WHEN INDIA BEGAN RENOVATING Tajikistan’s Ayni airbase earlier in the decade, it looked set to become India’s first foreign military base, and to make Tajikistan a player in the competition among outside powers jockeying to establish outposts in Central Asia. The Indian government appeared ready to declare the base operational in 2006.
In early September that year, Tajikistan’s president, Emomalii Rahmon, declared the base and its 3,200-metre runway to be open. And although information about the base is closely guarded by both the Indian and Tajik ministries of defence, it now appears that India will not use Ayni after all, depriving isolated, impoverished Tajikistan of the rent money and geopolitical clout it could have been gaining by allowing another country to use the base. And India remains without this foothold in Tajikistan, a mountainous country of about seven million, just north of Afghanistan. Tajikistan—the poorest corner of the former Soviet Union, and still unstable after a brutal civil war in the 1990s—holds a geographic position with obvious appeal to India, offering Delhi not only a strategic counterweight to Pakistan’s considerable influence in Afghanistan, but an airbase within striking distance of its troublesome neighbour.
But India’s ambitions in Central Asia have been thwarted, according to many in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, by Russia: Moscow does not want anyone else to use the base, though Tajikistan’s deteriorating relations with Russia have disinclined Dushanbe from wanting to host another Russian base in its territory.