The Pentagon quietly announced last month that the U.S. military is leaving the air base it has operated in Kyrgyzstan as a staging area for American troops and matériel since 2001. While the move will complicate American efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan, the decision has much broader ramifications: It marks the end of a brief experiment to extend American power and influence into the distant strategic arena of Central Asia.
The base, formally known as the Transit Center at Manas, is a key installation for the U.S. military, with about 1,500 American airmen processing all the troops going in and out of the Afghanistan theater and operating refueling aircraft. More than that, it is the largest manifestation of American power in Central Asia, the remote region that not long ago held an almost mystical attraction for policy makers.
In the 1990s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zbigniew Brzezinski described Central Asia as “the grand chessboard” on which the United States had to play if it were to maintain global supremacy. Henry Kissinger called for the creation of a pro-Western “buffer zone” in the region separating Russia and China.
The farthest Washington advanced on this chessboard was when, in the late 1990s, it pushed for the construction of pipelines leading from the Caspian Sea through Georgia and Turkey, for the first time breaking Russia’s monopoly on the region’s rich oil and natural gas reserves. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, long-term strategic goals for Central Asia were abandoned in favor of short-term military expediency. The United States set up air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and ground logistics routes through the entire region.
Although this worked out as well as it could have for the effort in Afghanistan, it meant that nearly all the diplomatic energy Washington put into the region went toward ensuring military access. This priority meant that Central Asian leaders always had the upper hand in negotiations about anything else Washington might want to do there. Central Asian autocrats could end American military access on a whim — which Uzbekistan did in 2005 when it ordered the Americans to leave the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in retaliation after Washington called for an investigation of human rights violations.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, Russia and China became much more active in Central Asia. The Kremlin is strenuously opposed to the American military’s presence in what it sees as its sphere of influence and has signed long-term agreements to maintain military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
While none of the Central Asian countries want to be dominated by Russia, none believe that the United States can be a true counterweight to Kremlin pressure. Instead, China appears to be taking that role, dramatically increasing its economic activity across the region over the past few years, arranging several massive oil and gas deals.
The most common reaction in Washington to the loss of Manas will be to blame Moscow for bullying Kyrgyz leaders. And, indeed, Russia had long pressured Kyrgyzstan to kick the Americans out. After Russia promised more than $1 billion in military aid, along with financing for much-needed hydropower plants and debt relief, President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan moved to end America’s use of the base when the current lease expires in July 2014. The United States made some behind-the-scenes efforts to stay at Manas, but soon admitted defeat.
Placing the blame on Russia isn’t wholly accurate, however. Russia has tried to force the United States out of Manas before, most notably in 2009, when a similar scenario unfolded: Russia offered a large aid package, and Kyrgyzstan’s then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that the Americans would have to leave. But that time, Washington negotiated a new deal and Mr. Bakiyev reversed his decision.
What changed? Ironically, it’s that the country has become more democratic. Under Mr. Bakiyev and his predecessor, Askar Akayev, Washington gave huge contracts to supply Manas with fuel that often wound up in the hands of shadowy companies with ties to presidential family members. Roza Otunbayeva, who led an interim government after Bakiyev was forced out and served as president until December 2011, undertook an anti-corruption campaign that increased transparency in business dealing related to the Manas base, making it more difficult for shady contracts to be signed — and indirectly reducing the incentive of future leaders to keep the base.
President Atambayev ran for office in 2011 promising to evict the Americans. While that wasn’t the top issue for most voters, campaigning against the United States is smart politics. According to a poll by the International Republican Institute, shortly after Mr. Atambayev was elected, when people in Kyrgyzstan were asked which countries they saw as partners and which as threats, 96 percent identified Russia as a partner and fewer than 1 percent as a threat. The United States, meanwhile, was seen as a partner by only 8 percent of respondents, and as a threat by 42 percent.
Kyrgyzstan, alone in the region, has a Parliament that is not a rubber stamp. When the proposal to evict the Americans came up for a vote, it appeared that there may have been enough votes to stop Atambayev’s plan. But then a court in New York dropped an extradition case against Maxim Bakiyev, the son of former President Bakiyev. That outraged many Kyrgyz, who believe that the Bakiyev family stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the country. The ruling appeared to turn members of Parliament against keeping the base, and the law to oust the Americans passed 91-5 in June. Washington delayed formally announcing its departure, apparently until it found another facility, which officials say will be in Romania.
The move to Romania is suggestive, too, of a strategic retreat Westward. The edge of the Black Sea is the farthest east that NATO has been able to advance. Romania and Bulgaria are both members of the European Union and the Atlantic alliance. The future of the countries farther east on the Black Sea, notably Ukraine and Georgia, may still be up for grabs. But Central Asia now appears to have been a bridge too far.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.