India in Central Asia: The Farkhor Airbase in Tajikistan

04 Aug, 2007    ·   2347

Swapna Kona argues that India's interests in the region should go beyond military ones in order to be sustainable

The Farkhor airbase located about 80 miles south of the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, has recently received international attention. The airbase, strategically situated adjoining the Tajik-Afghan border, is important for Tajikistan especially in the light of the rising Taliban and al Qaeda threat in the immediate neighborhood. In 2002, the Taliban were less than 50 miles away from Dushanbe, thus causing great alarm in Tajikistan. Soon after, multiple agreements were signed between India and Tajikistan on a range of issues coupled with a series of high-level visits thus establishing closer ties between the two countries. One of these agreements was about the reconstruction of the airbase at Farkhor/Ayni - the Indian Air Force was to help reconstruct the unused airbase by providing aid and personnel.

For India, the benefits of the airbase were many. It offers India strategic depth vis-a-vis Afghanistan and a convenient launching point to transport men or material to and from Afghanistan. With a worsening security situation in Afghanistan and the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, India's interest in securing a foothold in the region was understandable.

A second compelling motive was to protect India's potential interests in the Central Asian energy security calculus. With oil making up for almost 40 per cent of its primary energy consumption and 70 per cent of that being fuelled through imports, India's stakes in energy security are high. Coupled with the trade in oil, is the issue of natural gas. Energy-rich Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are now of utmost importance to India's growing energy needs. It is the absence of energy corridors coupled with the absence of both connectivity and security that prevents any access to energy resources from the region. Indian investment in the hydroelectric power resources in Tajikistan also contributes to continued interest in developing security relations between the two countries.

However, such close cooperation and strategic foothold in Central Asia is a cause for concern in Pakistan. The flying time from Farkhor to Pakistan is very short making the latter wary of the presence of the Indian Air Force in such close vicinity. The Indian and Tajik governments have dismissed such fears, insisting that the presence of nominal troops is not directed towards a third country and would only affect regional security in a positive manner.

Indian military presence at an airbase in Central Asia plays into the larger question of the militarization of the security agenda in Central Asia. Post-9/11, the presence of American troops in Central Asia has been widespread. The strategic value attached to the region changed dramatically in the wake of the situation in Afghanistan. As the debate over a possible American pullout from Afghanistan and the "completion" of the war remains open-ended, military troops have attracted resistance within Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Tajikistan itself is host to more than 300 French Troops stationed at the Dushanbe and Kulyab. As continued American presence comes under fire, the Russians are contemplating an increase in troops in Kyrgyzstan. Coming together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meetings, the leaders of Central Asian countries have questioned why the troops continue to stay on now that the military operations they planned have come to an end.

While global big powers wedge each other out of Central Asia, the question of India's militaristic intentions in the region begs consideration. As Central Asia remains the theater of action for the next few decades, the possible establishment of an Indian military base in that region will be indicative of India's strategic vision. As part of the "rise of India as a global power," militaristic expansion is almost unavoidable. When other empires have established foreign bases as ways of strategic outreach, such adventurism has met with disapproval of other existing powers. India, in this manner, might be more fortunate than its predecessors. The US will view Indian presence in the region as a counterweight to China in the wake of increasingly warm bilateral ties between the two countries. Russia is an old ally and will not consider a solitary base with a diminutive capacity a threat from an old friend. Also, China and Russia are more likely to involve India in the region through joint military exercises and a deeper engagement with India in the SCO.

Indian capabilities of influencing the politics of the region have traditionally been limited to cultural and economic ties only. What remains to be seen is if the establishment of the Farkhor base is the first step towards a more proactive India or is it an isolated case of India attempting to secure its interests abroad. If this is the start of a new trend, then larger investment and a broader spectrum of issues must be dealt with, both of which India seems years away from doing. In that sense, Farkhor will demonstrate over the coming years if Indian 'lily pads' is an idea whose time has come.