November 23, 2010

India in Tajikistan

Gaining control of Ayni airbase serves Indian interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan, argues Ramtanu Maitra.

Washington, 22 November 2010: Indian Army chief Vijay Kumar Singh's four-day (10-13 November) visit to Tajikistan took place at a critical juncture for both Tajikistan and Afghanistan. A stronger Indian presence in Tajikistan is not only a requirement of the day, but it is a good thing.

It is good for a number of reasons. To begin with, Tajikistan is once more on the cross-hairs of Islamic jihadis, the very same who were trained in Pakistan along with Wahhabi-indoctrinated and Saudi-funded militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkatul Mujahideen, and so on. These are the terrorists who received their training from the Pakistan army and are working hand-in-glove with various foreign intelligence groups trying to foment trouble in Jammu and Kashmir.

Why Indian boots on Tajik ground

The Indian military presence, which the army chief's visit is designed to materialize, will provide the Tajik forces the necessary teeth to take on these terrorists. Reports indicate that General V.K.Singh, who met with the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, and Tajik defence minister, Sherali Khairulloyev, discussed prospects of military-technical cooperation between the two countries. This issue is of prime importance now in light of the fact that on 19 September, Wahhabi militants trained by the Pakistan military and Al-Qaeda ambushed a Tajik army convoy in Rasht Valley killing twenty-five soldiers.

The Tajik troops were seeking to recapture twenty-five United Tajik Opposition (UTO) militants who had escaped from a Dushanbe prison. The daring prison break was organized by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorists who recruit from "peace-loving preachers" belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir headquartered in Britain. The prison-break resulted in the death of five security guards and Dushanbe put the country on red alert.

The 19 September attack was the deadliest but hardly unexpected. On 3 September, a suicide attack on a police station in the northwest Tajik city of Khujand had killed four police officers. The Khujand attack stands out because it occurred outside militant territory. Khujand, Tajikistan's second-largest city after the capital, is located at the mouth of the Fergana Valley, the largest population centre in Central Asia infested with drugs from Afghanistan and Islamic jihadis from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

New Delhi must have paid special attention to these developments, keeping in mind the potential of yet another civil war breaking out in Tajikistan aided by terrorist elements pushed from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The location of Tajikistan is strategic in the sense that it borders the war-ravaged Afghanistan in particular and is also located on the road to Russia, a nation whose security is of great importance to India. To note, the nineteen-nineties' civil war in Tajikistan also involved Khujand and the UTO. It is not forgotten that more than one thousand Uzbek Islamists, including a number of renegade militants who fled persecution in Uzbekistan, had settled in the eastern Qarategin valley posing a serious security threat to Tajikistan.

The militants were involved in guerrilla attacks in Kyrgyzstan, which has since become highly vulnerable to the criminal alliance between drug traffickers and Islamic jihadis trying to split the country. Reports indicate that these Uzbek militants are no longer in Qarategin valley, but they would re-appear if the security situation continues to deteriorate in Tajikistan. So long these Islamic jihadis exist in the area, Tajikistan is threatened. That is why India should have a clear and visible presence in Tajikistan.

However, to have a strong presence in Tajikistan, New Delhi must work out an arrangement over the control of the Ayni airbase. Ayni airbase has been rebuilt and is coveted by a number of countries, including Russia, China and India. The Tajik newspaper Ozodagon said last June that "it looks like India is in the lead".

The news article also pointed out that India had funded in upgrading the airfield, and India's president was in Tajikistan in the fall of 2009. The long and short of it, according to Ozodagon, is that India has a better chance than others to use the Ayni airfield. If that is so, there is no reason why New Delhi should not step up diplomatic and economic activities to ensure that Dushanbe signs a contract with India for the control and use of the Ayni airbase.

President Patil's crucial visit

The 2009 visit to Tajikistan by the Indian President, Pratibha Patil, was a grand move. On her way back to New Delhi from Moscow, President Patil became the first Indian President to visit Tajikistan and the only foreign leader to attend the celebrations of Tajikistan's Independence Day. She held explicit discussions with her Tajik counterpart on the November 2008 Bombay terrorist attack.

But President Patil's interventions went beyond that. According to Ben Welch of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute (CACI), the Indian and Tajik presidents discussed the potential for greater cooperation in the energy sector and for an increase in bilateral trade. President Rahmon made clear his wish to see an enhanced level of Indian รข€˜capacity building' -- in military training and in the development of Tajikistan's pharmaceutical, IT and food processing industries. Interestingly, notes Welch, President Patil pointed out Tajikistan's geographical proximity to India, observing that Dushanbe is closer to New Delhi than the Indian capital is to some of India's own cities.

Most revealingly, discussions were held on the work Indian companies are doing to upgrade the Varzob-I hydroelectric plant and the contentious redevelopment of Ayni airbase. It is the combination of these two concerns that seems to encompass the twin prongs of Indian forward policy in Central Asia. In other words, President Patil's intervention thrust ahead both India's economic and security concerns.

It should also be noted that Indian engineers are currently building a one hundred and eighteen-kilometre transmission line within Tajikistan, running from the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power station in the south of the country to the Afghan town of Pol-e Khomri in Baghlan Province. No doubt, from India's perspective, the potential for this power line is massive. It will supply surplus energy produced at the Sangtuda-1 and Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power stations to South Asia.

The other security concern

The other reason why a strong and visible Indian presence in Tajikistan is of great importance is a combination of two major security concerns. The first is the increasing failure of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, making it possible for the Saudi-Pakistan-backed control of Afghanistan by their terrorist ally, the Taliban. Secondly, these foot-soldiers of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, seeking to spread Wahhabism throughout Central Asia with the intent of establishing a Caliphate, are also helped by the perpetual empire-seeker, Britain, and the Britain-influenced elite of the United States, to pose a constant threat to Russia and China.

A strong Indian military presence in Tajikistan will counter the Pakistani adventurists, who were deftly led into this game by the money bags in Riyadh and their brain-trusts in London. Islamabad has noticed this intent of the Indian authorities and it pleases it none whatsoever. Zahid Malik, a Pakistani analyst, writes that it is in Tajikistan where India has taken quiet strides to further its "(a) ambitions of becoming a regional power and (b) [to] encircle Pakistan from the side of [the Central Asian Republics]".

Brushing aside Malik's paranoia about the Indian military presence in Tajikistan, what comes out loud and clear is that the Pakistan military's much-desired control of Afghanistan will remain unfulfilled if and when India deploys its fighter bombers in Tajikistan. Malik says "Indian planes can reach Pakistan within minutes". This is a significant development because of the geographical location of Tajikistan which borders China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and is separated by a narrow strip of Afghan territory from Pakistan.

According to defence analysts from Tajikistan, India would be in a position to strike Pakistan's rear in case of any future conflict. This is good reason for India to work an arrangement with Tajikistan favourable to both states. A discussion on this with China and Russia will be of utmost importance.

Ramtanu Maitra is South Asia Analyst with EIR News Services Inc in Washington DC.

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