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India renews interest in running its first foreign military base in Tajikistan

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A military base in Ayni could give New Delhi a significant strategic edge over Islamabad as it would effectively put India behind Pakistani lines.

New Delhi: India has signalled a renewed interest in developing and sustaining a military base in Ayni in Tajikistan.

President Ram Nath Kovind met an Indian Air Force contingent during his visit to the country this week (7-9 October), before returning to India Tuesday evening.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Ayni in 2015, but it was not publicised. A.K. Antony, the former defence minister, had also visited the base. India has so far sought to keep its military presence discreet.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is scheduled to be in Dushanbe Thursday to participate in a Council of Heads of Government Meeting of the SCO.

Strategic station

The Gissar Aerodrome in Ayni, just west of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, was for long a Soviet strategic station in Central Asia during the Cold War and the occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989).

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In 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attack that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan, the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought to strengthen ties with Tajikistan. Current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was among those instrumental in establishing the minuscule Indian military presence in Tajikistan during the term of the Vajpayee government.

That was also the time the US and coalition forces were interested in the base as an alternate route (avoiding Pakistan) to Afghanistan.

At the time, India was still operating a hospital at Farkhor in southern Tajikistan near the border with northern Afghanistan. Afghan Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masood of the Northern Alliance — which was fighting against the Taliban — was brought to the Farkhor hospital after a suicide bomber blew himself up near him.

However, Indian military doctors could not save Masood.

Why India is interested

At one time, New Delhi was hoping to convert Ayni into its first military base abroad. But that was cut short partly because India began hedging military relations with Russia.

“Actually, Indian interest in Tajikistan and in Ayni was a consequence of the (1999) Kargil war,” said Phunchok Stobdan, Central Asia expert with the government think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.

“The Subramanian committee (which did a post-mortem of the Kargil war and proposed reforms) had pointed to an intelligence failure that led to the Kargil war.”

The Indian security establishment determined that assets of the Aviation Research Centre, a department of the Research and Analysis Wing, could have been put to better use.

Tajikistan shares boundaries with China and Pakistan among others — it adjoins Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that shares a boundary with PoK and China. Tajikistan is just about 20 km from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir across the corridor.

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Pakistan is touchy about Indian military deployments in either Tajikistan or Afghanistan. Such deployments would effectively put India behind Pakistani lines with the risk of opening a second front.

India has been eying Ayni for the same reason, and also particularly as a foil for the Siachen Glacier, should Pakistani troops get to heights on the Saltoro Ridge that flanks the glacier and cannot be reached from the Indian side.

Since 2005, despite the flagging of ties, India has sustained a contingent of the Indian Air Force and the Border Roads Organisation in Ayni. The contingent is now nearly 150 strong.

The BRO developed and lengthened the airstrip at Gissar to 3,200 metres — long enough for most fixed-wing aircraft to land and take-off — after it was severely damaged since the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Indian government spent an estimated $70 million to rebuild the airstrip, hangars and overhauling facilities.

At one time, the Indian Air Force was planning to station MiG-29 fighter aircraft in Ayni, despite Pakistani and Chinese objections. That has never happened. But the Indian Air Force is continuing to maintain a helicopter detachment, air force sources said, refusing to give details on the number and type.

Stobdan, who last visited Ayni in 2015, recalls having seen “two or three” Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force at the base.

“But we have not used it (the Gissar airbase) for operational purposes. I think the helicopters were gifted to Tajikistan. We are there because we pay a rent,” he said.

India also runs a 50-bed hospital for Tajik military personnel at Qurgan Teppa in southern Tajikistan.

Diplomatic difficulties

The scope and scale of India’s military detachment in Ayni is yet a subject of discussion between India, Russia and Tajikistan. Russia patrols the Tajik skies and has a motorised rifle division deployed in Ayni.

Since being admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this year and participating in war games with its members (including China and Pakistan), New Delhi is keen to revive the relationship with Dushanbe, which was in danger of flagging because of Moscow’s recalcitrance.

During President Kovind’s visit, India and Tajikistan discussed the security situation in Afghanistan and signed nine agreements. This included one on the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), which Doval used to head before his current assignment, and Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Research.

Tajikistan is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), along with Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It may require a green signal from the CSTO to allow foreign military operations in its territory. That is part of the reason for India’s renewed Central Asia outreach.

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