MANAS TRANSIT CENTER, Kyrgyzstan: The United States yesterday handed back its only Central Asian airbase to the government of Russia’s close ally Kyrgyzstan, as President Barack Obama winds down US involvement in Afghanistan and Moscow makes a comeback in its old imperial backyard.
In a move aimed at pleasing its former overlord Russia, parliament in Kyrgyzstan voted a year ago to give Washington until July 11 to vacate the Manas Transit Center, which has served US operations in Afghanistan since 2001.
The base, at the main civilian airport in the former Soviet republic, moved more than 5.3 million servicemen in and out of Afghanistan and handled tens of thousands of cargo shipments and refuelling missions.
“We were known as the gateway to Afghanistan on freedom’s frontier,” Colonel John Millard, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and Manas base head, told a group of visiting media on Monday.
“We offloaded more than 1 billion litres of fuel to 136,000 coalition aircraft ... We like to say we fuelled the fight.”
Yesterday, Millard handed over a symbolic golden key to the base to Colonel Mirbek Imayev, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s elite National Guard.
With Obama now planning to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and to pull out the rest by the end of 2016, the importance of Manas to Washington would have been greatly diminished.
But the base closure still has symbolic importance in a week when Obama and Putin, both attending World War Two commemorations in France, will encounter each other for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.
Obama is beset by foreign policy difficulties, from Ukraine to Syria, while Putin is riding high with the Russian public after annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in a move that the West condemned but was powerless to prevent.
Russia gave its consent to Washington and its NATO allies to use Central Asia as a staging post for the Afghan war after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Moscow later became increasingly wary of foreign military presence in the region it considers its sphere of influence.
After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev promptly assured Russia the Manas base would be shut.