On Not Overreacting to Atambayev’s Comments About Manas

by Joshua Foust on 11/1/2011 · 9 comments

The Associated Press dutifully repeats Kyrgyz President-elect Almazbek Atambayev’s worry that his country will face retaliatory strikes from an imaginary U.S. war with Iran.

The base is subject of frequently extravagant rumors among local residents and politicians, who maintain that fuel dumps by U.S. planes devastate crops and cause illnesses. U.S. military officials have always strenuously denied such claims and say they make every effort to minimize their impact on the area surrounding the base.

Atambayev and other Kyrgyz officials have made similar warnings in the past, saying that the U.S. base must close by 2014.

The presence of the U.S. base has vexed Moscow, which views Kyrgyzstan as part of its traditional sphere of influence.

These “frequently extravagant rumors” also extend to the amateur geopoliticians who like to comment about Central Asia without really understanding it or knowing its recent history. Kyrgyz politicians making noise about not liking the U.S. presence at Manas is a tradition that goes back to the establishment of the base—and sketchy Manas supplier corporation Mina Corp has been unhappy at Atambayev’s talking this way before.

Atambayev, however, is a friend of Russia. And Russia likes making noise about the U.S. presence at Manas. Russia, however, also likes keeping the U.S. nearby so it can absorb any negative spillover from the war in Afghanistan. A full American withdrawal worries Moscow as much as it worries Afghanistan.

In reality, whenever a Kyrgyz politician talks like this, the U.S. coughs up a bit more money and everything returns to normal. If Atambayev keeps on talking like this, through 2014, that’s most likely the only thing that will happen. So let’s all cool off a bit, yes?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Nathan November 1, 2011 at 11:35 am

Actually, I’d say this is an improvement. For a leader, a newly-minted one at that!, in Kyrgyzstan to say “we’ll honor our agreements as written” is a very positive step.

marc November 1, 2011 at 11:47 am

You are absolutely right except for one thing. President-elect Almazbek Atambayev put the U.S. on notice that it will be coughing up not a little bit more but a whole hell of a lot more money for that base. As relations with Pakistan head south the cost for Manas will head north, rapidly. There will be mountains of cash paid directly of course but DOD, like it does in the gulf states, will also set up influential host country elite as military suppliers then allow these influential Kyrgyz to grossly over-inflate the bills.

AJK November 1, 2011 at 2:10 pm
John Walker November 2, 2011 at 8:19 am

@AJK: Yeah, Micheal Schwirtz? Michael Dumbass, more like. Jeez, it’s like it’s like it’s amateur hour at the NYT these days. Read Registan? I’ll be surprised if he can even read at all!

Nathan November 2, 2011 at 8:22 am

Did you have to hone this schtick at open mics, or are you just a natural?

R.Duke November 2, 2011 at 9:36 am

The part that really sums this up : “The US will cough up a little more money and everything will go back to normal”

Richard Heider November 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

This is no news. Western press mistakes it for news due to obsolete cold war thinking. “Pro-Russian” does not mean “Anti-American” it means “Pro-Russian, don’t care about Americans”. The theoretical alternative were the nationalistic “don’t care about Russians AND Americans” candidates.

IMHO Kyrgyzstan does not really have strong feelings about the airbase, which in turn means money is the only reason to really look into that whole issue.

The other issue is that Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Russia and China are extremely relevant to Kyrgyzstan. This also is no news. It was pretty obvious at the last negotiation round (still under President Bakiev), that Russia had to give it’s thumbs up.

My expectation is, that the airbase may continue as long as the US are engaged in Afghanistan. After all, why should Russia stop the USA from
a) sinking endless amounts of money and “human resources” in Afghanistan.
b) give the USA the external reason to get out of Afghanistan when many years ago the USA would not do that favor to the (back then) Soviet Union.

But I guess it is also clear, that Russia and China will not want an US airbase near their borders after the Afghanistan mission. So since the current plan sees the end of the mission at 2014, emphasizing the end of the lease in the same year has about the same purpose as emphasizing that there is “only one China” – it maintains good relations with the most important trade partners.

Chris November 7, 2011 at 2:38 am

@Heider Yes – until the U.S can offer Kyrgyzstan concrete investment or a flow of goods that create jobs it will always be the third party in this triangle. In previous years, it was possible to buy the head of state or his son. Although Atambayev is as unlikely to be as clean as he says he is, a noisy parliament that wants to investigate every international financial transaction makes this sort of deal less likely, as does the necessity for stable relations with moscow necessitated by the Customs Union.

K1 November 2, 2011 at 11:07 am

Mina Corp, as of very soon, will not be the supplier to Manas any more. A Kyrgyz-Russian joint venture Gazprom-Aero Kyrgyzstan and World Fuel Services have won the next contract.
As for Michael Schwirtz, I sometimes wonder if people who read Registan are just jealous. Registan can be an awful bitchfest sometimes and it’s most unappealing.

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