Sources: US considers Uzbekistan as backup base

By: By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writers
By: By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is considering resuming military cooperation with hardline Uzbekistan as a potential backup plan given the uncertain future of a nearby air base that is a main artery for troops and supplies for the widening Afghanistan war, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Defense officials say they are examining options for supply routes through a semicircle of nations from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf that could be used in place of a strategic air base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan is a surprise contender because diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan are rocky at best. The Uzbeks expelled the U.S. from a base on its soil in 2005, and the two nations have traded accusations ever since.

Defense officials said planning to substitute for the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan is a preliminary hedge in case the Bishkek government makes good on a threat to expel the United States from a base that serves about 15,000 U.S. personnel coming and going from Afghanistan each month, along with 500 tons of goods.

Defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are preliminary and the United States is still negotiating with Kyrgyzstan about continued use of the base. Several officials said that dispute is likely to come down to money: Either the United States agrees to a significant increase in rent of Kyrgyzstan will yield to Russian pressure to kick the U.S. out.

Another potential option, although one with significant logistical problems, would be a new air supply route from the United Arab Emirates, one official said.

"It's just at the point of looking at it. There aren't cost estimates yet," or other crucial data that the new Obama administration would need, one official said.

The United States has been seeking additional supply routes into Afghanistan for months, driven largely by worry about the safety of overland routes from Pakistan. Uzbekistan and a neighboring Central Asian state, Kazakhstan, have been part of that planning, one official said.

Military leaders have said in public that they were examining and testing new overland options, but details have been slim. The possibility of renewing ruptured ties with Uzbekistan predated the Manas problem but it gained ground as a result, officials said.

The U.S. has been testing, for some months, alternative Central Asian overland supply routes into Afghanistan and expect to fully implement by spring a deal with Uzbekistan in which U.S. non-lethal supplies would be moved into Afghanistan by commercial rail from Uzbekistan. The rail route has been tested a number of times, with U.S. financial compensation to the Uzbeks, to haul lumber, fuel, cement and other supplies into Afghanistan.

The United States set up Manas and a base in neighboring Uzbekistan after the September 2001 attacks to back operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan expelled U.S. troops from the base on its territory in 2005 in a dispute over human rights issues, leaving Manas as the only U.S. military facility in the immediate region.

In a visit to the base last month, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the U.S. pumps $150 million annually into Kyrgyzstan's economy, including $63 million in rent for Manas.

Kyrgyzstan has complained that the U.S. is stingy, and announced this week it was evicting the U.S. At the same time Kyrgyzstan collected billions in new Russian aid.

Kyrgyzstan's prime minister said Thursday the country is still in talks with the United States over the base.

Russia has long been irritated by the U.S. military presence in what is considers its natural areas of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin is widely believed to be behind the move against the U.S. by Kyrgyzstan's government, which submitted a draft bill to parliament Wednesday that would close Manas. Lawmakers have decided to delay a vote until next week.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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