Tajikistan | The White Elephant In Tajikistan

It was but four years ago that Ayni Airbase was set to become India’s first visible geopolitical move into Central Asia. What happened?

Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil visiting with the Defence Minister of Tajikistan, Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloyev, in Dushanbe on 7 September 2009. PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU
01 November, 2010

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.

“They [members of the Tajikistan government] don’t know what to do with this airbase. We don’t need it for ourselves, but to give it to someone else would create problems with other countries,” said Faridoon Khodizoda, a political analyst in Dushanbe.

The Russian Embassy in Dushanbe did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman at the Indian Embassy said he could not comment on Ayni, but referred questions to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defence. They did not respond to requests for comment.

India has renovated runways and hangars at Ayni, but the Indian government has never publically stated its longer-term intentions for the base. Reports in the Indian press have suggested that India hoped to base a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets there, in an effort to bolster its clout in Central Asia and to counter Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

“Once called the white elephant of Asia, India’s strategic aspirations have now finally come of age,” wrote Shiv Aroor, an Indian journalist who obtained classified information about India’s plans in 2007. “The country’s first military base in a foreign country will be declared ready for use next month. Welcome to Ayni, Tajikistan, India’s first military outpost in a foreign land. Bare minutes from Tajikistan’s border with war-torn Afghanistan, the base gives India a footprint for the first time ever in the region’s troubled history.”

Indian political analysts also raved about India’s bold foray into the strategically vital Central Asian region. “There are several reasons underpinning India’s interest in a base at Tajikistan,” wrote analyst Sudha Ramachandran in 2006. “It is close to areas where scores of camps for jihadist and anti-India terrorist groups are based, and it is in the proximity of territory where Pakistan and China are engaged in massive military co-operation. Besides, Tajikistan is in Central Asia, a gas-rich region in which India has growing interests.”

Analysts of India’s military now say that those expectations may have been too ambitious. When the renovations began in 2004 and 2005, India did not have a clear plan as to how it would eventually establish a base at Ayni, according to one source close to the Indian armed forces, whose employer does not allow him to speak on the record. “The point, sadly, remains the same: while the Tajik government has kept doors open, at least in a limited sense, the government here hasn’t quite gotten its act together about precisely what or how to leverage the opportunity,” he said.

Some analysts said that India’s foray into base politics was merely an attempt to act like the superpower it has not yet bcome. “India is playing a game,” said Imran Baig, a Washington, DC-based analyst of South Asian security. “To maintain a base with no aircraft is not expensive at all. But to deploy a high-tech fighter squadron full-time at a remote location far from the country of origin is a very, very costly affair and can only be afforded by superpowers.”

Still, India appears to want to keep the question of its presence at Ayni open. India’s president, Pratibha Patil, visited Dushanbe last year, and Indian engineers continue to work on construction projects at the base, including a “hotel,” according to one worker at the base who spoke on condition of anonymity. But there were no Indian aircraft there, the worker said.

Meanwhile, analysts in Dushanbe argue that Tajikistan’s government may have been courting India with the intention of playing Delhi off Moscow to exert a higher price for Russian usage of the base.

Russia appears disinclined to allow India any access to the airfield. Russia’s defence minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, said last year that Tajikistan and Russia would jointly utilise the base, but Tajikistan has never confirmed that. And Russia, which already maintains a large military base for its 201st Division at Dushanbe, does not appear interested in actually using Ayni, but merely in keeping other countries from using it, said Zafar Sufiyev, the editor-in-chief of Ozodagon, an independent weekly newspaper in Dushanbe.

Neither does Tajikistan appear interested in allowing Russia to use the base. Tajikistan’s president, Emomalii Rahmon, recently suggested that Russia, which currently does not pay rent for the 201st Division base, should do so in the future. The two sides, however, agreed to put off that decision until 2014. Tajik-Russian relations have also been harmed by Moscow’s failure to support Dushanbe, either financially or diplomatically, in the construction of the Rogun Dam, which Tajikistan’s government sees as vital to its future economic security.

“Rahmon is not independent enough to say ‘no’ to Russia, and he’s afraid to say ‘yes’ to anyone else,” said Saymuddin Dustov, an analyst in Dushanbe. “So he does nothing.”

There has been speculation that the US, facing continuing uncertainty over the use of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, might be interested in Ayni as a possible replacement. The Tajikistan government would allow the US to use Ayni at the right price, said Safiyev. “If the government gets more for it than the Americans pay for Manas, they’ll be interested,” he said. “It’s a market.”

But the US has said it has no interest in using the base, and it’s not clear anymore whether India would be interested either. It appears that Russia may have made that decision for them.