Dithering almost cost India its Tajik military facility

February 4th, 2008 - 12:02 pm ICT by admin  

By Rahul Bedi
New Delhi, Feb 4 (IANS) Mounting uncertainty over India’s continued presence in its sole overseas military facility in Tajikistan was largely due to New Delhi’s tardiness in fulfilling its 2002 commitment to pay various state-run Tajik institutions $500,000 and executing infrastructure development projects in that country, according to well informed sources.

Official sources here said the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) administration had, besides agreeing to finance and execute the restoration of the disused Ayni air base, 15 km from capital Dushanbe, also committed India to a $500,000 grant-in-aid to several Tajik government institutions which it had not remitted.

Consequently, the non-payment alongside other unfulfilled pledges made by former defence minister George Fernandes to upgrade a highway near Dushanbe and construct a hydropower plant infuriated the Tajik authorities, prompting them to notify India last year to withdraw its 150-200 military personnel stationed at Ayni.

But military sources said the Tajik Defence Minister, Colonel General Khairullaev Sherlai’s Delhi visit last month - during which he met his Indian counterpart A.K. Antony - has temporarily stalled India’s ejection from the crucially strategic Central Asian Region (CAR) after Delhi hastily released an instalment of $100,000.

The balance $400,000, these sources told IANS, would be handed over “shortly”.

The government had also assured Sherlai that it was “fast forwarding” the promised highway and hydropower projects in Tajikistan.

The problem of non-payment stemmed from nothing other than organisational inertia on the part of India’s establishment,” a military official associated with the Ayni operation said.

Timely payment could easily have prevented the situation from deteriorating for which several ministries are to blame, he added, declining to be identified in view of the sensitivities involved.

The defence ministry has repeatedly declined to comment on the Ayni controversy.

India completed restoring the Ayni air base last February and was awaiting a mandate from the cabinet committee on security (CCS) to station some of its air force assets there as part of augmenting its “strategic reach” in a troubled and energy-rich area when agitated Tajik authorities suddenly asked New Delhi to leave.

This triggered alarms bells in Delhi, resulting in bilateral meetings of senior defence officials that appear, for now, to have assuaged Tajik pique.

India’s refurbishment of the air base for around Rs.80 million ($2 million) was executed nearly two years behind schedule by the quasi-military Border Roads Organisation under the 2002 bilateral defence agreement with Tajikistan, reached by the then NDA government.

This included restoring its long disused runway, an aircraft taxiing track, building a parking apron, three aircraft hangars, accommodation for a “sizeable” Indian military contingent and perimeter fencing.

Under the agreement that also included the promise of $500,000, India, Tajikistan and Russia - the dominant regional force and New Delhi’s close ally - were to operate the air base by rotation.

The resident Indian military contingent of army and Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel was expected to work closely with the Russians, who had a motorised division in Tajikistan, for logistical support.

Military sources said the IAF initially planned on basing a squadron of Mi 17-1V helicopters at Ayni but was also considering the “operational and political feasibility” of deploying fixed wing fighters like MiG-29s from time to time, in addition to trainer MiG-21 aircraft to instruct the Tajik Air Force.

In 2003, India conducted its first overseas military exercises with Tajikistan in which a platoon strength of Special Forces conducted parachute jumps and other commando exercises.

Thereafter, IAF technicians have sporadically been helping Tajikistan retrofit its Soviet and Russian fighters whilst New Delhi is also encouraging local industry associated with IT, engineering goods and pharmaceuticals to establish business links with Dushanbe.

Indian civilian and military personnel are also engaged in teaching Tajik defence personnel English. The Tajik military has received non-combat military goods like webbing and uniforms made in India’s Ordnance Factory Board units. (IANS)

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