New Delhi, June 8: The Indian Air Force risks getting squeezed out of a base in Tajikistan that promised to be India’s only overseas military facility from which it could keep tabs on Pakistani and Chinese activities, including those on the Siachen glacier.
As defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma heads to Islamabad for talks on Monday and Tuesday on Pakistan’s proposal for a mutual troops pullback from the glacier, the possible loss of access to the Ayni/Farkhor airbase that India helped rebuild is casting a shadow on New Delhi’s political and diplomatic intent.
Situated northwest of the Saltoro Ridge that flanks the Siachen glacier, it would have afforded the Indian military the superb advantage of watching aerially Pakistani troops from behind their lines.
Despite a political inclination at the government’s highest level to achieve a takeaway from the Indo-Pak talks that may pave the way for the Prime Minister to visit Pakistan, New Delhi has almost shut out the possibility of finding Manmohan Singh his “peace mountain” in Siachen.
“I do not want to talk about it publicly right now because the defence secretary is going there in two days. Our stand will be known there (in Islamabad). Don’t expect any dramatic announcement or decision there,” defence minister A.K. Antony said today, almost repeating what he had told Parliament last month.
The Indian position on Siachen is unchanged despite Pakistan’s formal request on April 8, a day after an avalanche buried an estimated 135 of its troops in Gyari. India says Pakistan will first have to “authenticate” the Actual Ground Position Line for a review of the position to be even considered. Pakistan has said it wants the glacier de-militarised.
The fact is that Pakistani troops are not on the glacier but largely on the slopes of the Saltoro Ridge on the northern and western flanks of the glacier. Indian troops occupy the commanding heights on the ridge from 14,000ft to 22,000ft.
The Indian Army says that unless Pakistan acknowledges this by authenticating the Actual Ground Position Line, there is no question of vacating the posts.
But Islamabad has sold its people a lie — that its troops are on the glacier. Even after authentication, India will want to verify that the Pakistani troops are not occupying positions that Indian troops vacate. This is where Farkhor/Ayni would have presented a vantage point.
India had a military hospital in Farkhor, Tajikistan, that cared for the fighters of the Northern Alliance till 2001, by when the Taliban had overrun Afghanistan. Farkhor’s location, close to the borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan (PoK) and China, makes it a listening post and watchtower for which major powers are vying.
Last October, Antony was greeted warmly with traditional honey and bread during an unscheduled stop in Dushanbe by his Tajik counterpart, Colonel General Sherali Khairyulleov. India has always kept its connection to Farkhor/Ayni, just northwest of Dushanbe, low profile, never officially admitting its role in revamping the Soviet-era airbase.
But the Indian government spent more than Rs 350 crore in hard currency and posted a detachment of the army’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to re-do the base. The BRO extended the runway for it to be operational for fighter jets, built a perimeter fence and three hangars. It was a strategic investment in the hope that Tajikistan would give India an exceptional watchtower.
But now the honey isn’t sweet enough.
India, Tajikistan and Russia were working to operate the base jointly. But Tajikistan, seen by China as its western gateway to Central Asia, has been under diplomatic pressure from its neighbours to stave off an intimate military engagement with India. Russia, too, has been wary of India’s foreign military footprint, largely because Moscow suspects that New Delhi is increasingly inclining westwards for its defence hardware.
In addition, the US, keen to open more supply lines into Afghanistan, is now understood to have evinced interest in using Ayni/Farkhor. For the Indian Air Force and the Indian military, the basing of helicopters and fighter jets in Farkhor was seen as a strategic decision.