The gate to the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe: what's going on inside?
India is quietly using the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, hosting a contingent of helicopters and fighter jets in cooperation with Russia, an Indian journalist reports. Saurav Jha, writing in World Politics Review (subscription required, but free trial available), while the Tajikistan government has denied that it would allow anyone but Russia to use the base, the truth is otherwise:
However, an Indian official directly involved in renovating the airfield told World Politics Review that an Indian air force contingent, including Indian Mi-17 helicopters and leased Russian fighter jets, is currently deployed to the base under joint Indo-Tajik control. The Russian equipment will be maintained by Russian contractors, creating “a sort of joint control over these assets.” His comments echo recent reports of negotiations between the three parties for joint use of the base.
Jha also theorizes on why everyone is keeping this quiet: to avoid offending China and Pakistan.
India has spent almost $70 million, including equipment costs, to completely repave and extend the runway at Ayni, set up air traffic control and perimeter fencing and build three hardened shelters -- all, the Indian official confirmed, with an eye to supporting fighter-jet operations. That might be the real reason behind Tajikistan’s reticence to officially clarify the status of the base. While Ayni will allow India to watch over northern Afghanistan in the aftermath of a NATO withdrawal, it can also provide coverage for Indian fighter aircraft over northern Pakistan and western China, areas that lack robust air defense networks. Tajik officials might be downplaying their involvement in the base out of deference to Beijing and Islamabad’s sensitivities.
All this actually sounds plausible, and jibes with what what India's defense minister AK Antony hinted at when he last visited Dushanbe in October:
India, Tajikistan and Russia are in negotiations on the joint use of the Ayni Air Base, close to the Tajik capital Dushanbe which is set to acquire strategic significance after US withdrawal from Afghanistan, sources said...
When asked if India was a partner in the use of the base, Antony merely described Ayni as the best air base in entire Central Asia.
Curiously, there is still no word about what may have transpired during Antony's subsequent visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, nor any mention of India's recently reported interest in using a different air base in Tajkistan, Farkhor near the Afghanistan border. The intrigue just keeps getting thicker...