Manas Hysteria

Why the United States can't keep buying off Kyrgyz leaders to keep its vital air base open.

As the dust settles in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan's erstwhile opposition begins to assemble a new regime to replace ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, U.S. policymakers and international pundits remain preoccupied with Manas air base. This facility, located near Bishkek, has been an important hub supporting the war effort in Afghanistan since the U.S. military opened it in December 2001.

Since then, Manas's operations have been threatened by political instability more than once. Russia, never pleased to have U.S. forces on former Soviet territory, regularly pressures Kyrgyzstan to terminate the base's lease. Certainly, the Kremlin had something to do with Bakiyev's February 2009 announcement, delivered in Moscow, that he would close Manas and accept more than $2 billion in emergency assistance and investments from Russia.

But this explanation neglects how Kyrgyz elites, relatively weak and impoverished, still retain considerable ability to manipulate both the United States and Russia for their own local political agendas and personal gain. After all, last year the Kyrgyz government ended up double-crossing Moscow by accepting an initial $300 million payment before it renegotiated a higher rent with the United States for the renamed "Manas Transit Center." As a result, relations between Moscow and Bishkek plummeted to an all-time low, while Bakiyev's government gleefully cashed in the new checks provided by both Moscow and Washington.

The root of these recurring basing headaches lies in the fact that the United States simply lacks the authority to establish a military presence in Central Asia. Unlike basing facilities in Japan, South Korea, and Germany, Manas didn't come to the United States in the aftermath of a wartime occupation or conflict. Nor do these bases serve the common defense or a security organization, like NATO bases in Italy and Turkey.

Rather, in Kyrgyzstan the United States has to rely on a quid pro quo, usually in the form of economic incentives, to secure the ongoing acquiescence of local governments. The United States perceives Manas as part of the Afghan theater of operations, and Kyrgyz officials typically cite this rationale for the base's existence as well. However, from the outset they have also viewed the U.S. military presence as instrumental in securing a significant foreign revenue stream.

When the base was first established, U.S. officials agreed to pay takeoff and landing fees based on international civil aviation standards to the Manas Airport Authority, an entity tied to former President Askar Akayev's regime. This unusual arrangement was designed to provide Akayev's government with economic incentives to support the coalition effort in Afghanistan. Of these local revenue streams, by far the most lucrative remain the contracts to supply jet fuel. Indeed, an FBI investigation following Akayev's ouster in March 2005 revealed that he and his family members had embezzled funds from these fuel contracts and transferred them into overseas bank accounts.

After Bakiyev assumed office in the wake of the "Tulip Revolution," he criticized these Akayev-era arrangements and claimed that future base-related revenues would be used for the good of the Kyrgyz nation, not personal profit. They were not -- but Bakiyev nonetheless demanded even more rent from Washington. In 2006, he secured a new agreement that increased annual rental payments from $2 million to $17 million, within a total $150 million annual package of U.S. payments and bilateral assistance. But even this did not satisfy the Kyrgyz president, who subsequently engineered the 2009 Russia-U.S. bidding war that resulted in the tripling of the annual rental payment to $60 million and an additional $117 million in aid.

For the Kyrgyz opposition, excluded from these base-related revenues, Manas became a daily reminder of the Bakiyev family's greed, corruption, and use of Kyrgyzstan's state assets for their private purposes. Following their rise to power, members of the interim government have already signaled their intention to re-evaluate the deals surrounding the base. Roza Otunbayeva, the new government's head, stated in a recent news conference her intention to investigate the structure of fuel contracts. At issue might be ties between the Bakiyev family and the Mina Corporation, which in July 2009 was awarded an annual fuel contract worth potentially more than $200 million.

The Kyrgyz political opposition has also grown to resent Washington's single-minded focus on Manas at the expense of human rights issues. The opposition was stunned when President Barack Obama personally courted Bakiyev last year in an effort to rescind the decision to close Manas; Obama was criticized for jettisoning his democratic values in order to curry favor with the repressive Kyrgyz regime.

