Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 102

As Washington’s relations with Kyrgyzstan go from bad to worse, especially since the December 6, 2006, shooting of Kyrgyz national Alexander Ivanov at the U.S. air base at Manas, a new player is emerging in Central Asia’s “Great Game” — India (Radio Azattyk, May 24).

While the United States has faced criticism from its hosts in Kyrgyzstan and closed its base in Uzbekistan, India could be an attractive partner for Central Asian states. One advantage that the Indian military has over its U.S. counterparts is the fact that about 70% of its equipment is of Soviet or Russian origin, which allows it commonality with what the five Central Asian “stans” deploy.

India has recently refurbished the airbase at Ayni (also known as Farkhor), six miles northeast of Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. The new airbase will be operated under a trilateral joint agreement with Russia and Tajikistan. The airbase, which had been shuttered since 1985, was instrumental in the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. The base is a first for India — its first foreign base and its first in Central Asia. The facility will doubtless be closely monitored by both Pakistan and China.

India initially plans only to base a squadron of MiG-17 V1 helicopters at Ayni. Unlike Russia, which currently bases fighters there, for the moment New Delhi has no intention of basing fixed-wing aircraft there.

Indian improvements to the base cost more than $10 million and include building hangars as well as repairing and extending the runway.

Negotiations for Indian use of the base were finalized in April 2002 when Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes signed a bilateral agreement during a visit to Dushanbe. He initially brought up the possibility of basing two squadrons of frontline MiG-29s aircraft at Ayni, but in subsequent discussions the Indian force was downgraded to a single helicopter squadron.

The deal triggered high-level diplomatic protests by Islamabad, which maintained that the agreement was part of New Delhi’s attempt to “encircle” Pakistan.

India’s interest in acquiring the base was heightened by Pakistan’s decision to close its airspace to India in 2001-2002, a period of crisis. In the 1990s, during the Afghan civil war, both Tajikistan and India opposed the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime, throwing their diplomatic weight behind the Northern Alliance. Besides diplomatic support India also quietly helped to maintain the Northern Alliance’s miniscule fleet of helicopters.

The Indian presence has significant strategic implications, as Pakistan is only about 20 miles away. Afghanistan’s Wakkan Corridor separates Tajikistan from Pakistan’s volatile Northwest Frontier Province.

India’s gradual integration into Central Asian military structures began in 2006, when New Delhi, along with Mongolia and Pakistan, acquired observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO currently comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev recently said, “Against the backdrop of what has been happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, the stable development of SCO member states and India, their multilateral cooperation can become an important factor in the process of building a just and equal world order” (Udayavani, May 23). Ironically, two years ago, following Uzbekistan’s bloody suppression of the Andijan uprising, the SCO issued a statement calling on the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition to set a deadline for ending its use of Central Asian bases and air space in member states. Such permission had been granted in the aftermath of 9/11.

The deployment is yet another sign of the strength of Russian-Indian relations. India remains Russia’s largest export market for armaments, receiving approximately 40% of its arms imports from Moscow. The new Indian presence in Tajikistan is dwarfed by the Russian armed forces currently stationed there, which total nearly 11,000 troops.

India’s Central Asian ambitions are not confined to Tajikistan; in Afghanistan many large reconstruction contracts are being awarded to Indian companies, including a major roadway to Iran’s Chahbahar port, a development that runs counter to Pakistani interests. Another major Indian transport project in Afghanistan is the construction of the 135-mile Zaranj-Delaram road in southwestern Afghanistan, which will allow New Delhi to gain better access to the energy wealth of Central Asia (Times of India, April 25).

It is unclear how other regional players, particularly Pakistan and China, will view the new Indian military initiative. India’s airbase will both allow it to assist stability efforts in Afghanistan as well as provide a potential base for combating Islamic fundamentalism, both goals shared by Washington.

At this point, India’s entrance into Central Asia is more symbolic than significant; however, given the rising strength economy, Delhi’s interest in Central Asia can only deepen with time.