Analysis: Relieved US Keeps Base Key To Afghan War

Sometimes, paying three times the price for the same merchandise can be a good deal.

That's the American calculation behind quiet negotiations that will allow the United States to hang onto a Central Asian air base crucial to the expanding war in Afghanistan. The new deal with Kyrgyzstan would cost the U.S. $60 million in annual rent, more than triple the previous yearly cost of $17.4 million.

In return, the United States keeps its only air resupply hub for the war in Afghanistan just as it adds more than 20,000 forces there. And the deal neatly heads off an expected fight with Russia just two weeks before a closely watched summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Russia, widely considered the instigator of a move to evict the U.S. from the base, now supports the deal to let the American military stay.

Along with troops, weapons, ammunition and other military supplies, the Manas base is used to refuel tanker planes that provide in-flight refueling of allied jets circling Afghan skies — and is also a key medical evacuation point.

U.S. officials clearly were relieved that Manas was saved, and at far less cost than it would have taken to replace the base with complicated and less efficient land options.

"We think it's to our mutual benefit," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said this week as the deal was taking shape. "They obviously have a great stake in what's happening in that region, as do we. And we look forward to continue to work with them to supply our troops in Afghanistan so that we can help with the overall security situation in the region."

In the wake of a unanimous vote Thursday by Kyrgyzstan's parliament, the deal will mean only minor changes in the way U.S. forces operate. The changes are mostly cosmetic attempts to reduce the American footprint around the base, U.S. officials said, and won't affect the busy flight schedule that carries 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from the Afghan campaign.

In addition to the annual rent, the U.S. also will allocate $37 million to build new aircraft parking slots and storage areas, plus $30 million for new navigation systems. Washington has also committed to giving Kyrgyzstan $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.

"The main aim of the agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the U.S. is to fight terrorism and cooperate in providing assistance to Afghanistan's government in maintaining security," Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said. "We will take all necessary measures to enable the operation in Afghanistan."

Even as it cinched the Manas deal, the Pentagon is also developing several alternatives to Manas — overland supply routes by road or rail — to bring people and supplies into landlocked Afghanistan.

Those efforts will continue, military officials said, as will an existing ground supply route from Pakistan. But the pressure is off.

The United States has never stopped using Manas, even after the Kyrgyz president announced it would be closed. U.S. officials strongly suggested Russian influence was behind the decision. Russia denied it.

Announcement of the closure came shortly after Russia pledged to give Kyrgyzstan more than $2 billion in aid and loans. The Kyrgyz leader was seated beside Medvedev when he announced he was kicking the U.S. out.

Russia also has an air base in the former Soviet republic.

Moscow long has been suspicious of the American presence in what it views as its traditional sphere of influence. The future of the Manas base was among the irritants in eroding U.S.-Russian relations since Russia invaded its smaller neighbor Georgia last summer.

Russian backing for the new lease deal reflects a deliberate lowering of tensions on both sides ahead of the July summit in Moscow. In a sign of improved relations, Russia appears eager to cooperate with the U.S. on Afghanistan.

Medvedev praised the Kyrgyz parliament's decision, saying it will "help the joint effort of fighting terrorism."

U.S. forces have had access to Manas, outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, since 2001. Its importance to Afghan operations grew after neighboring Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from a base there in 2005.

"There is give and take in any negotiation, and I think we arrived at a place where we both felt comfortable," Morrell said.

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