India and Central Asia

Print edition : September 14, 2002

India's growing presence and role in the resources-rich and strategically significant Central Asian Region has important implications.

INDIA has joined in the "New Great Game" being played out in the Central Asian Region (CAR), where fierce competition for the area's vast energy resources is intensifying. A military base has been established in Tajikistan. Military and diplomatic sources in New Delhi said that the base, with a handful of defence "advisers" at Farkhor, close to the Afghan border, has been "quietly operational" since May and that it is the first such Indian military facility outside the country.

The Farkhor base is also being used to funnel relief assistance that India pledged to Kabul after the Taliban's ouster last year. Defence sources said that the military base has been useful in transporting this assistance to Kabul after India and Pakistan imposed a ban on overflights by each other last December. Large Indian military transport aircraft land at airfields near Farkhor and transfer their humanitarian merchandise onto smaller planes that ferry it to nearby Kabul, informed sources said.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is welcomed by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev during his official visit to Almaty in June to take part in the summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.-ALEXANDER NEMENOV/ AFP

They said that the Farkhor base was set up following a bilateral agreement signed during Defence Minister George Fernandes' visit to the Tajik capital Dushanbe in April. It was agreed that India will train Tajik defence personnel, service and retrofit their Soviet and Russian military equipment and teach its army and air force personnel English. "The Tajik armed forces are small compared to India's, but both use similar equipment like T-72 tanks and BMP-II infantry combat vehicles. The two sides will also collaborate to combat drug trafficking," a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said. Afghanistan is projected to harvest a bumper opium crop this year, which officials anticipate is likely to be smuggled out as heroin to the West via long-established routes across Tajikistan.

Tajikistan has around 47,000 army personnel, and an air force with 19,000 personnel, one of the largest in the region. It flies around 190 fighter aircraft such as MiG 21s, MiG 27s, MiG 29s and Sukhoi 24s, nearly all of which are operated by the Indian Air Force (IAF). But its pilot efficiency has suffered grievously over the past eight years because of under-staffing of its combat squadrons mainly owing to poor training facilities.

Fear of growing Indian links with Kabul and the CAR led Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf to warn New Delhi to "lay off" the region in a televised address to the nation after the United States-led war on Afghanistan began last October.

India's military profile in the region - principally to counter Pakistan's influence over Afghanistan through the Taliban it raised and installed in Kabul in 1996 - increased after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-184 from Kathmandu in 1999 by Pakistan-backed terrorists to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The hostages and the hijacked aircraft were released on New Year's eve in exchange for three Kashmiri terrorists lodged in Delhi's Tihar jail. It was a humiliating deal with the Taliban at the behest of the Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI). One of the three released militants, the British national Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, has since been sentenced to death in Pakistan for kidnapping and murdering U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl. Sheikh's appeal against the sentence is pending in a higher court.

India recently broke its silence over the clandestine help it provided the Afghan Northern Alliance (N.A.) fighters by admitting that its Army had been running a 25-bed hospital at Farkhor for over a year. The N.A. military commander, Ahmad Shah Masood, who was assassinated last September by two Arab suicide bombers posing as journalists, died in the India-run hospital. Through Tajikistan, India also reportedly supplied the N.A. high altitude warfare equipment worth around $8 million. A handful of Indian defence "advisers" who reportedly included an officer in the rank of Brigadier, were based in Tajikistan to advise the N.A. in operations against the Taliban. Helicopter technicians from the clandestine Aviation Research Centre (ARC) operated by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), repaired the N.A.'s Soviet-made Mi-17 and Mi-35 attack helicopters. The ARC operates a fleet of spy aircraft that provide the RAW aerial reconnaissance, communications and electronics intelligence and imagery analysis. India maintained that several Islamabad-backed Muslim terrorist groups that prepared insurgents to fight the civil war in Kashmir were given military training inside Afghanistan by the ISI. This was later confirmed after a large number of cadres from the Lashkar-e-Toiba with its headquarters at Mudrike near Lahore, were killed last year in the bitter battle for the key northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. After Moscow's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union, Pakistan aimed to fill the power vacuum in Kabul and Central Asia. Using jehad as an instrument of state policy, Islamabad's military establishment had long nursed ambitions of creating an "inverted" Islamic crescent, or Caliphate, stretching from Kashmir to Afghanistan and the CAR with Pakistan as its pivot. Through the 1990s it set about implementing its agenda. But after the Taliban's fall, Pakistan's influence in the CAR, limited principally to fomenting Islamic insurgencies, has waned significantly.

Pakistan's membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a key regional Central Asian grouping comprising Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan and Tajikistan besides Russia and China, meanwhile, has surprised some members because of its previous involvement with Islamic insurgent groups. India is also being considered for the SCO that came into being six years ago to deal with border issues, combat ethnic and religious tensions in member-countries and to safeguard against the export of Islamic terrorism.

