Welcome to Freedom’s Frontier, reads a wooden sign at the pine-clad headquarters of America’s Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. With its picnic tables,mountain views and community-outreach programmes,this site provides a tranquil vantage-point for the war in Afghanistan,just 90 minutes’ flight away. But Kyrgyzstan said in February that it was closing Manas,which the American-led coalition uses to ferry thousands of troops into Afghanistan each year and as a base for refuelling planes for combat aircraft.
Behind the decision was Russia. It has long bristled at America’s military presence in Central Asia and has just offered the Kyrgyzstani government $2.3 billion in aid. That dwarfs the $150m America says it pays Kyrgyzstan annually in rent,fees and assistance. It is just possible that America may yet salvage an agreement. Since Kyrgyzstan faces energy shortages and a mass return of migrant labourers from Russia,it may be susceptible to persuasion. Kurmanbek Bakiyev,the president,has given America six months to leave.
Even so,the row points to looming trouble. America is scrambling to find not just an alternative military base,but supply routes into Afghanistan,as convoys from Pakistan come under more frequent attack. It is stitching together a northern distribution network to bring non-lethal supplies such as water and fuel into Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. This week it claimed progress. A train of supplies from Latvia snaked through Russia to reach Kazakhstan. Russia has granted access to the rail network; but it dates from tsarist times,and is showing its age.
Moreover,sceptics say Russia’s help for America is likely to prove highly conditional. Pavel Felgenhauer,an independent analyst in Moscow,says Russia wants concessions on issues such as missile defence and NATO enlargement. Since its war in Georgia last year,Russia has had an extra choke-point on routes into Central Asia,thanks to tanks and artillery stationed near Georgia’s main road-and-rail artery.
Russia itself is only part of the problem. Paul Quinn-Judge,a Bishkek-based analyst for the International Crisis Group,a think-tank,says America is “getting out of one logistical nightmare in Pakistan,but may be moving into another”. General David Petraeus,the American commander in the region,paid a visit last month to Uzbekistan. Its president,Islam Karimov,agreed to the use of his country as a transit route for non-lethal supplies,and might offer America other facilities if Manas does indeed close. But that might force America into an awkward choice. Mr Karimov’s Soviet-vintage regime jails and tortures its opponents. When America complained in 2005 about the regime’s bloody suppression of protests in the town of Andijan,Mr Karimov shut America’s base at Khanabad.
He kept a German one at Termiz and is making new overtures to the West. The few human-rights activists in the region hope that renewed American engagement could help their cause. One,Surat Ikramov,says Uzbek jails now hold 300 political and 7,000-8,000 religious prisoners,and that the country is getting more and more closed. It looks as if America may be heading for an awkward decision about what it cares about more: the logistics of its Afghan war or the state of human rights in other parts of Central Asia.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009