Obama Loses a Key Base for Afghanistan

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David Furst / AFP / Getty

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Paktika province, Afghanistan

The U.S. Congress largely hailed President Barack Obama's decision Tuesday to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But another legislative body, this one 6,500 miles from Capitol Hill, dealt Obama a blow Thursday when it voted to shut down an airbase vital to supplying troops and materiel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The action by the Kyrgyzstan parliament is yet another bruising reminder for the fledgling Obama Administration — like economic indicators or nominees' unpaid taxes — that outside events can derail the most carefully developed White House initiatives. (See photos of soldiers in Afghanistan.)

The decision came on a 78-to-1 vote to oust the 1,000 mostly American Forces (French and Spanish NATO-allied troops make up the rest) stationed at the Manas airbase on the outskirts of the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek. The U.S. now has six months to exit the base following President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's signing the bill on Friday. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly said that the U.S. ouster isn't a "closed issue." He has suggested the U.S. might be willing to pay more than the current $17 million annual rent to use the base. Bakiyev telegraphed the move earlier this month during a trip to Moscow, complaining that the U.S. wasn't paying enough rent for the base; the surprising change just happened to come after the Russians, who hate the idea of a permanent U.S. military presence in their backyard, offered $2 billion in aid to their former fellow state in the Soviet Union.

Washington believes Moscow — despite its firm denials — is behind the order evicting the U.S. from its last airbase in Central Asia. "The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas," Gates said Thursday. "On one hand you're making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand you're working against us in terms of that airfield which is clearly important to us." About 15,000 U.S. personnel and 500 tons of cargo flow through Manas each month, primarily to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

The vote is the latest challenge to the U.S. military's ability to provide the 36,000 troops now in Afghanistan — with perhaps 30,000 more to come — with fuel, food and all the other supplies a war machine needs. While the flow of troops and materiel through the base isn't huge, it highlights the difficulty Washington is having getting other nations to help fight al Qaeda and Taliban forces that are expanding their reach inside Afghanistan.

While some 75% of U.S. supplies gets into Afghanistan through Pakistan, those overland supply routes are coming under increasing insurgent attacks. Washington has won approval from Russia and Kazakhstan to ship non-lethal supplies (such as food and fuel) into Afghanistan by rail. Army General David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, was in Uzbekistan seeking similar rights this week, and the U.S. military is also studying routes through Tajikistan.

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