A crew chief guides a KC-135 Stratotanker Feb. 24, at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, after the base's last combat-refueling mission over Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Travis Edwards/Air Force)
The U.S. military has ended its air refueling mission in Kyrgyzstan, the latest sign that time is growing short for the Transit Center at Manas, which has been a major hub for U.S. troops heading to and returning from Afghanistan.
The air refueling mission ended on Monday when the last Air Force KC-135 tanker landed back at Manas after refueling A-10 and F-16 warplanes over Afghanistan. All U.S. aircraft and personnel are expected to leave Kyrgyzstan by July 11, when the U.S. government’s lease expires, officials said.
For the time being, U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan continue to pass through Manas, said Lt. Col. Max Despain, a spokeswoman for the transit center.
“Two of our four mission pillars ended earlier this week: air refueling and humanitarian assistance,” Despain said Wednesday in an email to Military Times. “By the same ‘operational planning’ standard, I cannot tell you when our other two mission pillars (airlift and onward movement) will end, although I would like to recommend you ‘stay tuned.’ For the moment, our airlift and onward movement continue.”
With the transit center’s days numbered, the Air Force has opened a new transit hub at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in eastern Romania. The first mission from that base to Afghanistan flew on Feb. 3, when a C-17 delivered 300 soldiers to the war zone.
The Kyrgyz parliament voted last year to end the U.S. lease on Manas. When the Kyrgyz government tried to evict the U.S. military from Manas in 2009, the U.S. government agreed to increase its annual rent from $17.4 million to $60 million. But as the Afghanistan war winds down, the transit center’s importance as waned.
It is unclear whether any U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan after December. Because Afghan President Hamid Kazrai has not signed a security agreement that would provide legal protection to U.S. troops after this year, President Obama has directed the Defense Department to plan for withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of this year.
“As the United States military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and NATO,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement on Tuesday. “During this time DoD will still continue planning for U.S. participation in a NATO-led mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces, as well as a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission.”