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Tajik cold water on base space

New Delhi, Jan. 1: Tajikistan has grounded India’s ambition to have its first foreign air base.

India had helped Tajikistan renovate the Ayni air base, located 15km from capital Dushanbe, and New Delhi had hoped to station a squadron of its Mi17 helicopters and some MiG29 fighter aircraft there.

This would have given New Delhi a foothold in Central Asia. The use of the air base would also have offered India strategic depth in Afghanistan, particularly when the US starts withdrawing troops from the trouble-torn country around the middle of this year.

However, the Tajiks have relayed to New Delhi that they will allow only Russia to use the Ayni air base.

Government sources said Tajik foreign minister Hamrokhon Zarifi had recently said his government was in talks over the Ayni airfield only with Russia and no other country. For all practical purposes, the public statement suggested that India was out of the race for the air base.

The erstwhile Soviet Union had used the air base for operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But it had fallen into disuse after the collapse of the USSR. India started renovating the air base in 2002 after a defence agreement with Tajikistan.

The renovation, estimated to have cost $60 million, included construction of new hangars, repairing as well as extending the runway and building an air traffic control tower.

Delhi’s defence ties with Tajikistan had improved as a result of Indian and Russian co-operation in the late 1990s to help the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban. Tajikistan, which shares borders with Afghanistan, played an important part as a transit route.

India had constructed a hospital for the Northern Alliance at Farkhor on the Tajik-Afghan border during this period.

After renovating the base, India had expressed its inclination to station its helicopters and fighter aircraft there. But Moscow, which continues to consider Central Asia as its sphere of influence, had reservations. As a compromise, the base was to be used by both India and Russia on a rotational basis.

This would have given India strategic depth in Central Asia as Tajikistan shares its borders with not just Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan but also China and Afghanistan. It nearly touches the Gilgit-Baltistan region under Pakistani occupation but which India considers part of occupied Kashmir.

According to the sources, the Tajik decision may have been taken under Russian pressure. But it has not come as a jolt to New Delhi. India had withdrawn its staff from the air base nearly a year back. The sources said the Tajik foreign minister’s announcement has only made public what New Delhi had known for several months now.

The sources said New Delhi’s current strategy in Central Asia was to increase its soft power by helping countries in the region on information technology, education and medicine.

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