India air base grounded in Tajikistan
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's hopes of setting up its first air base abroad seem to have
The Tajik government has announced that Russia is the only country in the race
for use of the Ayni air base. "We are in talks over the Ayni airfield only with
Russia," Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi told a press conference in the
capital, adding that "such talks are not being held with any other party".
Zarifi's announcement brings to an end - at least for now - years of
speculation over who will get to use the base.
Located 15 kilometers west of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the Ayni air base
was used by the Soviets during the 1980s to support their military operations
in Afghanistan. With their
withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ayni was abandoned and with the disintegration of
the Soviet Union it fell into disuse.
Then in 2002, India entered into a defense agreement with Tajikistan under
which it agreed to renovate the dilapidated air base. Renovation involved
building new hangars, repairing and extending the runway, construction of an
air traffic control tower and the base's perimeter fencing. India reportedly
spent around US$70 million on Ayni's renovation.
India's interest in Ayni went beyond renovation. It was keen to set up a base
there, where early reports suggested Delhi was considering deploying MiG-29
fighters. A base at Ayni was seen to provide muscle to India's strategic
ambitions in Central Asia.
Tajikistan's geographic location prompted India's interest in an air base. The
country shares borders with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. A
narrow strip of land, the Wakhan Corridor separates it from Pakistan's Khyber
Pakhtoonkhwa and the Gilgit-Baltistan area. Gilgit-Baltistan, which was part of
the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, was occupied by Pakistan in
1947 and remains under its control.
India's relationship with Tajikistan deepened in the late 1990s, when their
shared concern over the Taliban regime in Afghanistan brought them closer
together. It was at Farkhor, near Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, that
India set up a hospital in the late 1990s where injured Northern Alliance
fighters were treated, and channeled equipment to the Northern Alliance.
The India and Tajikistan bilateral engagement has deepened since 2002,
especially on counter-terrorism and defense co-operation. While the two sides
have often spoken about the immense potential for economic cooperation, trade
has been meager, and was valued at $22.11 million in 2007-08. Defense
cooperation, in contrast has grown significantly. It was part of this expanding
defense ties that India hoped to set up a base at Ayni.
Given the disquiet its military presence in Tajikistan would trigger in China
and Pakistan, India sought to keep its plans low-profile, even under wraps.
Tajik and Indian officials repeatedly denied that an Indian base at Ayni was on
Then by 2007-08, media reports drew attention to Russian unease over India
using the air base. India's growing proximity to the Americans was reported to
be behind Moscow's discomfort.
Around this time, there was a noticeable downsizing of India's ambitions.
Reports spoke of Indian plans to deploy only a squadron of Mi-17 V1 helicopters
at Ayni. It was reported then that Russia, India and Tajikistan had agreed
informally to share command and control of the Ayni base, holding it in
The Tajik foreign minister's announcement indicates that the sharing of use of
the Ayni base with India is not on the cards. The 150 Indian personnel who were
deployed there have been evacuated.
The closure of the base option for India at Ayni is, however, not a setback for
India's interests in the region, Angira Sen Sharma, associate fellow at the
Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Asia Times Online. India wields
considerable soft power in Central Asia. A base at Ayni would have undermined
that influence, she said.
Drawing attention to China's strategy in Central Asia, Sharma said Beijing has
focused more on investment there than on displaying its military might. India's
interests in Central Asia, she said, would be better served through economic
co-operation and investment in the region. Its investment in renovation of Ayni
has enhanced its interests; using it as a military base would not.
India's ouster from Ayni indicates how much its equation with Russia has
changed over the years. It is not just India's growing ties with the US but
Russia's increasing interaction with Pakistan that is impacting India-Russia
During the Cold War, the Soviets were bitterly opposed to Pakistan, given its
participation in Western military alliances and its backing of the anti-Soviet
insurgency in Afghanistan. Relations have improved significantly in recent
years and while Russia is still to begin the sale of weapons directly to
Pakistan, Russian military hardware and technologies have been made available
through third countries like China and Ukraine.
Increasingly, it seems Russia is looking to Pakistan as an ally on Central
"What has made the Moscow turnaround is the realization that seeing Islamabad
as part of the region's problems does not help to advance the Russian goal of
playing a bigger role in the region. The Kremlin finally decided that Pakistan
must be part of the solution," Vladimir Radyuhin wrote in The Hindu.
In August this year, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan participated
in a summit at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The four had met in July last
year at Dushanbe.
While the joint statement adopted in Sochi highlighted the problems of
terrorism and drug-trafficking, it is joint economic projects that dominated
the summit agenda. Russia agreed to join two regional infrastructure projects,
including CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia), which involves export of
electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan and the
other a road and railway running from Tajikistan to Pakistan through the Wakhan
corridor in Afghanistan.
Given the growing Russia-Pakistan engagement and its immense potential, it is
not surprising that Russia has not been too keen on sharing base space with
Russian analysts have argued that the Tajiks could be dangling Ayni before the
Russians as bait to secure Moscow's support on a dispute it has over water with
Uzbekistan. However, it seems unlikely that the Kremlin will bite.
Russia already has a base in Dushanbe, where some 5,000 personnel of the
Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division are deployed. It has been using this
facility for free. Although the Tajiks have raised the issue of payment for the
Dushanbe base with the Russians and soured relations a bit, Russia's position
here is not shaky. It doesn't really need another base in Tajikistan.
Indian officials say that Russia is not keen on using the Ayni base but doesn't
want others to use it either.
And there are several others besides India who have been eyeing Ayni. The
French, for instance, who have been supporting their military operations in
Afghanistan out of Dushanbe airport, would be keen to move them to Ayni. Then
there are the Americans, whose future at the Manas base at Kyrgyzstan has
become increasingly uncertain.
If the Americans were to offer an attractive sum for use of Ayni, will the
Tajiks bite the bait? That is unlikely, say Indian officials, pointing out that
impoverished Tajikistan is still far too dependent on Russia to offer Ayni to
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in