India makes a soft landing in
Tajikistan By Sudha
BANGALORE - With its first
base in Central Asia at Ayni, Tajikistan, ready to
begin operations soon, India's power projection
into the region is poised for a leap forward.
Refurbishment of the Ayni base, which is
about 10 kilometers northeast of the Tajik capital
Dushanbe, has reportedly been completed, and
India's Chiefs of Staff Committee has given its
go-ahead. The Defense Ministry is now awaiting the
green signal from the Cabinet Committee on
Security to begin operations. India has become the
fourth country - after Russia, the United States
Germany - to have a base in Central Asia.
Ayni was used by the Soviets in the 1980s
to support their military operations in
Afghanistan. After the Soviet pullout, the base
fell into disuse and was in a dilapidated
condition right through the 1990s.
2002, India undertook to refurbish the base at a
cost of about US$10 million. But reports indicated
that India's role will not be confined just to
renovating it. India had reached an agreement with
the Tajiks to set up a base there. Officially,
however, India and Tajikistan have maintained that
India's role was limited to renovating it.
The Ayni base will apparently be under the
command and control of India, Tajikistan and
Russia by rotation. The base will be jointly
maintained by the Indians and the Russians. It is
believed that New Delhi agreed to India-Russia
joint maintenance under pressure from Moscow.
The economic factor too would have weighed
in favor of the decision on joint maintenance.
Besides, there were logistical considerations as
well. With India's access by land or air to
Tajikistan depending on the whims of Pakistan,
India would have realized that it would have to
look to the Russians for logistical support
A base will take India's close
ties with Tajikistan to a new level. The two
countries were on the same side in the Afghan
civil war in the 1990s; both opposed the
Pakistan-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has been India's entry point
for influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It
was at Farkhor near Tajikistan's border with
Afghanistan that India set up a hospital in the
late 1990s to treat injured Northern Alliance
fighters. India supplied the Northern Alliance
with high-altitude military equipment and helped
repair its attack helicopters.
military advisers provided input on strategy. All
this support for the Northern Alliance was quietly
channeled through Tajikistan. It was on Tajik soil
that India's relationship with the anti-Taliban
With the fall of the
Taliban at the end of 2001, India moved swiftly
not only to consolidate its influence in Kabul but
also to ensure that its long-standing relationship
with the Tajiks was taken to a higher level.
Besides defense cooperation, the two countries are
working closely to tackle terrorism, build
infrastructure and so on.
Central Asia's poorest country. Unlike the other
former Soviet republics in the region, it does not
have oil or natural gas. But it does have another
asset that makes it attractive to such countries
as India - its geographic location. Noted Indian
strategic analyst Raja Mohan has observed that
Tajikistan's location makes it "the fulcrum of
borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and
Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan is only about 30km away. A
narrow strip of Afghan territory separates
Tajikistan from Pakistan's North West Frontier
Province (NWFP) and the Northern Areas.
base at Ayni allows India rapid response to any
emerging threat from the volatile
Afghanistan-Pakistan arc, including a terrorist
hijacking such as that of Indian Airlines Flight
IC814 in December 1999. It also gives New Delhi a
limited but significant capability to inject
special forces into a hostile theater as and when
the situation demands.
And should the base
at Ayni grow in the coming years, it would enhance
India's options in the event of military
confrontation with Pakistan. India would be able
to strike Pakistan's rear from Tajik soil.
The base goes beyond India's concerns
vis-a-vis Pakistan and Pakistan-backed religious
extremism in the region. Ayni has to do with
India's growing interests in Central Asia as well.
India is eyeing Central Asia's vast oil and gas
reserves as well as its hydropower to boost its
energy security. Its growing interest in Central
Asian energy is accompanied by increasing
involvement in the region's security. Ayni also
has to do with India's big-power ambitions.
While India is keen to back its ambitions
with muscle, it appears to be opting for a low
profile for its air base in the region. It was
initially planning to deploy MiG-29 fighters
there. It is now going to deploy only a squadron
of Mi-17 V1 helicopters. While the reason for the
downsizing is not clear, it is possible that the
lowering of India's profile has to do with Chinese
objections. China's ties with the Tajiks have been
growing, and it is possible that Beijing would
have leaned on Dushanbe to keep Indian presence at
the base low-key.
Unlike China, India does
not share borders with the Central Asian
countries. That is a disadvantage. But it has a
long-standing ally in Russia, and its relations
with Central Asian countries have been warm.
However, the foreign policies of the
Central Asian countries have been far from stable.
"India, therefore, cannot count on Central Asia
totally on key political and security issues,"
writes P Stobdan in an article "Central Asia and
India's security" in Strategic Analyses:
Even in the case of Afghanistan, the
positions of Central Asian states vacillated
several times in the past. Even Uzbekistan, at
one point, took a U-turn in support of dealing
with the Taliban. Similarly, on several
occasions, Kazakhstan too favored engaging the
Taliban in a dialogue and even established a
modus vivendi with the Afghan militia.
Turkmenistan's position always remained
favorable to the Taliban. In the future too,
though India's security interests may converge
with those of the Central Asian states, the
methods and nature of approaching those problems
In 2005, the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization, which includes
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan,
China and Russia, issued a statement calling on
the US-led coalition to agree to a deadline for
ending the temporary use of bases and air space in
member countries, saying the active military phase
of the Afghan operation was coming to an end.
The demand for a US exit had its roots in
Washington's alleged involvement in the wave of
regime changes that swept through the former
Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and
Kyrgyzstan, and the mass uprising in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, which was Washington's closest
ally in the initial stages of "war on terrorism" -
it was the top recipient of US security assistance
in Central Asia - was the most vociferous in its
demand for a US exit from the bases in the region.
While India's presence in Central Asia
cannot be compared to that of the US - not only is
it small in comparison but Delhi does not meddle
in the domestic politics in the countries there -
it is clear that India is adopting a cautious
approach. It does not want to ruffle feathers in
the region. Hence the low-profile presence at
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in