India may have to quit Tajik military 'base'
By Rahul Bedi Sep 20, 2007, 10:09 GMT
New Delhi Sep 20 (IANS) India is likely to be evicted from its sole, albeit fledgling, overseas military facility at Ayni air base near Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe under pressure from Russia, which is concerned over New Delhi's burgeoning ties with Washington.
Senior military officials said the emerging possibility of India looking to Washington and other Western suppliers for military hardware was responsible for Russia 'leveraging' its considerable influence with Tajikistan to try and terminate New Delhi's 'loose arrangement' regarding Ayni if it declined to be 'co-operative'.
India's refurbishment of the Ayni military base, 15 km from Dushanbe, for around $1.77 million was completed earlier this year nearly 24 months behind schedule by the quasi-military Indian Border Roads Organisation under the 2002 bilateral defence agreement with Tajikistan.
Thereafter, the defence ministry has been awaiting direction from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to officially begin operating from there.
The ministry had reportedly asked the CCS for a 'formal mandate' on force levels before the Indian Air Force (IAF) transferred some of its assets to Ayni as part of India's move to augment its 'strategic reach' in a troubled area and to secure its galloping energy needs from the resource rich Central Asian Region (CAR).
Military planners also consider Ayni air base as a 'limited, yet significant' platform to inject Special Forces into a hostile region in response to any emerging threat from the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan arc.
The hijacking by Islamist radicals of an Indian Airlines passenger aircraft from Kathmandu to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in December 1999 was one such contingency in which India was forced to capitulate to terrorist demands.
Ayni also serves as a conduit for India to funnel aid to war-torn Afghanistan as access via the shorter overland route via Pakistan is prohibited by Islamabad.
'This (Russian pressure) appears to be a ploy for more concessions and indulgence from India,' a senior military officer associated with the Central Asian Region said. Its Moscow's way of telling New Delhi not to 'stray' into the American military hardware camp, the official told IANS.
India annually conducts defence business over $1,500 million with Russia, and since the 1960's has acquired Soviet and Russian military equipment worth over $30 billion.
Over the next decade, military planners anticipate purchases of over $40 billion to replace or upgrade India's predominantly Soviet and Russian defence equipment that have reached collective obsolescence.
Moscow is understandably anxious to encash this potential and is wary of competition from other suppliers, particularly the US, in support of IAF's latest requirement of 126 multi-role combat aircraft.
Alongside, India is deadlocked in delicate discussions with Russia wanting to renegotiate its $85 billion Sukhoi 30MkI multi-role fighter deal by demanding a higher price for the timely delivery of the combat aircraft with the agreed specifications.
In July, reportedly at the behest of a seemingly 'displeased' Moscow, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrahon Zaripov declared that Dushanbe was not negotiating with New Delhi about permitting India a military base at Ayni.
India, he admitted, had helped rehabilitate the Ayni airfield, but this did not provide for its being granted basing facilities.
Thereafter, there has been no formal communication to New Delhi from Tajikistan to withdraw from Ayni some 150 Indian military engineers, workers and defence personnel that comprise the base's maintenance squad as well as its training team engaged in instructing the Tajik air force.
Consequently, a rash of nervous senior Indian security and military officials have visited Russia to not only try and assuage Moscow's concerns over arms purchases but also to solicit its influence in helping to maintain India's military presence at Ayni, official sources said. The sources declined to be named given the classified and sensitive nature of the negotiations.
National Security Advisor M K Narayanan's August visit to Moscow was followed by that of Indian Army Chief J.J. Singh as part of a tri-service delegation that returned home Sep 18. Singh's trip was ostensibly to observe joint anti-terrorist manoeuvres between the Indian and Russian Special Forces in the Pskov region south of St Petersburg.
Lt Gen Z.U. Shah, the Indian Army's deputy chief (planning and systems) responsible for material acquisitions, flew to Moscow last week for 'consultations', reportedly to allay Russian apprehensions over India evaluating alternate weapon suppliers.
India's continued military presence at Ayni was also believed to be on Gen Shah's agenda.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony travels to Russia in October ahead of a summit meeting in Moscow between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Vladimir Putin at which Russian military contracts beset by delays and cost escalation and the prickly Ayni issue are likely to be discussed. Thereafter, Putin is expected to visit India by the year-end.
The Indian defence ministry spokesman declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations in Moscow regarding Ayni or on weapon related matters. 'We have no idea of what talks are underway in Moscow,' the official told IANS.
Official sources said India's role in refurbishing Ayni airbase included restoring its long disused runway, an aircraft taxiing track, building a parking apron, three aircraft hangars, accommodation for a 'sizeable' Indian military contingent and perimeter fencing.
Under the informal 'arrangement' India, Tajikistan and Russia - the dominant regional force and New Delhi's close ally - were to operate the air base by rotation.
It was anticipated that the resident Indian military contingent of army and IAF personnel would work closely with the Russians, who have a motorised division in Tajikistan, for logistical support.
Military sources said the IAF initially planned on basing a squadron of Mi 17IV helicopters at Ayni but was also considering the 'operational and political feasibility' of deploying fixed wing MiG-series fighters from time to time in addition to trainer aircraft to train the Tajik Air Force.
Earlier in 2003, India conducted its first-ever overseas military exercise with Tajikistan. This included two IAF Antonov 32 transport aircraft that demonstrated their lift capability and a platoon-strength of Special Forces that carried out parachute jumps and other commando exercises.
IAF technicians have also been helping Tajikistan retrofit their Soviet and Russian fighters while New Delhi is fostering closer trade links with Dushanbe in IT, engineering goods and pharmaceuticals. Civilian and military Indian personnel are also teaching Tajik defence staff English.
India's initiative to refurbish Ayni followed the earlier establishment of its first military 'outpost' in Tajikistan at Farkhor on the Tajik-Afghan border.
The 'quietly functional' Farkhor base was an extension of the field hospital India established in the late 1990's as part of its role in helping Afghanistan's Northern Alliance in the fight against the Taliban regime. Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, targeted by assassins, died in the Indian-run hospital two days before 9/11.
© 2007 Indo-Asian News Service