India's recent diplomatic thrust into Central Asia keeping in view its future energy requirements and strategic positioning, through bilateral visits and trade and understated military agreements with some of the Republics, is also triggered by the security realignments in the region following the Taliban's ouster. The ensuing conflict of interest in the area between India's old ally Russia and the U.S., its new found "long-term, strategic partner," and nuclear rival China is also fuelling Delhi's "forward" Central Asian policy. And though India remains powerless to engineer or overtly influence the "New Game," its size, military and nuclear capability make it a not altogether insignificant part of the complex jigsaw.

Apart from hosting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on a five-day state visit in February, India has also launched a regional "people-to-people" initiative by inviting diplomats, parliamentarians and opinion-makers from the CAR to visit its industrial and technological centres and also interact with senior politicians, officials and businessmen.

Stressing India's proximity to Central Asia and its larger international standing, the India-Kazakhstan Joint Declaration signed in February by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Nazarbayev stated that Delhi's membership of the SCO "would add to the strength of that organisation". In exchange, Kazakhstan wants Indian information technology expertise to develop software parks and to start joint IT ventures. For nearly a decade India has supplied around 30 per cent of the CAR's pharmaceutical requirements. At an industrial fair at Almaty in April, Indian companies secured orders for civilian goods worth $28 million. India and Kazakhstan have also established a forum to counter terrorism and for "early action" in finalising agreements in military and technical cooperation. This 'cooperation' involves servicing and possibly upgrading Kazak military hardware which, like a majority of India's defence equipment, is of Soviet and Russian origin.

Kazakhstan's push for India's membership of the SCO with a view to diluting Chinese and Russian influence in the forum, however, has evoked a cautious reaction in Delhi. India is loath to be a part of a security forum in which Beijing is a leading player and its military and nuclear ally Pakistan, a potential associate. "Till SCO membership rules are finalised we cannot assess whether joining it will be advantageous or not for India," a senior Indian diplomat said, refusing to be drawn into any discussion on Kazakhstan's proposal to admit Delhi into the organisation. But he indicated that the key to India's relations with the CAR depended largely on China's response to the U.S.' military presence in the region. Vajpayee attended the two-day Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) at Almaty in June, where the issue of Delhi joining the SCO was expected to be discussed. But the visit alongside Musharraf's was overshadowed by the heightened military alert along the India-Pakistan border.

India's growing strategic relations with the U.S. since last September are also likely to put Delhi in an awkward situation if it did indeed join the SCO given the organisation's revised, albeit unstated, charter of containing Washington's burgeoning influence in the region. U.S. military bases at Manas, 30 km from Kyrghyzstan's capital Bishkek, adjoining China and a similar, though little publicised, presence of U.S.-led allies at Khanabad in Uzbekistan are of grave concern to Beijing and Moscow which anticipate an eventual clash with Washington in the region awash with oil and gas deposits. The U.S. is already the leading foreign investor in Central Asia's energy sector, openly declaring that it wants to promote political and economic stability in the area in order to safeguard its energy imports and to combat international terrorism and arms trafficking.

India is not anxious to convey to the U.S. the impression that it is willing even to consider a Moscow-Delhi-Beijing triangle to ensure a multi-polar world. In 1998, the proposal for a strategic tie-up involving Russia, India and China was mooted by former Russian Prime Minister E. Primakov to contain the spread of U.S. influence through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) eastward thrust and Washington's growing involvement in Central Asia for oil. But China, wanting to fill the power vacuum after Washington's withdrawal from Asia after the Cold War ended, rejected India's role as a player in world affairs.

Delhi's nuclear tests, however, alongside a renewed U.S. push into Asia in the late 1990s and President Bill Clinton's overtures to India in early 2000 that were later adapted by President George W. Bush's administration, disturbed China. So did Washington's Nuclear Missile Defence policy, which Delhi accepted with unquestioning alacrity.

Thereafter, China began engaging India more definitively through high-level bilateral visits, formulating a Joint Working Group on terrorism which had its first meeting in April, besides moving forward on the vexatious border negotiations, stalled for nearly a decade. Beijing is also reportedly not opposed to India's entry into the SCO as part of its long-term policy of "keeping its friends close, but its enemies closer," a security official declared.

But India has already been drawn into the U.S. regional power game through a slew of treaties and agreements that indicate a "long term" military and security alliance to contain China. Such a partnership intrinsically suits India, one of whose senior Ministers dubbed China its "number one enemy" despite a flurry of diplomatic and political overtures to Beijing. Analysts believe that in the short term, the U.S. presence in Central Asia suits Delhi's interests as American efforts to bypass Iran and Russia to transport oil at cheap rates to international markets, including India, through an alternative route will intensify. But an extended stay would pressure Delhi into moving away from Russia, its closest military ally and principal defence equipment provider, and in all probability bring it into a situation of conflict with China.

"U.S. control over the oil and energy resources of Central Asia will make it neither cheap nor accessible to others," declared Ajay Patnaik, Professor at the Centre for Russian, Central Asian and East European Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. If the U.S. succeeds in controlling most of the energy resources, it will use this as an instrument of its external policy. That would make emerging powers like India most vulnerable, he added.

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