The Manas Transit Center: End of an Era?

On March 14, 2012, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited the Manas Air Base Transit Center, Kyrgyzstan, greeting U.S. service members in transit into or out of Afghanistan. Image: U.S. Department of Defense.
Later this year, it is expected that the United States will hand the Manas Transit Center in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, back to the government of the host country. As simple as that, a fixture of the regional campaign in Afghanistan will become part of history. Procedurally, this decision follows a June 2013 vote of the Kyrgyz legislature, which went 91-5 in favor of the base’s closure. This is slated to occur in July 2014. Even if there is some adjustment for timing, so that the NATO-ISAF forces can manage their departure from Afghanistan in an orderly fashion, we are now in the final year of the facility’s existence. The closure itself, while newsworthy, is a regional manifestation of two broader and more significant trends that will have an impact on U.S. policy toward Central Asia: the end of the war in Afghanistan combined with U.S. government budget constraints.As with other basing situations in the region, the United States paid a fixed amount for the right to use the facility and additional fees for flights taking off and landing. On occasion, this relationship caused concerns, especially when it came to whom in the Kyrgyz government benefitted from the annual payments. Periodically, local and international media focused on stories of fuel contract deals and other intrigues, which were eventually the subject of a U.S. congressional investigation, interestingly entitled “Mystery at Manas.” The base was also portrayed as an object of contention in some regional “great game” played by the United States, Russia, China, and others. In short, drama trumped reality. The fact is that the Manas Transit Center was, and remains, a facility designed primarily to assist in the logistical support for the U.S. and ISAF coalition operations in Afghanistan. By all counts, it has performed this mission admirably. So with this in mind, what does the closure of the Manas Transit Center ultimately mean for U.S. security policy in Central Asia? In terms of bilateral U.S.-Kyrgyz relations, the base closure will have a direct impact on the surrounding area. Over 700 local jobs will be lost, and as these are paid well and on time, that makes a difference. Moreover, the regional economy will lose over $100 million a year in direct investment and payment. For some in the country, however, the base’s departure is being met with mixed feelings. Such uncertainty is reflected in the broader the U.S.-Kyrgyz relationship. The closure will almost certainly further ratchet down the securitized foreign policy the United States has conducted in the region, and with Kyrgyzstan in particular. Since 2001, relations with the five Central Asian states have been imbued with the need to support the efforts in Afghanistan. When that endeavor comes to an end, so does this instrumentalist approach to Central Asia. Foreign critics suggest that when Manas closes down, the United States will desperately seek an alternative base, or bases, in other Central Asian states. In present circumstances, this is highly unlikely. The United States must now re-engage with the five states of Central Asia on issues of mutual security interest with a much smaller physical presence. While that sounds like boilerplate rhetoric, to actually carry out such an approach requires the ability to think long-term, a luxury that has not been afforded to those implementing U.S. policy in the region. Immediate needs in Afghanistan have won out over long-term commitments in the region as a whole. Complicating matters is that such decisions must be made in times of austerity. All assistance to the region will decline in the coming years, security and non-security alike, as a result of the U.S. government’s budget reality. Twelve years and hundreds of billions of dollars invested in conflicts have left the national budget cupboard bare and an American citizenry much less willing to support more foreign adventures. For Central Asia, this means that engagement will increasingly become a series of “fundable projects” that can be carried out in time-frames of a year, at best, to fit concrete budget cycles. Indeed, under the dark cloud of further sequestration, and the desire to reduce the Defense Department budget, all forms of engagement with the Central Asian states are expected to be limited. As a result, if shortsighted approaches to security policy win out in Washington, one can expect to see a resource-driven security policy overall, which is potentially damaging for countries that are not seen as strategically significant. Without Manas, Kyrgyzstan runs the risk of being considered as such. One final concern specific to Kyrgyzstan looms. Simply put, with the legislature’s vote for closure, the U.S. government may seek to suspend programs or minimize relations to prove that “they [the Kyrgyz government] need us more than we need them.” While such petulance is understandable, ultimately it is not good policy. One hopes that logic prevails and policymakers who care about maintaining a continued presence in Central Asia, albeit limited, make the right choice. When it was set up shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom began, the transit center was designed to be a temporary facility in support of that very effort. Manas now closing its doors ought to be considered the end of this particular era, and nothing more.