Tashkent demands place in the sun

The story is simple – and fairly straightforward. Great Britain has approximately 11000 containers of equipment and 3000 armored carriers to take out of Afghanistan after eleven years of war. The equipment includes armoured patrol vehicles, tankers, trucks and weaponry such as heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket systems.

The sensible thing to do is to leave them as contribution to Afghan army’s ‘capacity building’. But Britain counts its pennies carefully, especially in these hard times, and who knows, there could be more wars to be fought elsewhere soon.

The issue is, how to cart things away from the Hindu Kush. Air transport is prohibitively expensive. The most economic route is via Pakistan, but the US-Pakistan reset looks shaky. The option is narrowing down to the Northern Distribution Network [NDN].

But there is a catch. The gateway to the NDN is via Termez and Britain has poor equations with Uzbekistan, whose human rights record it apparently abhors. As the 7th anniversary of the Andizhan riots draws close, London has a painful pill to swallow to approach Tashkent in sackcloth and ashes, seeking favor. But British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond did precisely that in February.

The Uzbeks are, however, an ancient nation, famous for civilities that the modern world no longer knows. Tashkent agreed to help the beleaguered British cut their losses in Afghanistan. But friendship is a two-way street. And Uzbeks are also a proud nation. Plainly put, they don’t like London treating them like a one-night stand.

Honor comes in. The Uzbeks expect British Prime Minister David Cameron to visit Tashkent to sign the formal accord on transit facility. Besides, they’d hope Cameron to invite Uzbek President Islam Karimov to visit Britain – not a ‘working visit’ but a full-fledged state visit with bugles sounding on the ramparts of the Buckingham Palace and the lords of the manors and the ladies-in-waiting lining up in full attendance.

But that may pose a protocol problem for Queen Elizabeth II. She is the head of the British Armed Forces and their commander-in-chief. And she has still not received an explanation from the Khan of Bukhara Nasrullah Khan or his illustrious descendants as to whereabouts of the two valiant officers of the imperial army Colonel Charles Stoddart who set out from Britain’s East India Company outpost of Calcutta to Bukhara in reconnaissance missions related to the great game and Captain Arthur Conolly (who went in search of Stoddart) who simply disappeared in that ancient city circa June 1842.

However, even if protocol is overlooked, according to Britain’s Independent newspaper, Britain has a far more serious problem than that backlog of history: its contemporary image will suffer as the flag carrier of human rights the world over if it is openly associated with Uzbekistan.

But you can’t have the cake and eat it too, can you? Not even Britain can. So, a fair balance is needed. Image is mere chimera, whereas, 11000 containers of war equipment and 3000 armored carriers are the reality.  

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