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    South Asia
     Aug 12, 2006
India's foray into Central Asia
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov's five-day visit to India that ended on Thursday might not have grabbed much media attention in New Delhi, but it is in Tajikistan that India is taking quiet strides toward furthering its ambition of becoming a global player: India's first military base abroad will become operational in Tajikistan soon.

During Rakhmonov's visit, the two countries signed pacts on strengthening cooperation in the fields of energy, science and technology, foreign-office consultation, and cultural exchange. India also offered to rehabilitate the Varzob-1 hydropower plant in Tajikistan.

Two days before the Tajik president's visit, the India-Tajikistan joint working group (JWG) on counter-terrorism met in Delhi. At the JWG meeting, the two sides agreed on bilateral mechanisms



to exchange information on various aspects of terrorism, including the financing of terrorism, that affect their two countries. India also offered to provide Tajikistan with counter-terrorism training.

This cooperation is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Less visible and more significant is the India-Tajik cooperation at Ayni Air Base, near the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Work on the base is expected to be completed next month, and the base will become operational by the year's end.

India is constructing three hangars at Ayni, two of which will be used by Indian aircraft. India will station about 12 MiG-29 bombers there. The third hangar will be used by the Tajik air force. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is also stationing trainer aircraft under a 2002 defense-cooperation agreement whereby India has been training the Tajik air force.

Neither New Delhi nor Dushanbe officially admits to an Indian air base at Ayni. Delhi maintains that it is only renovating this base. The first reports of India's intentions surfaced in 2002, and speculation gathered momentum in 2003 and into April this year when reports indicated that India's base at Ayni would become operational by end-2006.

India and Tajikistan were on the same side during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. Both opposed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and backed the Northern Alliance. In the late 1990s, India set up a 25-bed hospital at Farkhor, near Afghanistan's northern border, where injured Northern Alliance fighters battling the Taliban were treated.

According to Rahul Bedi, Jane's Defense Weekly's correspondent in Delhi, India supplied the Northern Alliance with high-altitude-warfare equipment worth US$8 million. The Northern Alliance also received input on strategy from Indian "advisers". Technicians from the Aviation Research Center of the Research and Analysis Wing (India's external intelligence agency) repaired the Northern Alliance's Soviet-made Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters. It was out of Tajikistan that India channeled this help to the Northern Alliance.

It is Tajikistan's geographic location that has drawn India to this former Soviet republic. Tajikistan shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A narrow stretch of Afghan territory separates Tajikistan from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The significance of this region for India's security is immense. It is close to areas where scores of camps for jihadist and anti-India terrorist groups are based, and it is in the proximity of territory where Pakistan and China are engaged in massive military cooperation. Besides, Tajikistan is in Central Asia, a gas-rich region in which India has growing interests.

There are several reasons underpinning India's interest in a base at Tajikistan, one being the Pakistan factor. The Pakistani incursion at Kargil in 1999 laid bare the failure of Indian intelligence and opened India's eyes to the need for a military presence outside its borders, Phunchok Stobdan, research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, told Asia Times Online. Such a presence in Tajikistan, India realized, would enable it to monitor anti-India activities in the region.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, India was determined not to lose the foothold it had gained in Afghanistan thanks to its ties with the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s. Delhi was anxious not to allow Pakistani influence to grow again in Afghanistan. This was behind India's decision to remain at Ayni/Farkhor after the fall of the Taliban, say Indian intelligence sources. A military base in Tajikistan is attractive as it also enhances India's options in the event of war with Pakistan. From Tajikistan, India would be able to strike Pakistan's rear.

It is its presence at Ayni that has enabled India to play a significant role in Afghanistan's reconstruction and stability since 2002. Since Pakistan does not allow India overland access to Afghanistan, India has had to channel its economic and relief assistance to Afghanistan through Farkhor. The IAF airlifts supplies to Ayni, which are then transported to Farkhor and onward to Afghanistan by road.

India's growing military profile in the region might have been prompted by the need to counter Pakistan's influence, but there is more to Ayni Air Base than India-Pakistan rivalry. A base at Ayni enables India to project power in Central Asia. It is testimony to the fact that India is no longer content with a geostrategic role in South Asia; its ambitions extend outside the region as well.

India's foray into Central Asia is also fueled by its interests in the region's vast gas reserves. India is among the actors in the "New Great Game" - the scramble for Central Asia's resources. Bedi points out that "though India remains powerless to engineer or overtly influence the 'New Game', its size, military and nuclear capability make it a not altogether insignificant part of the complex jigsaw puzzle".

Not surprisingly, India's "forward policy" in Central Asia has generated unease in Islamabad and Beijing. Pakistan has perceived India's air base at Ayni as part of the Indian attempt to "encircle Pakistan".

As for China, steps are afoot to counterbalance India's rising profile in Tajikistan. Stobdan points out that Chinese-Tajik cooperation is growing. Visits by senior Chinese leaders to Tajikistan have been followed up with generous military assistance to that country. While growing Chinese engagement with the Tajiks is perhaps motivated more by the increasing US presence in the region, India is no doubt a factor weighing on Chinese minds.

India has come under pressure over Ayni Air Base from an unexpected quarter - Russia, its friend of several decades during the Cold War years. Russian arm-twisting seems to have resulted in India agreeing to joint maintenance with Russia of Ayni Air Base. While economic consideration might have played a role in India considering joint maintenance of the base, arm-twisting seems to have forced the decision.

India's new friend the United States, however, is not very worried about Delhi's foray into Central Asia, as it sees India's growing profile there as a check on Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

India has become the fourth power after Russia, the US and Germany to have a base in Central Asia. As a small but not insignificant player in the "New Great Game" in Central Asia, India announced that it had interests beyond its immediate neighborhood. With the air base at Ayni, India has signaled that it is a keen contestant in Central Asia's "great base race" as well.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


'The Great Game' comes to South Asia (May 24, '06)

No 'Great Game' between India, China (Jan 13, '06)

 
 



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