A strong beam is projected on India’s efforts to buy economic and military footholds beyond its frontiers at strategic points to the rear of China and Pakistan by two apparently unrelated pieces of news published on July 17.
According to various Russian media, Iran, Pakistan and India are all set to build a 2,300- kilometer pipeline for an estimated investment of $7.5 billion after agreeing on a formula for the price of the natural gas to be pumped through from Iran. After they agreed to peg the price to the cost of natural gas in Japan, the project is going through and expected to make the first deliveries of Iranian gas in 2011.
Washington’s efforts to dissuade India and Pakistan from establishing strong business ties with Iran were rebuffed.
The second item, disclosed by the Times of India, is that India is preparing to deploy a squadron of Mi-17 multi-purpose helicopters and Kiran trainer aircraft at the Ayni (Farkhor) air base in Tajikistan, close to Dushanbe.
The fourth world power after Russia, the US and Germany to establish a military foothold in Central Asia, India is now posed for its expansion, whether alongside, or racing against, rival powers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the race is gaining momentum with the approaching Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Peace Mission 2007 exercise on Aug 9-17, which takes place in the Russian Volga-Urals. The exercise will involve 6,500 troops and for the first time all SCO members – Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia are listed as observers.
India and Iran eye links with the Shanghai-Six
As they look in from the outside, at least two of these observers have the potential to challenge Russian-Chinese domination if admitted to the Shanghai-Six.
Established in 2001 as a non-military alliance, the SCO set dealing with Islamic extremism and other security threats in Central Asia as its initial goal. India and Pakistan’s attendance stretches its orbit to South Asia, whereas Iran’s push for a seat further complicates the big-power balancing act surrounding the regional organization.
While Moscow (and China) may seek to curtail the U.S. military presence throughout Central Asia – successfully in Uzbekistan – other SCO members are happy to continue or even expand their military cooperation with the United States and NATO.
Washington saved its military facilities in Kyrgyzstan by raising the rent. Kazakhstan has expanded its cooperation with the NATO Partnership for Peace program, and even Uzbekistan has opened the door to a German contingent.
In August 2007, a 670-meter bridge spanning the Amu Darya River bordering landlocked Tajikistan and Afghanistan is due to open.
Constructed by the US engineering corps and paid for with $36 million defense department grants, the bridge will also boost traffic and trade between Central Asian republics and South Asian India and Pakistan.
India’s plans to expand its first-ever foreign military base in Tajikistan make both Pakistan and China uneasy. Islamabad perceived the air base India established at Ayni as part of an attempt to encircle Pakistan. China has taken steps to counterbalance India's rising profile in Tajikistan.
Pakistan is also worried about India’s rising influence in Afghanistan since the US 2001 invasion, which also enhanced New Delhi’s Central Asian connection.
Tajikistan’s geographic location makes it singularly attractive for India.
The former Soviet republic shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A narrow stretch of Afghan territory separates Tajikistan from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Ayni – the key to India’s rising influence in Afghanistan
A base here is immensely significant in that it gives India a longer reach for control of terrorist groups operating close to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and stirring up tensions in divided Kashmir, the source of al Qaeda-related terrorist attacks in New Delhi and Mumbai.
It is close to areas where scores of camps for jihadist and anti-India terrorist groups are based, and it is in the proximity of territory where Pakistan and China are engaged in massive military cooperation.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, India was determined not to lose the foothold it had gained in Afghanistan, thanks to its ties with the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s. Delhi was anxious not to allow Pakistani influence to grow again in Afghanistan.
A military base in Tajikistan means India could strike Pakistan from the rear in the event of a war between the two nuclear neighbors.
It also allows India to airlift assistance supplies through to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan’s closure of overland access to the embattled county.
The Ayni base became operational in 2001 after India constructed three hangars, two for the use of Indian aircraft, the third for the Tajik air force. In 2002, the Indian Air Force began stationing trainer aircraft there under a new defense-cooperation agreement providing for India to train the Tajik air force. In 2003, the two countries signed another accord for upgrading the military airfield.
In November of that year, India and Tajikistan set up a joint working group to combat international terrorism and signed an extradition treaty for mutual support of each other’s campaigns against terror.
Three years later, in 2006, the relationship between New Delhi and Dushanbe took a further leap forward. Sweeping accords were signed during a five day visit to India by Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov for greater cooperation in the fields of energy, science and technology as well as consultation on foreign issues.
A Central Asian Cockpit for Watching Islamist terrorists – and Pakistan
These were the first steps to broader projects planned by New Delhi in a region whose importance as one of the key world energy sources is on the ascendant. India is deeply involved in the scramble for the region's vast gas reserves.
Tajikistan has been especially skilful in parlaying Central Asia’s enhanced standing, backed by military leverage from India, into a more independent role on the world energy market. This small republic, with a population of only 7 million, allows both Russian and US troops to be stationed in the country, along with its SCO membership. It has managed to draw assistance from all three global rivals, the US, Russia and China.
The United States is not particularly worried about Delhi's foray into Central Asia, as India's expanding silhouette there could counterbalance Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
Regarding the shared Indian-Tajik counter-terror front, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, MUI has tentacles in Tajikistan as in most parts of Central Asia. As recently as June 16, 2007, the MUI detonated a blast outside the Supreme Court in Dushanbe which caused no casualties but damaged the building.
Central Asia serves al Qaeda as an off-the-beaten track route for its expanded sphere of operations, away from the watchful eyes of the mainstream counter-terror powers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed in 2005 (DNW 230, Nov. 18) how a band of al Qaeda terrorists slipped quietly out of Iraq through the northern Afghan town of Konduz, heading through Tajikistan and on to the Kyrgyz section of the Strategic Ferghana Valley straddling Central Asia (See DEBKA Special Map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/Kyrg_Afg.jpg). They were guided by al Qaeda’s operational arm, the MUI. One part of the group peeled off and headed for Western China.
This route, the terrorist “silk road” is still in use. The deployment of an Indian Air Force squadron of Mi-17 multi-purpose helicopters and Kiran trainer aircraft at the Ayni (Farkhor) air base will make it possible to mount commando operations if necessary against terrorist movements.