The coup that swept the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in early April caught almost everyone by surprise. The ouster of the country's strongman president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, after two days of rioting by opposition forces, likely at Russia's instigation, has fundamentally altered politics in the impoverished but strategically vital Central Asian state. In the process, it has called into question the stability of America's presence in the "post-Soviet space."
At the heart of the issue is Manas, the air base situated outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, which plays a key role in Washington's approach to securing Afghanistan. Established in the days after 9/11, Manas plays host to about 1,200 service members, and roughly 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo transit through it every month en route to the war on terrorism's first front.
For the moment, at least, America's presence at Manas seems more or less secure. The new caretaker government in Bishkek, eager for international recognition, looks likely to settle on terms favorable to Washington once the U.S. lease expires this summer. But Moscow, which has long sought to oust the United States from the "post-Soviet space," is likely to use its new leverage over Bishkek to press for an American exit from Kyrgyzstan. Lingering instability in the county, meanwhile, suggests that Kyrgyzstan's new government might not be completely in control. Either scenario could prove extremely costly for coalition operations.
The root of the problem is logistics. In the 8½ years since Sept. 11, 2001, troops and supplies have reached Afghanistan primarily through two transit points: Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Most U.S. troops arrive in Afghanistan by plane via Manas. Gear and supplies, meanwhile, transit by sea to Pakistan's port city of Karachi, and then over land via the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
The arrangement is costly; in all, the supply of troops and gear to Afghanistan now costs the military roughly $4 billion annually. It is also volatile and subject to interruption. From January 2008 to January 2009, the Khyber Pass was closed as many as six times - at least once by Islamabad, but more often as a result of militant activity.
Manas, meanwhile, has also been put at risk, most recently in February 2009 when, following a $2 billion pledge of aid from Moscow, the Bakiyev government flirted with the idea of evicting the United States - a threat that was rescinded when the United States agreed to triple annual rent payments and relabel Manas a "transit center."
Surge Adds Pressure to Base
The Obama administration's Afghan strategy has put even more strain on these arrangements, with the number of troops surging by 21,000 last year and 30,000 more slated for deployment this year.
This is why Washington has been busy building a supplemental distribution network through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. As early as 2008, the United States had already begun lobbying the other "Stans" for new transit and overflight permissions, with resounding success.
Over the span of 13 months, Uzbekistan granted NATO access to its railway system, Kazakhstan's parliament ratified a long-dormant agreement to ease overflight restrictions, Uzbek and Turkmen leaders agreed to the transit of nonmilitary coalition cargo through their airspace, and Tajikistan came to terms with Washington on the transfer of nonmilitary supplies by road and rail.
These agreements, and others, paved the way for a three-pronged Northern Distribution Network (NDN) originating at ports on the Baltic and Black seas. "NDN North," the main line, today takes supplies from the seaport at Riga, Latvia, through any number of Russian rail lines to Kazakhstan and on to the Afghan border.
With "NDN South," goods are moved from the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea, through Azerbaijan, where they are loaded on a ferry across the Caspian on to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, via the NDN route.
Finally, there is a third way through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, though the latter's dilapidated roads make this route the least desirable. Three hundred containers now transit the NDN per week - just over half of the network's maximum weekly capacity of 500. All told, the NDN accounts for roughly 15 percent of containers entering Afghanistan, albeit at a cost 2½ times greater than that of shipping straight through Pakistan.
But contrary to popular belief, the NDN does not insulate against a closure of Manas. As currently utilized, Manas serves essentially as a supplement to the already overworked Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Further afield there are alternatives, including the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, Ramstein in Germany and several facilities in the Arabian Gulf, but their distance from the theater of operations greatly diminishes their utility.
Without the redundancy afforded by Manas, Bagram would become the major hub for troops traveling in and out of Afghanistan and the principal aerial refueling hub for the entire war effort (a role currently filled by the Kyrgyz base). And that could tax Bagram to the breaking point, or beyond it.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why policymakers in Washington are now scrambling to ensure that Manas remains open for business, and why Kyrgyzstan's coup, though barely noticed in Washington, may end up becoming a game-changer for the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy.