Thursday, February 12, 2009

Time for Obama to step up

It is time for President Barack Obama to get serious about stepping up operations in Afghanistan, a key promise of his campaign platform.

U.S. and coalition forces fighting Afghanistan's resurgent Taliban are in danger of losing a critical support facility -- the Manas airbase in nearby Kyrgyzstan.

Recently, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said the base would be closed. The announcement came while he was in Moscow, which said it would be giving the impoverished Central Asian country $2 billion in a credit package, greatly trumping the nearly $170 million the U.S. sends to Kyrgyzstan every year ($20 million for the lease on Manas). It isn't difficult to see who was pulling the strings.

Now is not the time for the U.S. to simply hit the "reset" button on relations with Russia, as Vice President Joe Biden suggested at the Munich international security conference.

Losing Manas will hurt U.S. and coalition forces' ability to make good on Pres. Obama's promise to American voters and Afghanistan to subdue a reinvigorated Taliban.

The base near Bishkek is a transfer point for supplies and U.S. and European troops moving into Afghanistan. U.S. and French tankers fly refueling missions to aircraft fighting in Afghanistan. Spanish transport planes also use the facility. The U.S. had planned to expand the fbase when the announcement came.

In 2008, U.S. tankers flew nearly 3,300 refueling missions to over 11,400 aircraft above Afghanistan. More than 170,000 coalition personnel passed through Manas going to and coming from Afghanistan, along with 5,000 short tons of cargo, including uniforms and spare parts.

Now is not the time to let Russia buy off Kyrgyzstan.

The Pentagon has said it is negotiating with Bishkek, and a compromise is possible. Bakiyev made a pragmatic decision, and might reconsider it for more money. But the U.S. cannot think it can simply buy its way out of the problem, because it is about more than simply money.

Geography is a real factor in the matter. Find Kyrgyzstan on a globe. Russia is much closer to it than the U.S. What good can an ally half-way around the world do for a landlocked country in Russia's shadow? The U.S. showed its shortcomings this past summer when it was unable to help Georgia.

Overreach is partly to blame. As operations in Iraq are scaled back, the U.S. will recover some tactical flexibilty to respond to pressing issues. But a deeper issue is that the U.S. does not have a clear idea of its relationships with would-be allies in Russia's "Near Abroad."

Moscow knows exactly what are its expectations for its relations with those countries, and what it is prepared to do to preserve its influence in the "Near Abroad." Russia is the only country in the world that has such a clearly defined sphere of influence, which it wants the U.S. out of.

However, despite the many wrinkles in U.S.-Russian relations, the two could find common ground that would allow the U.S. to remain in Manas - counter-terrorism. It would mean the U.S. might have to condone or turn a blind eye to some of Russia's very questionable behavior classified as "counter-terrorism." And it is a longshot.

Regardless of what happens with Manas, the U.S. must a clear idea of what its goals are and what it is prepared to do to achieve those goals whenever it engages a country that Russia considers to be in its backyard.

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