On June 8-14, member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held a joint military exercise, Peace Mission 2012, at the Chorukh-Dayron training range in Sughd Province, northern Tajikistan. According to the Tajik Ministry of Defense, the exercise was designed to test and strengthen the capacity of the SCO member states to respond jointly to terrorist threats in Central Asia’s mountainous areas.
Around 2,000 troops from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan took part in the week-long drills. Chinese forces participating in the exercise included a motorized infantry company and an artillery unit. Russia dispatched some 350 troops reinforced by armored personnel carriers and tanks from the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, and ground attack aircraft from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan contributed a battalion from an air assault brigade, as well as fighter jets, combat helicopters, and armored personnel carriers. Kyrgyzstan sent a Special Forces unit and a mountain warfare company. Tajikistan’s forces participating in the drills included an air assault unit, a motorized rifle battalion reinforced with tanks, military transport helicopters, and personnel from the Ministry of Emergencies. This was the smallest Peace Mission drills staged by the SCO since 2003.
Because the exercise was staged in Tajikistan, it was led by the Tajik Ground Forces Commander, Major General Emomali Sobirov. The host country’s president, Emomali Rahmon, attended the training ground on June 14 to observe the final stage of the exercise. Playing good hosts, the authorities in Dushanbe hailed Peace Mission 2012 as a “success” and praised the “increasing spirit of cooperation” within the SCO.
As talks continue over the extension of Russia’s use of a military base in Tajikistan, the Central Asian country’s envoy to Moscow suggests that the two countries have reconciled their positions on all parameters of a new lease except its duration. Speaking to the media on June 29, Abdulmajid Dostiev acknowledged that the finalization of the new deal is held back only by disagreements over how long Tajikistan will host the Russian base under the lease. Moscow insists on extending its basing rights in the country for the next 49 years, arguing that a long-term arrangement is needed to secure funding for the development of the facility. The government in Tajikistan, in contrast, seeks to limit the new lease to ten years or less. Yet, according to the diplomat, Dushanbe and Moscow are now “very close” to a new base deal (ozodi.org, June 29).
Dostiev’s remarks came in response to Russia’s Ground Forces Commander, Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin’s announcement that negotiations with Tajikistan over the future of the base have reached a deadlock. Speaking at the Russian parliament on June 26, Chirkin blamed Dushanbe for the stalemate: “Tajikistan has demands that are absolutely impossible to meet; [they] run counter to our proposals. We are now facing a situation from which there might be no way out whatsoever.” The Russian general admitted that the major point of contention had to do with the duration of the new lease, with Tajikistan unwilling to agree to the 49-year arrangement favored by Moscow. Chirkin has also suggested that unless the two countries find a way out of the deadlock, the Russian troops might vacate their garrisons in Tajikistan after the current lease expires in 2014. Echoing Chirkin’s statement, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it had stopped funding the development of the base pending the outcome of “difficult talks” with Tajikistan (gazeta.ru, regnum.ru, June 27; interfax.ru, July 3).
The Russian general has also proposed that Dushanbe benefits more than Moscow from the latter’s military presence. Chirkin warned that disagreements over energy, land and water distribution might eventually lead to armed conflicts involving Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to Chirkin, the Russian troops based in Tajikistan would serve as a “guarantor of stability and security in the region” if such conflicts erupt. Russian officials and experts have made similar claims before, pointing to rising political tensions within Tajikistan and the uncertainties surrounding Afghanistan’s post-2014 future as major security threats that Dushanbe would not be able to tackle without Russia’s assistance (ria.ru, June 26; news.tj, avesta.tj, June 28).
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).
Speaking to journalists on January 27, Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister, Khamrokhon Zarifi, announced that Dushanbe and Moscow will continue talks on Russia’s possible use of the recently renovated Ayni airfield, 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of the Tajik capital. According to Zarifi, the two countries have different views on “certain issues” related to the use of the facility (www.khovar.tj, January 27).
Zarifi also restated the Tajik government’s position that Russia is the only country with which Dushanbe is holding talks on the airfield (Shabakai Yakum TV, January 27). The facility hosted a Soviet helicopter repair facility before falling into disuse after Tajikistan’s independence. Between 2004 and 2010, India helped to refurbish the airfield, spending about $70 million on upgrading the runway, building and equipping hangars and administrative buildings (www.khovar.tj, September 3, 2010). India’s renovation of the Ayni airfield prompted speculation that New Delhi intended to use the facility as its first ever foreign airbase. However, neither Dushanbe nor New Delhi have confirmed India’s interest in the airfield, particularly amidst diplomatic protests by Pakistan and pressure from Russia, which continues to view Tajikistan as part of its sphere of “privileged interest.”