BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan's parliament unanimously approved a deal Thursday allowing the U.S. to continue using an air base crucial to military operations in Afghanistan, sharply shifting course months after ordering American forces out by August.
Lawmakers voted 75-0 to ratify the agreement, providing a much-needed boost to the U.S.-led coalition as it ramps up military operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants and struggles to maintain other supply routes into Afghanistan. Five deputies abstained.
Approval was expected after Kyrgyz authorities announced a deal Tuesday to let the U.S. use the Manas air base as a transit center at more than triple the previous rent. Despite changes to the wording, the deal apparently will continue to allow the U.S. to transport weaponry, ammunition and troops as well as non-lethal military supplies.
"The main aim of the agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the U.S. is to fight terrorism and cooperate in providing assistance to Afghanistan's government in maintaining security," Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said. "We will take all necessary measures to enable the operation in Afghanistan."
The decision effectively reverses an eviction order under which U.S. forces were to leave by Aug. 18. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stunned Washington in February by announcing the base would be closed, citing what he called insufficient compensation and other concerns.
U.S. officials have said Russia was behind that decision. Bakiyev was sitting next to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when he made the announcement, hours after Moscow pledged more than $2 billion in aid, loans and investment for the struggling ex-Soviet republic.
Russia has long warily eyed the U.S. military base deep in its traditional sphere of influence. But Moscow, hoping for better ties with Washington under President Obama, now appears eager to cooperate with the U.S. on Afghanistan.
Medvedev, speaking on a trip to Namibia Thursday, hailed the Kyrgyz parliament's decision, saying it will "help the joint effort of fighting terrorism," Russian news agencies reported.
U.S. forces have had access to Manas, outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, since 2001. Its importance to Afghan operations grew after neighboring Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from a base there in 2005.
Under the new deal, the U.S. will pay Kyrgyzstan $60 million in annual rent for the facility, up from $17.4 million. The U.S. will also allocate $37 million to build new aircraft parking slots and storage areas, plus $30 million for new navigation systems.
Washington has also committed to giving Kyrgyzstan $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and promote economic development.
While the base is designated as a transit center, the Kyrgyz foreign minister said U.S. supplies shipped through the base will not be subject to inspection by Kyrgyzstan, and he could not guarantee that weapons or ammunitions will not be transported. "The agreement does not spell out these points," Sarbayev said.
Communist Party lawmakers, who wanted the U.S. out of Kyrgyzstan, said the transit center designation was a fig leaf to avoid embarrassment for an about-face on the issue.
"It's clear they wont be transporting peaches," Communist faction leader Iskakh Musaliyev said, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
Mars Sariyev, an independent Kyrgyz political analyst, suggested the details were left vague to allow Kyrgyzstan, in agreement with Russia, to impose restrictions on U.S. use if the Kremlin is unhappy with the outcome of the Obama-Medvedev summit next month.
Speaking in parliament before the vote, the Kyrgyz foreign minister told lawmakers they should consider the deteriorating security situation in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he said could destabilize Central Asia. In February, Kyrgyz officials cited security improvements in Afghanistan as a reason for closing Manas.
"When I spoke recently about the cancellation of the lease agreement for Manas, who among us could have imagined what has started to take place in Pakistan — the hostilities and the other events that we are witnessing?" Sarbayev said.
The U.S. is having problems getting supplies to Afghanistan overland from Pakistan.
Obama recently sent Bakiyev thanks for Kyrgyzstan's support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Embassy officials in Bishkek. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also has appealed to Bakiyev to leave the base open.
Besides troops and armor transit, Manas is used to refuel tanker planes that in turn refuel allied jets circling Afghan skies, and is also a key medical evacuation point.