BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The United States was on the verge of being kicked out of its only military outpost in Russia’s historic backyard after Kyrgyzstan Friday gave U.S. forces six months to vacate an air base that serves as a key supply hub for tro
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The United States was on the verge of being kicked out of its only military outpost in Russia’s historic backyard after Kyrgyzstan Friday gave U.S. forces six months to vacate an air base that serves as a key supply hub for troops in Afghanistan. The Manas base, created shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, at first served as a symbol of what seemed like a budding strategic partnership between the U.S. and Russia. But as relations between the two countries soured in recent years, the base came to represent the renewed competition between the two former Cold War rivals.
Maj. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the U.S. base, said he expected military officials to begin preparations for leaving. "If they tell us that our time is up, which they’ve done today, then we’ll start the necessary preparations to move operations," he added. "I don’t know if it will take the full six months," he said. Pakistani militants have stepped up attacks on convoys traveling the primary supply route to Afghanistan in recent months, pushing U.S. officials to secure alternative, northern routes through Central Asia. Manas was a vital link, serving as a transit point for 15,000 U.S. troops and 500 tons of cargo each month. Kyrgyzstan’s president announced the U.S. ouster from Manas shortly after Moscow promised $2.1 billion in loans and aid to the tiny, impoverished Central Asian country. Russia insists that it did not influence the decision. Although the U.S. insists that there is time to strike a deal to keep Manas open, Washington is trying to come up with replacement routes for men and material moving to and from the mountains of Afghanistan. "I continue to believe this is not a closed issue and that there remains the potential to reopen this issue," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday. "But we are developing alternative methods of getting resupply and people into Afghanistan." One obvious alternative could be Uzbekistan, where the U.S. had a military air base supporting the Afghan conflict in 2001-2005. The commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, traveled to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, earlier this week to meet with President Islam Karimov. No details of his visit were released. On Friday U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Harnitchek said that Uzbekistan had reached a deal for cargo to be shipped across its territory. "We have a tentative agreement with Uzbekistan on transit," he said during a visit to neighboring Tajikistan. His comments were shown on Tajik state television. Some of the goods will be transported from Uzbekistan onward through Tajikistan, which also shares a direct border with Afghanistan, Harnitchek said. The U.S. in August 2007 opened a $37 million bridge over the Pyandzh River, which forms most of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. "We plan to move between 50 and 200 containers to Afghanistan through Tajikistan every week," Harnitchek said. Washington has already reached similar agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan. But the tentative pact with Uzbekistan was particularly important. It represented a warming of relations between U.S. officials and Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president.
Karimov ordered a major U.S. air base in Uzbekistan closed in the wake of Washington’s criticism of his government’s deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005. Activists fear that, in exchange for basing rights, the Obama administration could tacitly agree not to press Karimov to halt rights abuses. Most of Karimov’s opponents have been sent to jail or into exile. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said that Uzbek prison authorities routinely abuse and torture prisoners. "We have observed that in Uzbekistan, due to political and economic considerations, pressure on Karimov’s government to uphold human rights has gradually decreased," said Igor Vorontsov, a Human Rights Watch researcher focusing on Uzbekistan. "We are monitoring the situation carefully and urging the United States to take a principled position on human rights in Uzbekistan, no matter what military or other cooperation may reach," he said. President Barack Obama announced earlier this week that he would send 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to augment the 33,000 already there. Douglas Birch reported from Moscow. Associated Press Writers Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Olga Tutubalina in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow also contributed to this report. ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.