5 February 2009

U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan suffer two huge blows

Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: February 03, 2009 07:59:35 PM

MOSCOW — The U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban suffered two logistical blows Tuesday as the president of Kyrgyzstan announced that he'd shut a U.S. airbase in his country and insurgents in Pakistan blew up a bridge, disrupting the main U.S. supply route into Afghanistan.

The developments were the latest reminders of the vulnerability of the long and complex transportation system on which the 60,000 U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan depend for fuel, ammunition, construction materials and a great deal more.

The announcement by Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that he will close the Manas Air Base also gave President Barack Obama a first taste of the challenge he faces from Russia, which is trying to restore its clout in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

Bakiyev made his announcement in Moscow, not in his own capital, shortly after the Russian government reportedly agreed to lend Kyrgyzstan $2 billion, write off $180 million in debt and add another $150 million in aid. The timing and place of the announcement indicated the Kremlin's involvement.

"It's a direct challenge to the new American administration. Russia is going out of its way to close an American base," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst.

Manas is the main transit point through which U.S. troops fly into and out of Afghanistan. As such, it is vital to plans to send 30,000 more American troops to stabilize Afghanistan. A U.S. Air Force Web site calls it "the premier air-mobility hub" for U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan, with about 1,000 military personnel from America, Spain and France stationed there.

A senior U.S. military official said the U.S. military hopes Bakiyev's decision is not final but is the latest gambit in what has been a lengthy effort to squeeze more money out of Washington.

"There is a long list of things that he wants, some of which we can't do, like debt relief, relieving the debt he owes other governments," said the U.S. military official. "The bottom line, we hope, is that this is simply a card being played as part of the negotiating process. Obviously, we don't want to lose Manas."

Another U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bakiyev had been trying to play the U.S. off against Russia for months in order to secure more funds. The official could not be identified by name because he was unauthorized to speak to reporters.

The U.S. has been paying Kyrgyzstan about $63 million a year to use Manas. The money is part of some $150 million in annual direct and indirect U.S. aid.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, said senior Kyrgyz officials had assured him that there were no discussions between the country and Russia about closing the base in exchange for aid.

The senior U.S. military official said the base is also used to "bed down" U.S. tanker aircraft used for mid-aid refueling operations over Afghanistan.

Bakiyev explained in Moscow that the decision had been made because "we have repeatedly raised with the U.S. the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood," Russian media reported.

Bakiyev said that after the base opened in 2001 the understanding was that "it was one or two years that were being talked about. Eight years have passed."

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 touched off 30 years of war, and Moscow is again turning into a player in Afghan politics. Two days before Obama's inauguration, the Afghan government said that Russia had accepted a request from President Hamid Karzai for military aid.

And last month, the Kremlin said it would open transportation lines through Russia to Afghanistan to help U.S. forces circumvent the violence-plagued route across the Pakistani border.

Although he didn't cite the base closing, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a point of saying in Moscow that Kyrgyzstan and Russia "are open to coordinated action" with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Analyst Felgenhauer said the message from the two actions was clear: The Kremlin is willing to help the American military in Afghanistan, but only on the condition that the U.S. recognizes its authority in central Asia.

Or, more simply put, "we will not allow their bases in our sphere of influence," said Felgenhauer, a critic of Kremlin policy.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, Islamic insurgents allied with the Taliban blew up a bridge in the Khyber Pass, disrupting one of two truck routes from the port of Karachi by which U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan receive about 80 percent of their supplies.

(Landay reported from Washington.)

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