Ayni air base in Tajikistan was supposed to become a showpiece for India. In the mid-2000s, India's military began renovating the facility, and New Delhi appeared poised in 2006 to announced that Ayni had become operational. But four years later, the base sits largely dormant - an airfield without any fighter jets.
The reason that Ayni is still idle, many in Dushanbe believe, is Russia: Moscow does not want any other country to have use of the base. "They [Tajik officials] don't know what to do with this airbase. We don't need it for ourselves, but to give it to someone else would create problems with other countries," said Faridoon Khodizoda, a political analyst in Dushanbe.
Information about the base is closely held. The Russian Embassy in Dushanbe did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman at the Indian Embassy in Dushanbe said he could not comment on Ayni, but referred questions to the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan. The Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.
India has renovated runways and hangars at Ayni, but the Indian government has never publicly stated what its longer-term intentions were for the base. Reports in the Indian press suggested that India hoped to base a squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets there, in an effort to bolster its political clout in Central Asia, and to create a counterweight to Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
Analysts of India's military suggest those expectations may have been too ambitious. When the base renovations started in 2004, India did not have a clear plan as to how it would eventually utilize the facility, said one source close to the Indian armed forces, whose employer does not allow him to speak on the record. "The point, sadly, remains the same: While the Tajik government has kept doors open, at least in a limited sense, the government here [in India] hasn't quite gotten its act together about precisely what or how to leverage the opportunity," he said.
Some analysts said India's foray into base politics was motivated by a desire to play the role of great power. "India is playing a game," said Imran Baig, a Washington-based analyst of South Asian security. "To maintain a base with no aircraft is not expensive at all," he said. "But to deploy a high-tech fighter squadron full time at a remote location far from the country of origin is a very, very costly affair and can only be afforded by superpowers."
Still, India appears to want to keep the question of its presence at Ayni open. India's president, Pratibha Patil, visited Dushanbe last year, an indicator to both Indian and Tajik experts that India was still trying to court Tajikistan.
Indian engineers continue to work on construction projects at the base, including a "hotel," said one worker who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. But there were no Indian aircraft there, the worker added.
Meanwhile, in Dushanbe, analysts argue that the Tajik government may have been courting India with the intention of playing New Delhi off of Moscow, possibly hoping to get Moscow to offer more money for an exclusive lease to the base.
Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, said last year that Tajikistan and Russia would jointly use the base, but Tajikistan has never confirmed that. Russia, which already maintains a large military base for its 201st Division at Dushanbe, does not appear interested in actually using Ayni, but merely in keeping other countries from using it, said Zafar Sufiyev, editor in chief of the newspaper Ozodagon.
Meanwhile, Tajik leaders do not appear interested in allowing Russian forces to use the base. Tajikistan's president, Imomali Rahmon, recently suggested that Russia, which currently does not pay rent for the 201st base, should do so in the future. The two sides, however, agreed to put off that decision until 2014. Tajik-Russian relations have been tense of late, mainly because of Moscow's failure to support Dushanbe, either financially or diplomatically, in the construction of the Rogun Dam, which Tajikistan's government sees as vital to its future economic security. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
"Rahmon is not independent enough to say 'no' to Russia, and he's afraid to say 'yes' to anyone else," said Saymuddin Dustov, an analyst in Dushanbe. "So he does nothing."
There has been speculation that the United States., facing continuing uncertainty over the use of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, might be interested in Ayni as a possible replacement. The Tajikistan government would allow US forces to use Ayni at the right price, said Safiyev. "If the government gets more for it than the Americans pay for Manas, they'll be interested," he said. "It's a market."
But Kenneth Gross, the US ambassador to Tajikistan, told EurasiaNet.org there are no discussions between the two countries over the use of Ayni.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.