BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 13, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today on his first official visit to Kyrgyzstan, which is home to a transit center for all U.S. troops entering or leaving Afghanistan.
The Transit Center at Manas, near Kyrgyzstan’s capital of Bishkek, is critical to the northern distribution network that funnels U.S. forces and equipment into Afghanistan, Panetta said.
That network has been „extremely important in recent months, since our [ground transit routes] have closed in Pakistan,“ the secretary added.
During his visit, Panetta is scheduled to meet with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambyev and Defense Minister Taalaybeck Omuraliev. The secretary also will visit U.S. troops at the transit center.
Panetta said he will thank the Kyrgyz leaders for their cooperation in allowing the United States to use the transit center and to ensure the relationship can continue into the future.
Officials traveling with Panetta said the Manas center has been the only air facility north of Afghanistan available to U.S. forces since 2001. A previous Kyrgyz administration threatened to oust the Americans in 2009, which led to some „pretty arduous negotiations“ and a sharp increase in the amount the U.S. government pays for use of the facility, an official said. Before 2009, the payment was $17.4 million per year; it is now $60 million annually.
A senior defense official said that arrangement is in place through July 2014, and that the secretary will not negotiate any additional use of the facility on this trip. Rather, the official added, the visit is intended to underscore to the Kyrgyz government and to Atambyev, who was inaugurated in December, that the United States government views its relationship with Kyrgyzstan as central to Central Asian regional security.
In 2011, defense officials said, operations at the Transit Center at Manas included 4,800 air refueling sorties transferring 300 million pounds of fuel. The center also supported 3,500 aeromedical evacuations and managed a total flow of 580,000 air passengers traveling into or out of Afghanistan.
Deploying troops fly into Manas on commercial aircraft, then transfer to U.S. military „gray tail“ planes for the final leg of their trip to Afghanistan, officials said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)