- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

KRAKOW, Poland

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday played down Kyrgyzstan’s moves to kick the United States off a strategic air base and said he was willing to negotiate higher rent to stay.

Speaking hours after Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted 78-1 to evict the U.S. military, Mr. Gates said the Central Asian base - which sends some 500 tons of supplies to the Afghanistan war each month - is important. But he said it’s not irreplaceable, and that the former Soviet republic won’t put the U.S. over a barrel.

“We are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is justification for a somewhat larger payment,” Mr. Gates said at a news conference. “But we’re not going to be ridiculous about it.”

Mr. Gates, in Europe for NATO talks, also said the new Obama administration needs more time to decide the fate of a proposed European missile defense shield that soured the previous Bush administration’s relations with Russia. Part of the system would be based in Poland, and the Polish defense chief pressed Mr. Gates for an answer amid speculation that President Obama could walk away from the deal.

“Between the economic crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration has not reviewed where it is on a whole range of issues,” Mr. Gates told reporters, adding that he asked the Poles for patience.

The lower-level defense ministers’ meeting Thursday was dominated by the worsening war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. request for more allied help. Mr. Obama approved 17,000 new U.S. forces for Afghanistan this week, and Mr. Gates was asking for emergency troops to help protect Afghan civilians from militant violence ahead of national elections this summer.

The loss of the Kyrgyz base would be a logistical setback to U.S. plans to expand military operations in Afghanistan this year, but Mr. Gates and others have said there are other options if the base is off limits.

Russia has denied pushing Kyrgyzstan to shut the base, but Mr. Gates was skeptical.

“I think that the Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas,” Mr. Gates said before arriving in Poland. “On one hand, you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan and on the other hand you’re working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us.”

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the planned eviction following Russia’s offer of $2.15 billion in aid and loans to the impoverished Central Asian country.

The United States pays $17.4 million a year for use of the transit hub, under terms of a 2006 lease. About 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo move through Manas monthly.

“I haven’t written this off yet,” Mr. Gates said Thursday. “My hope is we can walk this back with the Kyrgyz and continue the arrangement.”

The United States is trying to complete details of an alternative overland supply route to Afghanistan amid concerns over worsening security in Pakistan. Some 75 percent of U.S. supplies currently travel through Pakistan, where militants have stepped up attacks on truck convoys destined for U.S. bases.

Washington has already received permission from Russia and Kazakhstan to transport nonlethal supplies for Afghanistan by rail. It hopes to secure similar guarantees from Uzbekistan, which has a border and transportation links with Afghanistan.

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