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Oct 18, 2013 | 19:42 GMT

3 mins read

U.S. Looks to Romania for Afghan Transit

U.S. Looks to Romania for Afghan Transit
(DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The United States and Romania appear to be on the brink of securing a key transit agreement as the United States draws down military operations in Afghanistan. Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa is in Washington on Oct. 18 for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on using Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The deal offers the United States a practical logistical alternative to its soon-to-expire lease on a transit hub in Kyrgyzstan and would also expand Romanian security ties with the United States, which Bucharest has been seeking for some time.

The United States has been searching for logistical and transit options for its ongoing drawdown from Afghanistan since the Kyrgyz government decided to let the U.S. lease of the Manas Air Base expire in July 2014. Manas has been a key hub for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan since the initial invasion of the country in 2001. However, with the United States reducing its military involvement in the country and with pressure from Russia to limit the U.S. presence in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan became no longer available as a transit option for the U.S. withdrawal.

Romania

Romania locator map

In the U.S. search for an alternative logistical arrangement, Romania became an attractive option, and negotiations on it replacing Kyrgyzstan have been taking place for the past several months. The country already hosts a "lily-pad" base for the United States, and Kogalniceanu is part of the Northern Distribution Network. Since mid-2013, the air base has served as a key transit hub for U.S. cargo flown directly into Afghanistan. The base already hosts some U.S. military personnel, but their numbers would increase dramatically if Kogalniceanu replaces Manas as the main U.S. transit center. Currently, some 1,500 U.S. troops and contractors are stationed at the air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Romania also makes sense as a transit hub for the United States from a political standpoint. The country, wary of Russia's growing influence in the area, has joined other Central European countries in lobbying for an increased U.S. role in the region. Romania had already agreed to host U.S. anti-missile interceptors as part of NATO's ballistic missile defense system, with construction of the operations site expected to begin in October. If approved, Romania becoming a logistical base for the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan would provide the greater U.S. presence and security commitment that Bucharest has been seeking for years.

Other options considered were bases in Turkey and Gulf Cooperation Council countries in the Middle East, but the Gulf states are not as close to important logistical hubs in Western and Central Europe, and there has been concern over building up a U.S. footprint in Turkey due to Turkish domestic political issues and fears of spillover from the conflict in Syria.

Logistically, Romania may be a viable candidate for the transportation of cargo, but it is certainly not as ideally positioned as Manas for aerial refueling purposes (the Mazar-e-Sharif Airfield in northern Afghanistan has been considered as a replacement for the refueling role). Given that air operations over Afghanistan are expected to decline, however, this may not be as disadvantageous as would otherwise be the case.

While the deal serves both U.S. and Romanian interests, it will be of some concern to Russia if the temporary increase in U.S. presence becomes more permanent. Moscow was the driving force in getting the United States to leave Manas, and it has been wary of any increased U.S. security presence in Central Europe, particularly involving ballistic missile defense. While a logistical hub for the U.S. withdrawal would pose a far less significant security threat to Moscow — Russia and the United States even cooperate to a certain degree on logistical efforts in Afghanistan — Russia will still be watching any military related moves in Romania closely. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misidentified Romania's defense minister as Corneliu Dobritoiu.

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