Speaking at a government meeting on January 18, Tajikistan’s Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloyev said India has become one of his ministry’s key international partners. This statement reflects deepening defense cooperation between India and Tajikistan. The strong ties between the two militaries date back to the early 2000s, when New Delhi and Dushanbe jointly provided support to the anti-Taliban resistance forces, the Northern Alliance, in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is India’s closest neighbor in Central Asia, the region, which strategists in New Delhi view as part of their “extended neighborhood.” India’s growing engagement with the country has been interpreted by some analysts as signifying New Delhi’s intention to use Tajikistan as a potential springboard for its military in the region.
Yet India’s role in Tajikistan is more limited than many journalists and experts have suggested. A great deal of speculation about the allegedly growing presence of the Indian military in the country has been fuelled by India’s renovation of the Ayni airfield, 25 kilometers west of Dushanbe. The $70 million overhaul was completed in 2010, and included an extension of the runway and the construction of hangars, air traffic control tower, and administrative buildings (www.khovar.tj, September 3, 2010).
The Indian military’s role in renovating the airfield provoked speculation that New Delhi intended to establish a military foothold in Tajikistan. Responding to such claims, Tajik authorities have insisted that they do not intend to grant New Delhi basing rights, and that the only country with which they hold talks on the use of the Ayni base is Russia. Indian officials, however, have not explicitly denied their interest in the airfield, suggesting instead that it was up to Dushanbe to decide who would receive permission to use the facility (www.news.tj, November 11, 2010).
On December 20, 2011, members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) reached an agreement that makes it impossible for any individual country in the group to host a foreign military base on its territory without the full consent of all other members of the organization. The initiative empowers Russia to veto any foreign basing plans in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Hence, the move serves as a continuation of Russia’s efforts to counteract the influence of the US military and reassert its own role in its immediate neighborhood (Interfax, December 21).
The decision effectively puts an end to Tajikistan’s aspirations to explore closer security relations with non-CSTO nations. Following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, Russia assumed the role of the country’s security guarantor. Russian border guards policed Tajikistan’s southern frontier until 2005. A Russian army division that had stayed in Tajikistan after the Soviet break-up was reorganized into a permanent military base in 2004. The base now has around 7,000 troops stationed in Dushanbe, Kulob, and Qurghonteppa (www.news.tj, October 21, 2011). Moscow has also been the largest provider of technical military assistance to Dushanbe.
Tajikistan participates in all Russian-led integration and regional security schemes, including the CSTO. The country contributes an infantry battalion to the group’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF). In April 2010, Tajikistan hosted the CRRF’s military exercises Boundary 2010 that aimed at preventing possible incursions of “terrorists from Afghanistan” (www.news.tj, April 26, 2010). In September 2011, the CSTO conducted exercises in Tajikistan as part of Tsentr 2011, which also trained the group’s militaries in preventing possible popular uprisings (EDM, September 30, 2011).
India’s pursuit of a stronger global role and its competition with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan has over the past two decades pushed New Delhi towards closer engagement with Central Asia. Tajikistan has become India’s main point of entry into the region, mainly due to Dushanbe’s proximity –and a special relationship– with Kabul.
New Delhi’s close cooperation with Dushanbe originates from the late 1990’s when both countries supported the anti-Taliban resistance forces, the Northern Alliance, in Afghanistan. Tajikistan provided Indian military advisers with access to the ethnic Tajik leadership of the Northern Alliance. Until 2002, Dushanbe hosted a medical facility set up by the Indian army to treat injured anti-Taliban resistance fighters at the Farkhor airfield, on Tajikistan’s southern border with Afghanistan. India also used the airfield to supply the Northern Alliance with military equipment, munitions and intelligence, and to repair its combat helicopters (www.atimes.com, August 12, 2006).