The United States has turned its back on what could have been a thrilling episode in the Great Game in Central Asia. The Pentagon announced on Friday that the US is vacating Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan by July 2014, as demanded by Bishkek.
Instead, the US is setting up a logistics hub in Romania to back up troop rotation in Afghanistan. Curiously, Romania is also permitting the US to deploy its Aegis Ashore missile defence system at the American base at Deveselu.
If Kyrgyzstan hoped that the US would bargain, that is not to be. Bishkek is going to lose a lot of revenue. In 2012 the lease of Manas to the US brought in $142 million into the Kyrgyz economy, aside generating hundreds of jobs.
Someone will have to make up because Kyrgyzstan is a desperately poor country. The IMF expects that the “closure of the Manas Transit Centre is creating headwinds” for the Kyrgyz economy.
Obviously, the US military presence in Afghanistan is going to be on a much smaller level, which means logistic burdens will ease on the Pentagon, and it doesn’t really matter that Romania is 2300 miles from Kabul, whereas Manas is just 640 miles away.
The Kyrgyz government hopes to transform the former American base into a “civilian transit hub,” but that’s easier said than done. The region is crawling with “transit hubs” with almost every country offering one — Urumchi (China), Almaty and Astana (Kazakhstan), Navoi (Uzbekistan), Ulyanovsk (Russia), Baku (Azerbaijan). Manas’ prospects look bleak.
In geopolitical terms who stands to gain? Undoubtedly, Russia and China. Both wanted the American base to be shut down — Moscow even overtly so. This even figured as a collective SCO demand in 2005 following the upheaval (“Tulip Revolution”) in Kyrgyzstan, but Washington managed to negotiate a new lease at enhanced rent. That sense of urgency is no longer felt in Washington today, given the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
All the same, there is poignancy in the US decision insofar as a thrilling 12-year slice of Central Asian politics is drifting away. The US military bases in Central Asia came up in the wake of the American intervention in Afghanistan. The American presence created space for the Central Asian regimes to negotiate with Moscow and Beijing.
Indeed, there is an overall lowering of the US’ strategic profile in Central Asia lately. China has surged in the region and the interplay of Russian and Chinese interests is yet to begin. For the present, they are committed to “pragmatic cooperation.”
– October 21, 2013