Friday, July 18, 2014

Kyrgyzstan, we hardly knew ye

And now with our marriage to Afghanistan on the rocks, our affair with lovely Kyrgyzstan has come to an end.
A mountainous, landlocked country in central Asia, Kyrgyzstan largely lacks industry, natural resources, and energy reserves. But for years, the country has boasted one foreign credential that all other nations lacked, hosting both a Russian and US military base.

Now, that's changed. On July 11, the US officially vacated its lease at the Manas Transit Centre - formerly the Manas Air Base - and rerouted personnel and materiel to a base in Romania. Nearly 13 years after the US first began using Manas for fuelling and transit missions through Afghanistan, management of the facilities was officially handed over to Kyrgyz authorities on June 3, with some $30m worth of equipment and facilities remaining.

While Washington continues to seek potential new bases in the region, the US is, in effect, vacating Central Asia.

But the US decision did not come of its own volition. Rather, the eviction stems from a fraught history and external pressures, which in 2013 convinced the Kyrgyz parliament to demand US withdrawal.

Manas has been one of the more troubled American bases of the post-9/11 world. The US opened the base in late 2001, seeking a toehold to shuttle troops and run refuelling missions for the war in Afghanistan. By some metrics, the base proved successful. Some 98 percent of service personnel involved in Afghanistan passed through Manas, and more than one billion litres of fuel were offloaded to coalition aircraft. The base grew in significance following the expulsion of the US from Uzbekistan in 2005, caused in part by Washington's criticism of a massacre of hundreds of civilians carried out by the Uzbek government.

But as the US presence in Kyrgyzstan dragged on, relations grew worse. In 2006, a US serviceman shot and killed a local petrol driver, claiming self-defence. While the details of the killing remain murky, the US government's initial offer of a mere $2,000 in restitution to the victim's wife smacked of tone-deaf condescension.

Meanwhile, the largely peaceful 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the final in a series of pro-democracy "Colour Revolutions" in post-Soviet states, replaced a corrupt coterie with the new network of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The US managed to maintain its presence at Manas, but the revolutionary euphoria in Kyrgyzstan soon gave way to the realisation that Bakiyev's regime in many ways represented a continuation of the previous regime. Political murders, kidnapped journalists, media clampdowns - all expanded under Bakiyev's regime. Robert Gates, the former US secretary of defence, termed Bakiyev as someone willing to use "extortion", adding that he "was, without question, the most unpleasant foreign leader I had to deal with in my years as secretary".
Kyrgyzstan put the tin in tin pot dictator and with the need going away so shall we, even if he is our kind if tyrant.


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