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Central Asia: India Forging Stronger Regional Military Ties

  • Antoine Blua

An Indian military delegation is expected to visit Dushanbe soon to firm up plans for a joint military exercise, the first such war games by Indian troops in Central Asia. The move is in keeping with New Delhi's initiative to forge stronger ties with the region. RFE/RL looks at the prospects for stronger military relations between India and the Central Asian republics.

Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- India is cultivating ties with Central Asia. And it is a measure of the goodwill India enjoys in the region that there have been several recent high-level visits, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov's official trip to New Delhi earlier this month being the latest.

India is now taking concrete steps to forge stronger military ties in the region, especially with Tajikistan. India already uses the country as a base for its aircraft carrying humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.

Zarobiddin Sirojov, a spokesman for Tajikistan's Defense Ministry, told RFE/RL that Indian military officials are due to visit Dushanbe soon to firm up plans for a joint military exercise. He said dates for the war games will be decided during the visit. One official in the Indian Defense Ministry told the Indo-Asian News Service that the exercises will be held "this year, maybe very soon."

The news agency quoted Indian officials as saying Central Asia occupies an important place in New Delhi's "security calculus" and that the Indian government is seeking to forge linkages with "moderate" leaderships in the region.

P.R. Chari is the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. He said he believes the joint exercise marks India's first attempt at establishing some form of military cooperation with the republics of Central Asia. "What I feel is that there is a new geopolitical game which is now beginning in Central Asia. And what I see is that there is going to be a kind of competition between the United States, Russia, and China in this area. And I feel that as far as India is concerned -- of course, it is not in the same league as these three countries -- it would like to have a presence in this area. [But] I wouldn't say it's mostly a military presence," Chari said.

New Delhi is a late starter in the military race in Central Asia.

The 1993 Treaty of Friendship between Russia and Tajikistan gives Russia's Federal Border Service authority for the protection of the Tajik border. Russia's 15,000-strong 201st Motor Rifle Division occupies a base outside the capital, Dushanbe.

The Russian Air Force late last year deployed planes to Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan, forming a joint Russian-Kyrgyz air base under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty.

In October last year, China and Kyrgyzstan conducted a joint military exercise aimed at coordinating their response to terrorism.

The United States has enhanced its military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan since its involvement in Afghanistan and secured cooperation from Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

However, pledges of economic assistance made by the West to Central Asia have largely failed to materialize. Chari stressed that India will try to couple military cooperation with both economic cooperation and development assistance.

Chari added that military cooperation with Tajikistan will be mostly in the area of training. An agreement has already been reached to train Tajik Army officers in Indian military establishments.

India, however, lacks the sophisticated weaponry that Moscow and Washington can provide the Central Asian republics, as Chari pointed out. "Let us be realistic. India does not have the kind of weaponry which the military forces in Tajikistan and the other Central Asian republics might be interested in. But so far as India is concerned, it could certainly offer training facilities both within the training institutions that we have in India and also to establish or to have training facilities in the Central Asian republics," Chari said.

Vadim Kozulin is an associate researcher of the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. He said India's military presence in Central Asia is a new wrinkle in the geopolitical game being conducted in the region.

According to Kozulin, India is aiming to gain political support from the region in its conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. "We can witness the restructuring of bloc policy in the world. We can witness the creation of new defense structures like the Shanghai Organization, which unites Russia, China, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan have declared that they are also interested in taking part in this organization. Probably that's the most attractive subject for Indian leaders nowadays," Kozulin said.

Kozulin, however, does not reject the possibility that India is exporting weapons, especially weaponry coproduced with Russia, in an effort to forge political relations.

According to Kozulin, Russia "definitely" welcomes such cooperation and should be satisfied with any military relations by India with close Russian partners like Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. "India is a strategic, very old, and reliable partner of Russia in all aspects, the military in particular. And Russia is a very close strategic partner of Tajikistan. So I think that any event going on in Tajikistan in the military field definitely has the approval of the military and political leadership [in Russia]," Kozulin said.

The Russian leadership understands that the Indian military would contribute to stability in the region, Kozulin said. Tajikistan, which shares a tense 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan, is a source of instability for the region and for Russia.

Artem Malgin, the deputy director of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Moscow-based State Institute for International Relations, said, however, that there is little room for any kind of "real" military cooperation between India and Tajikistan. "I think it's enough to have two non-regional players there. I mean, Russian frontier guards and this 201st Infantry [Motor Rifle] Division in Tajikistan and the American presence there. If they simply want to stress their regional power, they can interfere somehow in the Tajik affairs. But still there is no mission for the Indian presence there. It's too distant from India [anyway]," Malgin said.

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Franklin Huddle yesterday handed over special equipment worth $500,000 to Tajikistan to help guard its borders. The equipment is part of a $1.8 million Export Control and Borders Security program funded by the U.S. State Department.

Tajik Border Guard Committee Chairman Abdurrahmon Azimov told Interfax news agency that more than 500 border guards have undergone U.S. training.

Malgin noted, however, that Tajikistan and India could find common ground in the area of fighting terrorism. Visiting Tajikistan late last month, Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha concluded an agreement for setting up a joint working group on terrorism.

Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He warns that the upcoming visit of Indian military officials to Tajikistan is part of a broad design, which he believes is "quite alarming" in its potential. "There are many signs that India is gearing up to put military pressure on Pakistan," he said. "The Indians are absolutely furious with [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, [who] has not been able to implement a real crackdown on jihadi groups in Pakistan. The most important thing here is the recent alliance -- and that's the right word -- with Iran that India has signed," Blank said.

Last month, an Indo-Iranian defense-cooperation agreement was signed in Tehran. Indian defense officials claim the accord gives New Delhi the right to use Iranian military bases in the event of any war with Pakistan.

Blank said a joint military exercise with Tajikistan would be part of India's attempt to put military and economic pressure on Pakistan. He envisages the possibility that the Farkhor base in Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border, will be the focus of India's deepening involvement in Central Asian defense.

The Farkhor military base was reportedly established to funnel Indian relief assistance to Kabul after India and Pakistan imposed mutual bans on overflights in December 2001. Military and diplomatic sources in New Delhi told India's "Frontline" magazine that the base, the first such Indian military facility outside the country, has been "quietly operational" since May 2002, with Indian defense "advisers."

All these moves, Blank said, portend Central Asia's growing entanglement in the subcontinent's security agenda.