By Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers
MOSCOW — In a setback to the escalating U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan , the president of Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday that his government will shut down the American air base in his country.
U.S. officials say that the Manas Air Base is vital to plans to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan , a linchpin of President Barack Obama's efforts to pacify the country.
The announcement by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came in Moscow , not in his own capital, and 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. Although the Russian government didn't release a statement about the decision, the timing and place of the announcement indicated that the Kremlin had been involved.
The Russian government has been pushing to restore its clout in the former Soviet sphere of influence — despite deep economic problems at home — a trend that most analysts say will make Obama's dealings with Russia delicate at best.
"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.
Two weeks ago, Gen. David Petraeus , the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East and south Asia , said that 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 Manas installation is viewed as "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, according to a U.S. Air Force Web site.
Bakiyev explained in Moscow that the decision had been made because "we have repeatedly raised with the United States the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan , but we have not been understood," Russian news wires 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."
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.
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 United States 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.
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 .
My husband, konashark, was in Afghanistan last year, stationed at Kabul Airport for six months. He flew in and out by way of Manas. I wonder what time frame they expect for this closure. And someone else suggested that maybe the Russian government is poking Obama - is this a test?