

In contrast, there is little to show for the eight years America has spent here.

Inside the Manas airbase the buildings all look distinctly temporary.

For all their talk of "partnering", the Americans have not even fixed the broken concrete runway.

They pay a paltry $60m a year in rent. And one day, when their war in Afghanistan is done, they will go home. Unlike the Russians, who have already been here for well over 100 years.

Map showing existing/possible supply routes
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.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 February, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Kyrgyzstan to vote on key US base
19 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Inside US air base in Manas
06 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyzstan defends US base move
05 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Kyrgyzstan
04 Feb 09 |  Country profiles


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