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    South Asia
     Mar 3, 2007
India makes a soft landing in Tajikistan
By Sudha Ramachandran

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

and 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.

Then in 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 anyway.

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.

Indian 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 alliance blossomed.

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.

Tajikistan is 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 regional geopolitics".

Tajikistan shares 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.

A 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 may differ.
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 Ayni.

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

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