The conspicuous U.S. refusal to condemn Bakiyev's July 2009 presidential re-election, an election harshly criticized by international observers, further alienated Bakiyev's critics. Ironically, Washington's silence can be contrasted with the Russian media's denunciations of Bakiyev's corruption and nepotism. Of course, Russia's accusations come out of rivalry rather than genuine concern for human rights, but the attacks have nevertheless played well among the Kyrgyz public.

For now, Otunbayeva has indicated that status quo operational arrangements will remain in effect for the duration of the basing contract. However, as the base's lease comes up for renegotiation this summer, it is now a certainty that Bishkek will demand to restructure the contracts and change the base's legal provisions, if only to demonstrate to a suspicious public that all is not "business as usual" at Manas.

In response, Washington might be tempted to throw even more money at Bishkek: After all, it worked in the past.

But paying off the Kyrgyz is a short-term solution that will backfire in the long term. Instead, to protect Manas further down the road, the United States must convince the Kyrgyz people that it is interested in more than a transactional relationship. For example, the United States can publicly encourage the Kyrgyz interim government to nationalize the distribution of fuel to the base, as it has announced it will do with Bakiyev's private banks, and to make more transparent base-related payments to the national budget, as opposed to paying out to opaque companies with offshore registrations. Of course, U.S. officials -- having just witnessed how chronic incompetence can generate the rapid collapse of a government -- would also do well to re-engage on issues of governance and democracy.

Simply put, putting an end to the cycle of confrontation over Manas will require that all interested parties approach the basing issue differently from before. At the Prague summit last week, U.S. and Russian officials declared their willingness to pursue some basic cooperation that might avert a new round of Manas-related bidding and competition. Such coordination should be encouraged.

But the United States must also act with greater sensitivity toward the complex role the base plays within Kyrgyzstan. For its part, the new Kyrgyz government would do well to not only clean up the corrupt flow of base-related funds, but, more importantly, work to hasten the day when a U.S. air base is no longer the focus of the country's foreign relations and domestic political maneuverings.



'Time Is of the Essence'

No terrorist has ever managed to detonate a nuclear device. Let's keep it that way.

It was a cold autumn in Russia in 1998. The country had recently defaulted on its debts and devalued the ruble, millions of bank depositors lost their savings, and the banks closed their doors. The economic crisis had also created a sense of uncertainty about nuclear security. Erik Engling, who had been working on the problem of loose fissile material for several years for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, was attempting to visit as many of the Russian institutes with uranium as he possibly could that fall.

One day in early November, he arrived at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, spread over 89 acres on a beautiful old estate in Moscow. The institute was one of the oldest in the Soviet Union's archipelago of nuclear research facilities. A large amount of weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent, was stored there inside in aluminum-clad canisters 6 inches long, which had been used for a heavy-water research reactor and physics experiments.

Earlier in the year, the United States had completed installation of new equipment at the institute to monitor and protect the uranium. The equipment was just one part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the U.S. government to secure the uranium and plutonium in Russia after the Soviet Union's collapse. On a day of bone-chilling cold, fighting exhaustion from weeks of work, Engling came face to face with a crisis the U.S. government had not expected: The guards had walked away from their posts. The new monitoring equipment was still there, but there was no one to operate it. "They're all gone; they've left; they've quit," Engling told me. "They haven't been paid, and they're not gonna get paid, and everyone knows they're not gonna get paid."


Looking around, Engling counted 32 people who were essential to keeping the facility operating and the uranium secure, including 12 guards.

He knew that it was foolish to put money in a bank account to pay them -- given the condition of the banks, it would disappear overnight. At midafternoon, he gathered several institute officials in the deputy director's office. "I was just desperate," he recalled.

Engling pulled $3,000 in cash out of his pocket, money he had been given for per-diem expenses on his trip. He asked the Russians: If he paid everyone $50 a month, would the guards remain on duty for three months until he could figure out something else? He gave the wad of cash to the deputy director, whom he trusted. Please, he implored all of them, remain on duty for three months. Can you promise me the guards will be back?

After the visit, Engling sent an urgent message to the Energy Department in Washington. Previously, the U.S. government had focused on protecting the uranium with monitoring equipment, but now, he warned, there was a whole new problem looming: a "human catastrophe." The guard forces at the institutes were paralyzed, with wages unpaid for two to four months, absenteeism, and lack of winter clothing, heat, and food.

"TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE," he wrote, all in capital letters to underscore the urgency.

In the years since then, much has been done to physically secure the loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. But there are still risks of the unforeseen and undetected hole in the fence. A group of peace activists breached the fences of a Belgian base holding U.S. nuclear weapons this year and walked around for an hour before they were stopped by a lone guard.

These stories go to the heart of the problem of nuclear security to be taken up this week at the summit of 47 countries in Washington. Uranium and plutonium that could be used for a bomb is spread all over the world -- global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium are estimated to be 1,700 tons, and separated plutonium 550 tons. That's enough for about 200,000 nuclear weapons. Even without the knowledge to create a weapon that causes a nuclear explosion, a terrorist could manage to mix radiological material with conventional explosives to cause mass panic and economic disruption. Thus, simply keeping the fissile material safe is the most important single challenge of nuclear security.

But the reality today is that the rules, facilities, and people involved in nuclear security are vastly different across the globe. Even when the best locks and video monitors are in place, there can be threats -- such as the "human catastrophe" Engling described. Many nuclear bombs from the Cold War have been given better security, but less obvious risks remain in nooks and crannies where the fissile material is vulnerable to theft or diversion.

U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to complete the lockup of all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years. But as Matthew Bunn, associate professor at Harvard University, noted at a recent news conference, "We are not yet today on a track" to meet the president's goal. Many countries neither see the problem as urgent nor have devoted the resources to dealing with it. Bunn is the author of the authoritative annual survey Securing the Bomb, the latest of which was released today.

It is not rocket science. The problems and methods are known. Here are the major areas of concern:


Since the Soviet Union's collapse, there has been a lot of work done in Russia and elsewhere to provide security upgrades to buildings that hold highly enriched uranium, plutonium, and nuclear weapons. Although about 200 buildings have undergone upgrades in physical security, a big problem in the former Soviet Union is that, so far, Moscow has not consolidated all nuclear material into a smaller number of facilities that would be easier and less expensive to protect. The uranium and plutonium is scattered across about 250 locations. (The United States did finance and build an impressive $309 million Fissile Material Storage Facility in Russia for the materials being extracted from dismantled weapons, however.)

Civilian HEU

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) continues to be used in research reactors and to produce medical isotopes around the world. By one estimate, nearly 800 kilograms are used annually. In many cases, the HEU could be replaced by low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon. The Energy Department's Global Threat Reduction Initiative was created to clean out this category of nuclear materials. The most recent operation, in February and March, extracted HEU from two reactors in Chile. But "political and economic obstacles continue to hamper efforts to achieve a global clean out of civilian HEU," according to the Fissile Materials Working Group. Some countries don't want to give up what they see as an asset for science or medicine.

Culture and Training

As the Engling story illustrates, the human factor is often critical. Threats exist from insiders who could leak or divert nuclear materials, as well as from outsiders. As Bunn wrote in the 2008 edition of Securing the Bomb: "If the upgraded security equipment the United States is helping countries put in place is all broken and unused in five years, U.S. security objectives will not be accomplished." It takes people to operate the equipment successfully, and over the long term the training and security culture has to be homegrown.

Security Standards

Although the United Nations has called on all countries to set "appropriate effective" standards for protecting nuclear materials, the reality is that no single gold standard exists for guarding nuclear materials. The standards have been left up to each national government to decide. Bunn suggests in his report that the United States attempt to build a common consensus about standards and then work to put them in place.

The Black Market

Aside from better locks on doors, much of the concern about nuclear security is how to catch the materials in transit -- being smuggled across borders or carried into a large city. Bunn points out that the amount of nuclear material needed for a bomb is small and difficult to detect. "Once such material has left the facility where it is supposed to be, it could be anywhere, and finding and recovering it poses an immense challenge." So the nuclear security problem must involve customs and security agencies to interdict the materials on the move.

Obama has declared that nuclear terrorism is the gravest threat facing the world. To date, there has never been a terrorist attack using a nuclear weapon or fissile material. This suggests that the window of opportunity to prevent such an attack is still open; there is time to lock up all the dangerous materials and ensure the number of nuclear terrorist incidents remains zero.