Outpost at Tajikistan still on India's radar
21 Jan 2008, 0123 hrs IST , Rajat Pandit , TNN Times of India
NEW DELHI: Despite some Russian chill, India has not junked its plans to establish a geostrategic footprint in the energy-rich Central Asia through a 'military outpost' at the Ayni airbase in Tajikistan. There are already over 150 Indian military personnel stationed at Ayni, which includes an IAF detachment of pilots and support staff for Mi-17 helicopters. After a meeting between defence minister A K Antony and his Tajik counterpart Colonel-General Khairullaev Sherali here on Friday, sources said the Ayni airbase 'still very much' figured on the Indian radar screens. This comes in wake of Russia apparently reversing its earlier green signal to India's 'long-term' plans to base some MiG-29 fighter jets at Ayni after stationing at least one squadron of Mi-17 helicopters there in the "short-term." "Talks are in progress to resolve the issues at Ayni. The Russians, of course, have to be onboard since they exercise a huge influence over Tajikistan," said a source. The Russian U-turn came towards the end of last year just when the Ayni airbase — around 15 km from Tajik capital Dushanbe — became fully operational under a trilateral agreement of India, Tajikistan and Russia. India has pitched in Rs 100 crore as well as technical help from Army and Border Roads Organisation to extend and relay the runway at the Ayni airbase, apart from constructing three aircraft hangars, an air-control tower and perimeter-fencing around the base. The Russian displeasure is being attributed to India's growing strategic embrace with the US as well as its deliberate strategy to 'broad-base' its huge defence procurements by turning to countries like US, Israel, France and UK, instead of relying solely on Russia as in the past. The Indian security establishment, of course, has long denied any endeavour to establish a military base at Ayni. Asked about Antony’s meeting with Sherali, a defence ministry official only said, "It was a routine courtesy call." The fact, however, remains that it was in 2002 itself that plans for the Ayni airbase, which was then in a decrepit state, were conceived by India in keeping with its rapidly-growing energy requirements and the strategic need to keep a close watch on the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. A military outpost in the region will also give India the option to deploy its special forces into nearby areas in times of emergency like the IC-814 hijacking to Kandahar in December 1999. India, incidentally, has operated in Tajikistan, which has a long 1,200-km border with Afghanistan, since the 1990s. Both New Delhi and Dushanbe had joined hands to help the Northern Alliance in its fight against the then Taliban regime in Afghanistan. India, in fact, had even set up a hospital at Farkhor, near the border with Afghanistan, to treat wounded Northern Alliance personnel.