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India to base planes in Tajikistan
Engineers working to strengthen runway
Gulshan Luthra
Indian Asian News Service

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Tajikistan President  Rakhmonov exchange documents after signing an agreement in Dushanbe
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Tajikistan President  Rakhmonov exchange documents after signing an agreement in Dushanbe on Friday.  — PTI photo

India is likely to station some aircraft at the Farkhor military base in Tajikistan, where Indian engineers are now working to strengthen a runway, aircraft pens and other facilities.

Details about the aircraft or personnel to be stationed at the base are not known but there is a possibility of India acquiring some assets from within the Central Asian region to be placed there. About 70 per cent of the equipment with Indian armed forces is of Soviet/Russian origin and nearly 100 per cent of that has commonality with what is used in the five Central Asian states.

The bilateral agreement about the base, first reported by the IANS news agency last year, stipulates the presence of both the Indian Army and Air Force personnel who will also assist in warding off any threat to Tajikistan.

In 2001 for instance, before the 9/11 terror attacks in New York brought the U.S. fury into the region, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida fighters in Afghanistan had advanced 80 km short of the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. Concerned at the terror threats, Tajikistan was willing to lease the base to the U.S., which had initially shown an interest but did not take it.

However, as India and Tajikistan have a common interest in the peace, security and stability of Afghanistan and its neighbourhood, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) negotiated an agreement supported by Tajik President E.S. Rakhmanov and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, currently on a two-day visit to the Central Asian nation. There was in fact a flurry of visits to Tajikistan by Indian officials last year to finalise the agreement.

How the idea for the base came up is not known but it is understood that it was the MEA, which offered a bouquet of pleasant surprise to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Defence Minister George Fernandes immediately accepted the suggestion. He has already been to the base, which has also been inspected by the top brass of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and engineers of the Indian Army.

Pakistani Press reports have indicated that President Pervez Musharraf has taken up the issue of the Indian base with Tajikistan, particularly mentioning that aircraft taking off from Farkhor could be over the Pakistani skies within minutes.

But well-placed Indian officials say for that matter, all Central Asian countries are geographically close to both India and Pakistan. It is a different matter that India can access them only by flying a circuitous route as India and Pakistan have banned overflights.

Nonetheless, diplomatically, strategically or economically, India’s policy is not Pakistan-specific although India hoped that Islamabad would end its support to terrorists one day and help secure peace in and around South Asia for mutual benefit.

Air Marshal (Retd) Vinod Patney, who led the aerial campaign to evict the Pakistani troops from Kargil in 1999, says essentially the base would help ferry men and material to Indian oil interests in the region although “it is of tremendous strategic importance”. He dismissed the suggestion that it could be used against Pakistan, saying that IAF already had more than adequate capability to defend the country if attacked again.

(The writer is a defence analyst specializing in West and Central Asia)

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