Books on Tajikistan
Update No: 307 - (27/07/06)
The hub of geopolitical developments in Central Asia
The swiftly changing geopolitical situation in Tajikistan is really making the
rest of the world sit up and take notice. Long neglected as a remote backwater,
it is now a place that matters, adjoining other countries that matter.
Tajikistan is landlocked, with China and Afghanistan to the south and east and
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the north, all important players on the world
stage. For a long time Uzbekistan offered the only trade route out to Russia and
the West, but the Uzbeks have ruthlessly mined the border, ostensibly to stop
Islamic extremists, but in reality to put the pressure on Tajikistan to toe the
Now China has built a new road linking Xinjiang, its westernmost province, with
Tajikistan. That means a new trade outlet for Tajikistan. In addition, the
Americans are building a bridge across the Amu Darya River, which divides
Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Once the bridge is completed, China's new road will allow China and Tajikistan
to send goods through Afghanistan to Pakistan's southern sea ports. Imports into
Central Asia can also travel this new route. From Dushanbe they can be
distributed to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China.
Tajikistan also stands to gain if regional trade increases. A new report by the
UN Development Programme says that Central Asia could double its regional trade
by reducing artificial trade barriers and loss-making protectionism. That would
also help to lower the smuggling and drugs trade that accounts for 40 percent of
Central Asia's economies.
Meanwhile, the United States, Russia and China are vying for military bases in
Tajikistan. Rahmanov is playing his hand adroitly. The Russians have an air
base, and so does France, under the auspices of NATO.
India moves in
But there is an old player on the scene that got in before them all, Russia
of course excepted. It is showing a renewed vigour in Tajik affairs.
India's move to establish an air base in Tajikistan is adding a new wrinkle to
the geopolitical struggle unfolding in Central Asia. Some of India's strategic
interests coincide with those of the United States, but others appear to
encourage stronger Indian-Russian ties. As a result, geopolitics in Central Asia
stands to become more complicated.
Reports began circulating in April that the Indian air base at Ayni (also called
Farkhor) in Tajikistan was operational. Both Indian and Tajik officials issued
immediate denials, but they did admit that India had been renovating the base
since 2002. Moreover, Russian sources confirmed that indeed such a base existed
and that it was co-located with the Russian air base at Ayni, which is part of
Russia's own determined drive to rebuild its military presence and capabilities
in Central Asia.
When fully operational, the Indian base is expected to host 12 to 14 MiG-29
fighter bombers, according to various reports. India's intention to open its
first base located on foreign soil was first reported in 2002. At that time,
some reports claimed that the Ayni facility was already operational, and,
therefore, could have been used for operations against Islamic militants
operating either in Central Asia or Pakistan. Indeed, the origins of this base
lie in Pakistan's closure of its air space to India during their crisis of
2001-2002, and India's resolve to get around this restriction for both its
commercial and military aircraft, while also gaining an ability to strike in
The potential implications of this base go far beyond the Indo-Pakistani rivalry
on the subcontinent. First of all, the Ayni base is a tangible manifestation of
India's move to project its power in Central Asia, a policy goal formally
enunciated in 2003-2004. It not only signifies India's determination to play a
role in Central Asian security, but its genuine ability to do so.
At the same time, the Ayni base represents a major element in India's efforts to
promote stability in Afghanistan, and to enhance New Delhi's ability to contain
Islamic terrorism both in South Asia and Central Asia. India obviously will not
accept being confined to an exclusively South Asian geo-strategic role any
But India's determination to project power throughout Central Asia is not just
for military purposes. Access to Central Asian energy is vitally important for
India. New Delhi seeks access to Kazakh oil and gas and involvement in
"mega-projects," such as an Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline
and another linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Either or
both of these pipelines would substantially improve India's reliable access to
energy supplies, while encouraging better Indo-Pakistani relations.
In addition, India wants to develop a new power grid that integrates Central
Asian states with those of the subcontinent, an idea that has received strong
backing from the United States of late. While India would use a new grid to
enhance its overall economic profile in Central Asia, Washington sees the
project as a way to counter the growing economic and political influence of
Russia and China in Central Asia.
The importance of India's Ayni base does not end here. Its appearance suggests
that India's long-standing strategic ties with Russia remain on a sound footing.
This, of course, could complicate New Delhi's power-grid plans, as Moscow is
unlikely to be supportive of any project that diminishes its regional political
or economic influence. It is unclear how far India is willing to push to realize
its power-grid plan. In the strategic sphere, India and Russia share a common
enemy in Islamic terrorism, and India needs Russian energy as much as Russia
needs Indian diplomatic support and arms deals. At present, the U.S. government
is maintaining a low-key approach toward India, refraining from applying
pressure on New Delhi to make a decision. Indeed, as President George W. Bush's
visit to India in April underscored, Washington seems intent on using carrots
rather than sticks to sway New Delhi.
