Will Indian PM ask Tajikistan for lease of the Ayni airfield?

13/07/2015 10:23
Asia-Plus
Views: 10123

DUSHANBE, July 13, 2015, Asia-Plus – Indian media outlets report that India wants to expand footprint in Central Asia and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is to ask Tajikistan for lease of the Ayni airfield.

Thus, Mail Today reported on July 11 hat use of the Ayni airfield for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda for discussion with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon when the prime minister arrives on a state visit on July 12.

The Ayni airbase near Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe has long been key to expanding India’s strategic footprint in Central Asia, some media outlets report.

We will recall that the renovated Ayni airfield belonging to the Tajik Ministry of Defense was officially opened on September 3, 2010.

India contributed 70 million USD toward the renovation and sent specialists to help with the work.  The airfield, located some 20 kilometers west of Dushanbe, now has state-of-the-art navigational and defense technology.  Its runway was also extended to 3,200 meters so that all types of aircraft can land there.

Mail Today cited former Air Chief Marshal PV Naik as saying, “Getting a foreign airbase, particularly in Central Asia is a significant development. But in this case, two other countries, Tajikistan and Russia, have to agree.”

The origins of the airbase reportedly lie in the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 to Kandahar.

According to Mail Today, the Vajpayee government began talks for the lease of an airbase after it discovered it had no proximate access to Afghanistan.

Tajikistan shares a 1,400-km land border with Afghanistan.  In the mid-1990s India set up a field hospital at another Tajik airbase in Farkhor, over 100 km south-east of the capital Dushanbe, from where it supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud.

In 2002, India and Tajikistan signed a bilateral defense agreement, one component of which was the repair of a disused Soviet airbase, Ayni, 10 km west of Dushanbe.

 The Indian Air Force (IAF) planned to base a squadron of Mi-17 transport helicopters there and also train Tajik Air Force pilots.

Resistance, however, came from an unexpected quarter: Russia, which considers Tajikistan within its sphere of influence, according to Mail Today.

In 2007, Russia reportedly pressurized the Tajik government to deny India access to the airbase, and the plans went into cold storage.

The use of the Ayni airbase received fresh impetus from the Modi government.

Last September, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Tajikistan during the 14th SCO summit and held talks with the Tajik President.   One of the items on the agenda, besides cooperation on counter-terrorism, was the use of the Ayni airbase.

Indian government officials say leasing the base could be problematic.  Besides Russia, concerns could also be raised by Pakistan and China.

The airbase is just a half-hour flying time away from the Tajik-China border.

Tajikistan has no land boundary with Pakistan, the two countries are separated by Afghanistan’s narrow Wakhan Corridor, but the prospect of an Indian airbase in its rear has reportedly raised alarm in Pakistan.

In recent years, Pakistan has worked hard to dissuade Tajikistan from the airbase lease.  In 2012, Pakistan offered to reactivate two other disused airbases and offered free training for the Tajikistan Air Force, Mail Today said.

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