With the United States and its allies preparing for the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, a top British defense official who recently visited the region believes that British forces are close to securing overland transit routes via Central Asian states to extract military equipment.
A central element of the British military plan is to gain access to the US-developed Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which now operates as a route for non-lethal goods entering and leaving Afghanistan. Although no formal agreements were signed when the British delegation was in the region, UK Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey told EurasiaNet.org that he is confident that Britain can acquire “broadly equivalent facilities to those which the Americans already have.” Harvey led the British team on visits to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond handled talks in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In return for access to transit routes, London is prepared to offer both equipment and assistance to the Central Asian states it partners with, Harvey said. Speaking after his meetings with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs in Bishkek on March 1, Harvey said agreement on land transit would help “cement” relationships.
“It’s an interesting time to be in Kyrgyzstan with a new government that has taken power peacefully after a democratic election and they obliviously have a lot challenges on their agenda. I think that we would hope to have a long-term constructive relationship and dialogue,” he said. “We’ll take this a step at a time. … We had a very warm welcome and constructive discussion. I think you will see more British ministers here in the future.”
Potential British use of an American-led air base, the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek, was also discussed. But Harvey said it is not central to UK logistics. “It is always nice to have options but we haven’t really got particular plans for it,” he said.
Britain’s top priority is creating a diverse transit network, in particular land routes for bringing military equipment back home through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, he continued. Talks are already underway with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Officials in Tashkent and Astana respectively are “sympathetically” viewing Britain’s plans. “We’re trying to line up as many alternatives as we reasonably can by way of routes out simply because we are aware that with the whole of ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] packing up [and] moving on much the same timescale, there could be quite serious capacity issues and it makes sense to have alternatives,” he said.
Harvey described Russia as cooperative and praised Moscow’s willingness to be flexible on transit issues. The UK will not need to negotiate a transit agreement with Russia because both London and Moscow are able to conduct business in a “contractual, transactional” way, he said. Bilateral relations have been rancorous in recent years -- since the suspicious death of former Russian spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 from radiation poisoning.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Moscow is aware that instability there poses a grave threat to Central Asia and Russian security. Thus, the Kremlin has a major incentive to assist the US and ISAF in ensuring a smooth withdrawal and transition, Harvey said.
“I can understand their [Russian] concerns if Afghanistan was to return to being ungoverned space. It would be a security threat to all the Central Asian republics, and that’s why all of them have a vested interest in seeing the process of transition succeeding,” Harvey said. “The narcotics issue and terrorism issues are serious ones, and it is in everybody’s interests to work together to secure the most stable long term picture as we can.”
Surplus military items to be left behind in Afghanistan will be “coordinated internationally,” Harvey said. Central Asian states’ militaries also stand to be bolstered by equipment no longer needed in Afghanistan. “Doubtless some stuff will be left [in Afghanistan], but it will be carefully chosen and internationally coordinated. So far as the possibility of gifting materiel to some of the neighboring countries here, we have a very open mind to that, there is potential for discussing this sort of thing,” Harvey said.
Harvey hinted that equipment given to Central Asian states would have specific capabilities, namely helping to secure borders. “The flow narcotics and terrorism is something we all need to work together to frustrate,” he said.
While aware of the criticism leveled at the United States for its renewed relationship with Uzbekistan despite Tashkent’s minimal progress on human rights, Harvey said his priority is the opening of a British land network out of Afghanistan. “We hope very much that as a consequence of more international engagement it will be possible to encourage Uzbekistan to improve its human rights, but this is essentially a transactional process and we hope that some good will come from it,” he said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.