Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close the American airbase that had served as a major supply line for operations in Afghanistan comes at a critical moment for U.S. and NATO operations in the region. Although the U.S. is currently examining alternative logistical routes, few other easy or obvious options exist.
Martha Brill Olcott explains that maintaining a U.S. air base in Central Asia is crucial. It would not only offer the practical benefits of large runways and good approaches through the mountainous region, but also provide an alternative to installations in Afghanistan if the war should deteriorate further.
Interview transcript as follows:
Kyrgyzstan's plan to close an important American air base could potentially have long-reaching consequences for the U.S. and NATO mission in neighboring Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they are looking at other options if Kyrgyzstan goes through with its decision. However, there are not a lot of obvious — or easy — alternatives.
The U.S. gained access to the air base in Kyrgyzstan and another in Uzbekistan in the opening days of the Afghan war. The two bases helped U.S. and NATO efforts to drive the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan, says Martha Brill Olcott, a Russia and Eurasia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, but especially the base in Uzbekistan, [were] really critical in the first year or year and a half of the war when NATO troops were not in firm control of northern Afghanistan — and when we didn't have an air base in Bagram in Afghanistan," Olcott says.
But seven years into the war, things have changed with the Central Asian bases. Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. from its air base in 2005. And Kyrgyzstan says it will do the same. Kyrgyzstan's decision comes at a time when the U.S. is planning to send up to 30,000 additional troops — and all the supplies that go with them — to Afghanistan. It will be a massive logistical operation.
Olcott says for that reason, it's important that the U.S. have an air base in Central Asia. Several of the former Soviet republic air bases have big runways and good approaches through the mountainous region. Olcott says it also would also be an insurance policy.
"If something went sour quickly in Afghanistan, you don't want to go running around like they did after 9/11 trying to secure permissions, and then make the modifications necessary to make these bases usable," she says.
Olcott admits U.S. dealings with the Central Asian nations are challenging. They're considered not wholly reliable — as seen by the closing of the air bases. And there's the tie to Russia: Kyrgyzstan announced its decision shortly after Russia gave it $2 billion in aid and loans.
This move was widely seen as Russia reasserting its influence in the region. It could happen again in any of the other transit points the U.S. uses through Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The U.S. could just try to strike a deal with Russia.
Charles Wise, a Russia analyst and director of Ohio State University's John Glenn School of Public Affairs, says striking an agreement with Russia would be easier in the short term. "But then what the United States has done is [that it has] then given Russia a monopoly on our access to Afghanistan."
Russia then could exercise power over the U.S. in the region at any time, Wise says. "What's to stop them next time we get to an impasse or a disagreement over something, for them to say, 'OK, you can no longer use those routes to get to Afghanistan'"?
The U.S. had begun looking at other resupply options for Afghanistan long before Kyrgyzstan's base closing announcement, largely because of concern about the increasing number of attacks on convoys shuttling through Pakistan.
The U.S. could increase cargo flights from Gulf State allies, but at a high cost. Senior NATO officials have said they would not oppose member nations approaching Iran about opening supply lines to Afghanistan.
Andrew Hoehn, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy from 1998 to 2004, says there's another alternative.
"I think we ought to be looking inside Afghanistan itself, northwest Afghanistan," says Hoehn, who now directs the Rand Corp.'s Project Air Force, which analyzes military strategy and resource management. He says the U.S. would still have to use airspace of a number of countries. "But in terms of moving things, if this is a long-haul commitment, then we ought to be looking to build infrastructure up near Mazar-e-Sharif."
Hoehn says flexibility is key. "Reliance on a single party or a very limited number of parties for access ... always runs a danger in terms of tensions growing in those relationships."
Hoehn says it's important to have alternatives, especially as the U.S. builds up its operations in Afghanistan.