Will Ayni Airbase in Tajikistan Become India’s 1st Overseas Military Base?

What makes Ayni Airbase to Tajikistan extremely attractive to India? Can India woo Russia this time to set up their overseas military base?

Ayni Military Airbase (Gissar Air Base) in Tajikistan has been drawing Indian attention for over a decade. During the Cold War, Ayni Military Airbase served as a major military base of the USSR but remained inactive post their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Will Ayni Airbase in Tajikistan become India’s 1st Overseas Military Base?

India has been extremely interested to operate the Ayni Airbase, but Russia has literally blocked India’s ambitions in Tajikistan. EurAsian Times analyses the significance of Ayni Airbase to India and whether Russia would support India plans of setting up a military base in the former Soviet republic post the S-400 Deal.

Between 2002 and 2010, India spent approximately US$70 million to renovate the airbase and it was contemplated that India was keen on establishing a military base in Ayni to gain a strategic foothold in Central Asia and keep a check on China and Pakistan.

In January 2011, Tajikistan Foreign Minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, officially launched negotiations with Russia to discuss possible deployment of Russian military at Ayni. Zarifi also ruled out the deployment of the Indian forces at Ayni.

India Keen On Ayni Military Airbase

Earlier, Delhi was contemplating to convert Ayni into its first military base abroad. But that was cut short partly because Russia did not permit outside interference in the former Soviet republic.

The Indian interest in Ayni airbase in Tajikistan was an outcome of the unexpected Kargil war. The Subramanian committee (which did a post-mortem of the Kargil war and proposed improvements) had pointed to an intelligence failure.

Tajikistan shares boundaries with China and Pakistan among others — it adjoins Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of land that shares a boundary with PoK and China. Tajikistan is just about 20 km from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir across the corridor and could provide India with a strategic edge and vital intelligence on Pakistani movements.

Why is Pakistan Concerned?

Pakistan is extremely apprehensive about Indian military deployments in Tajikistan. Islamabad sees Indian military presence in Tajikistan, Afghanistan or even Iran as an existential threat to Pakistan as India would be able to wage war from new and unfortified fronts.

India has been eying Ayni airbase for the same reason, especially as a foil for the Siachen Glacier, in-case Pakistani troops get to higher heights on the Saltoro Ridge and cannot be reached from the Indian side. Since 2005, despite the flagging of ties, India has sustained a contingent of the Indian Air Force and the Border Roads Organisation in Ayni. The contingent is now nearly 150 strong.

India, Tajikistan and Russia 

The scope and scale of India’s military detachment in Ayni is yet a subject of discussion between India, Russia and Tajikistan. Russia patrols the Tajik skies and has a motorised rifle division deployed in Ayni.

Since being admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this year and participating in war games with its members, Delhi is enthusiastic to revive the relationship with Tajikistan, now that Indo-Russian ties are its zenith due to massive defence deals between two nations.

Tajikistan is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), along with Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It may require a green signal from the CSTO to allow Indian military operations at Ayni. Moscow’s influence and clout will play a vital part in the decision making and India should expect some concessions from President Putin especially after Modi government brazenly defied the US in favour of old-pal Russia.

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