By Sudha Ramachandran
India’s hopes of setting up its first air base abroad seem to have been grounded.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 Pakhtunkhwa 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 the cards.
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 rotation.
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 relations.
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 Asian issues.
"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 Statesman.
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 India.
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 the US.