The Complex

Cashing Out: U.S. Military Quits Critical Air Base After $100 Million in Payoffs

After years of tense negotiations and more than a hundreds million dollars in payoffs, the U.S. military is finally giving up on a massive air base that served as a critical logistical hub for the Afghanistan war.

The Pentagon announced late Friday that the U.S. would return the Manas Transit Center air base to Kyrgyzstan by next July, just as the U.S. attempts one of its most complex logistics challenges yet -- returning people and gear from Afghanistan as that war draws to a close at the end of next year.

The relationship between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan has been bumpy for years as Bishkek demanded more and more money from the U.S. for using a base they knew to be critical to the logistics operations surrounding the Afghanistan war. In the end, the U.S. may have been essentially outbid, as the base -- built with American "global war on terrorism dollars" as one officer put it -- became a gold mine to Kyrgyzstan and other countries, like Russia and China, became interested in its use.

But Friday's announcement appeared to reflect that the U.S. was fed up with the demands for more cash, and wouldn't pay any more for use of the base.

"It became too complicated," a senior defense official told FP. "The juice wasn't worth the squeeze."

The announcement caps years of controversy over the base, an enormous sprawl of low-slung buildings that was popular with troops entering and exiting the war zones because it served cold beer. 

In 2009, the Kyrgyz parliament voted 78 to 1 to close Manas and ordered the U.S. to cease operations and remove all of its personnel from the facility in six months.  The move infuriated American officials, who accused Russia of effectively buying the vote by promising the impoverished Kyrgyz government $2 billion in loans and financial assistance. At the time, roughly 15,000 troops and 500 tons of food, weaponry and other materiel were passing though Manas each month. 

"The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas," then-Defense Secretary Gates Robert Gates said at the time. "On one hand you're making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand you're working against us in terms of that airfield which is clearly important to us." 

Washington eventually bought its way out of the problem, more than tripling its annual rent from $17.4 million to $60 million, and giving Kyrgyzstan more than $100 million in aid. 

Troops and war supplies weren't the only things moving through Manas. The U.S. paid hundreds of millions of dollars to a pair of secretive contractors charged with supplying the air base with fuel, an arrangement that eventually attracted intense scrutiny in both Washington and the Kyrgyz capitol of Bishkek. 

In May 2010, the authoritarian government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled after a bloody revolt. The new regime accused the contractors, Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises, of giving the former leader's son, Maksim, a slice of their business to ensure they'd have no problems getting fuel to Manas. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill also criticized the arrangement with the two companies, which was eventually cancelled. 

The Defense Department instead will expand its use of an air base in eastern Romania called Forward Operating Site Mihail Kogalniceanu, or "MK," which now serves as a logistics hub for U.S. European Command. MIK is already used to house as many as 1,350 troops at any one time, typically for rotational use for troops deployed to Romania. Now that will be used for troops leaving Afghanistan.

It's an attractive site for the Pentagon because it has access to air, sea, and rail service. "Being able to use an air base that also has access to rail and sea is a real hat trick," a defense official said.

MK will not be a one-for-one swap with Manas, however. The current plan is for MK to replace most of the passenger operations for which Manas has been used thus far. Aerial refueling operations, also currently run out of Manas, will transfer to a base in southwest Asia, a defense official said. Drawing forces and materiel out of Afghanistan will be the most challenging of logistics feats the military has conducted in years.

When the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, it had next door a friendly country just across the border for moving troops and materiel: Kuwait. For Afghanistan, no such country exists. Pakistan presents enormous political and security challenges for the U.S. military as it attempts to draw down and everything else essentially must go by air.

"We do not have a catchers mitt," said one defense official, using an oft-used analogy referring to Kuwait at the end of the Iraq war.

But as those logistics challenges became clearer, military planners realized they didn't need Manas as much as they originally believed. There is less to carry out than first thought, a military official told FP. As NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, plans the retrograde, officials have decided that more equipment will either be sold or destroyed in place. That means there's less to bring home.

"We were planning for a larger amount of cargo to redeploy from [Afghanistan] than probably is going to come to pass," one officer said to FP.

And while closing Manas will make the job of leaving Afghanistan harder, the problems won't be insurmountable, the officer said. After years of threats and negotiations, the U.S. military had planned for the possibility that Manas wouldn't be available to it forever anyway.

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

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