DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will allow the transit by land of non-military NATO cargo to Afghanistan, a U.S. commander said on Friday, as Washington seeks alternative supply routes for its troops there.
Rear Admiral Mark Harnitchek of the U.S. Transportation Command said the United States planned to send 50 to 200 containers a week to Afghanistan through the two countries.
The announcement follows a decision by pro-Moscow Kyrgyzstan to close the only U.S. air base in Central Asia, accusing Washington of refusing to pay more rent for the base.
It sent a formal notice to the U.S. ambassador in the capital Bishkek on Friday, giving U.S. troops 180 days to leave.
Despite the eviction notice, the Pentagon said the United States still believed it could reach a deal with Kyrgyzstan to maintain the Manas base, a key hub for moving personnel and equipment into Afghanistan for U.S. and NATO forces.
“I continue to believe this is not a closed issue but that there remains potential to reopen this with the Kyrgyz and to reach a new agreement,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Krakow, Poland, where NATO defense ministers were meeting.
Kyrgyzstan’s decision removes one of the U.S. military’s supply routes into Afghanistan as Washington prepares to send more troops to the country to fight a Taliban insurgency that is growing in strength there and in neighboring Pakistan.
The United States and its allies fly troops and supplies from bases in Europe and the Gulf and could increase this traffic to make up for the loss of Manas air base.
With international forces bogged down more than seven years after overthrowing the Taliban, Washington has struggled to persuade allies to provide more soldiers to complement the 17,000 extra troops it is sending to Afghanistan.
Gates said on Friday the Obama administration expected “significant new commitments” from allies on troops or civilian assistance for Afghanistan before an April 3-4 summit.
He said if countries were unable to increase military commitments, contributions to efforts to boost development and governance would be welcome.
“I expect there will be significant new commitments on either the civilian or the military side in connection with the NATO summit,” he told a news conference.
Gates said in the two-day meeting in Krakow, 19-20 NATO states had announced new commitments. “I consider that a good start as we begin to look toward the summit.”
“I believe we are facing a very tough test in Afghanistan. I have no doubt that we will rise to the occasion,” he added.
On Thursday, Gates received only a limited response to a call for allies to do their fair share by sending more forces to provide security for Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential poll.
In a separate development, Britain said on Friday it hoped to get formal agreement on a proposal to create a small NATO rapid deployment force to defend mainland Europe and free up troops for Afghan duty at the NATO summit in April.
British Defense Secretary John Hutton presented the proposal at the NATO meeting in Krakow, saying it was aimed at reassuring NATO’s East European members and encouraging NATO states to commit more forces to Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington, David Brunnstrom and Gareth Jones in Krakow, Poland, Patrick Lannin in Riga and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Writing by Katie Nguyen; Editing by Jon Boyle