At the same time, it will be interesting to see what Pakistan and China make of
India's actions. Pakistan is still turning a blind eye to Taliban organizing in
Afghanistan, and China is still selling it much weaponry and providing
significant diplomatic support. Although both India and Pakistan are observers
in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is undoubtedly wary of the
Indian presence at Ayni. Moreover, Indian policy intellectuals continue to view
China as a strategic rival in Central Asia, as well as closer to home. Thus,
India's power-projection ambitions are in a certain sense directed toward China.
Finally, India's Ayni base helps illustrate one of the ways in which the
regional security agenda is being militarised. The proliferation of foreign
bases in Central Asia, it ought to be stressed, predates 9/11 and the U.S.
strategic move into the region. The presence of so many bases is prompting a
far-ranging re-evaluation of the region's geo-strategic importance.
Not only is Moscow ensconced in numerous bases, either through bilateral
arrangements or via the Collective Security Treaty Organization, China too is
seeking military facilities, reportedly in Kyrgyzstan, and for sure in
Uzbekistan. India's base, seen in this context, is merely the latest example of
foreign governments' thirst for military bases. The base at Ayni tells us that
not only is another major player throwing down a marker in the so called new
Great Game, the game itself is becoming larger, deeper, and ever more intense.
Internally, things are far better than could have been expected ten years
ago. There are still some restrictions on political freedom in Tajikistan, but
compared with its Central Asian neighbours it is providing a model of political
In 1997 the United Nations brokered a peace deal to end a four-year civil war
that had claimed 50,000 of Tajikistan's six million people. Western promises of
substantial aid to help the country recover never materialized. Grinding poverty
and economic decline followed, with 600,000 Tajiks leaving to seek work in
Russia. The local drugs mafia traded heroin freely with the Taliban regime in
All that is now in the past, and Dushanbe, the capital, is showing signs of
prosperity. For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, people are
actually smiling, despite the shortage of electricity and the biting cold in
winter and blistering hear in summer.
Tajikistan's economy is growing at the rate of 8 percent a year, workers are
returning from Russia, foreign investment in the mining industry is up and,
since 9/11, so is Western aid. All this of course is from a very low base.
Even though 100 tons of heroin still cross the Afghan-Tajik border annually,
destined for Europe, the government has sponsored a popular campaign among
mothers and teenagers to combat drug abuse - the first of its kind in Central
Asia. The United Nations has helped establish an antinarcotics unit in the
government, which is the least corrupt in the region. And the European Union,
the United States, Russia and China are helping to fund and arm a new Tajik
force on the Afghan border to keep drugs out.
The secret of success lies partly in the personality of the president. Like
other Central Asian autocrats, President Emamoli Rahmanov has been castigated
for unfair elections and harassment of those who do not toe the government line,
but he tolerates an opposition that includes members of the Islamic Renaissance
Party who fought in the civil war against him. He is a totally different kettle
of fish from the Uzbek or Turkmen dictators next door.
The Islamic Renaissance Party has two seats in Parliament and its deputy
chairman, Moheyuddin Kabiri, speaks of an evolution toward a more Islamic
society, rather than a revolution, and sympathizes with the difficult balancing
act that Rahmanov has to manage. The other Central Asian states, especially
Uzbekistan, are livid that Tajikistan's president allows Islamists to sit in
Dushanbe to strengthen cooperation with Washington
During the inauguration ceremony for the new US embassy in Dushanbe, Tajik
President, Emomali Rahmonov, said on June 29th that Tajikistan would take steps
to expand and strengthen cooperation with Washington in all spheres, Interfax
News Agency reported.
Rahmonov has praised his country's partnership with US. "We are optimistic
about the prospects for Tajik-US relations, which have been developing
vigorously. We are determined to quicken the pace of their growth,"
Tajikistan has been pursuing a peaceful foreign policy aimed at establishing
mutually beneficial cooperation with all members of the international community,
the president said.
The former Soviet republic is interested in comprehensive cooperation with the
United States, he said. Tajik-US trade stood at 4.5 million Euro in January-May
2006 (a 41.3 per cent drop year-on-year), or a mere 0.37 per cent of the overall
volume of Tajikistan's foreign trade. However, the US, which is a leading
supplier of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan, provided 18.6 million Euro worth of
relief supplies to the country in the first five months of the year, accounting
for 56.1 per cent of the whole international aid to Dushanbe. The United States
considerably increased its assistance after Tajikistan agreed to grant
over-flight rights to airplanes en route to Afghanistan. Tajikistan has opened
its air space to US-led coalition forces since the war in Afghanistan. The US
tops Tajikistan's aid provider list. Considering the huge potential for economic
and trade cooperation between the two countries, Rahmonov said that US aid had
played an important role in Tajikistan's social and economic development.