Connect Central Asia Initiative

By K.N. Pandita

Minister for External Affairs, M S Krishna is back from a short visit to Dushanbe the capital of the southern Central Asian State of Tajikistan.

Tajikistan holds a significant strategic place in Indian’s view of the world, despite its relatively small size (143,100 square kilometers) and population – 7.6 million. Its immediate borders are with Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, but they also run close to Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan (part of historical Jammu and Kashmir claimed by India) and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province). 

In a previous write-up on Central Asia, I had said that Tajikistan was emerging strategically important country for India and New Delhi should waste no time in repairing the loss that has taken place owing to lethargic if not negligent policy towards Central Asia as a whole, but particularly towards Tajikistan.

Tajikistan came under India’s radar when the Northern Alliance led by late Ahmad Shah Masud put up stiff resistance to the Taliban for quiet some time but could not avert the fall of Kabul and the catastrophic fate met by Dr. Najibullah the then Afghan President.

Northern Afghanistan, more popularly known as Panjsheer Valley, is inhabited by ethnic Tajiks who speak Tajik and are linguistically, culturally and ethnically very close to the Tajiks of Tajikistan.

Strategic importance of Tajikistan for India lies in the fact that geographically it is contiguous to Afghanistan and, therefore, retains the potential of providing logistical support to India in her mega economic developmental projects in Afghanistan. Since Tajikistan is considered the bridge between Central Asian States and Afghanistan, the same criterion is applicable in the case of China and the US too making it a bridge to Afghanistan…

Tajikistan’s mineral wealth remains unexplored. The Soviets did not make any attempt perhaps owing to cost considerations. Nevertheless, it is believed that Tajikistan Mountains especially the Badakhshan, known for its lapis lazuli, must be having other precious metals in its bosom.

However, Tajikistan is rich in regard of its capacity of producing hydroelectric power. The envisaged Rogun hydroelectric power project on Verzob could generate electric power to meet the requirement of entire region of Central Asia but the irony is that Tajikistan is purchasing gas from the next door neighbor Uzbekistan. Pakistan has already been trying to negotiate a deal with Tajikistan for transmission of electricity. India could take up the completion of incomplete hydroelectric power stations and grids in Tajikistan to make her energy rich state and thus boost her economy.

More than a decade ago, India secured the agreement of the government in Dushanbe to reconstruct the Farkhor airport also known as Ainy at some distance from capital Dushanbe. At a cost of ten million dollars India reconstructed the airbase and made it functional. It was perhaps the only military base India had in any foreign country.

But unfortunately, India somehow failed to maintain her influence especially in view of expansion by stealth of Chinese policy in Central Asia and the growing suspicions of Moscow as well.

If India is to pursue the policy of making palpable her presence in Afghanistan after 2014, it is unavoidable for her to develop the second line of influence in Tajikistan. China has taken big strides in that Central Asian State so much so that the proposal is to extend the rail link to Dushanbe and then across the Amu River to Kabul. China has also decided to make massive investment in Afghan copper mines found in western Afghanistan, and the connectivity for the Chinese lies through Tajikistan.

China has already made her massive presence felt in Gilgit-Baltistan and has developed the infrastructure along the Karakorum that makes her militarily strategic position very strong. Political commentators call is Beijing’s policy of encirclement of India. Therefore, Tajikistan holds great strategic importance for India in view of Chinese expansion westward.

We have the connectivity problem with Central Asia especially with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that fall close to the Himalayan watershed. Any Indian airplane flying direct from Delhi/Srinagar to Bishkek or Dushanbe will have to fly over the PoK territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and perhaps also over the Wakhan.  Unless there is an air treaty with Pakistan permitting these flights, it will not be possible to have direct overland link with Central Asia and New Delhi.

With no hope of Indo-Pak relations changing for better in near future, we shall have to put up with the situation in the region as it is. Pakistan is too much involved in her internal problems and would be happy having some modicum of normal relationship with India not for the love of the latter or as a result of change of heart but only to mark time till she is strong enough circumstantially to carry on her agenda of ousting India from Afghan scenario.

It is reported that in the course of Islamabad and Washington conducting behind the scene negotiations to mend fences and restore their normal relations, a process in which Pakistan Army has had a strong say, Islamabad has expressed its disapproval of the US patronizing Indian role in Afghanistan in post 2014 exit.

Pakistan attributed India’s hardening of posture on Indo-Pak relations and one or two strong statements by the Indian External Affairs Minster as the sequel to Washington’s warming up to the Indians. Dynamics of foreign policy would not be a constraint in the path of Washington to change horses in mid-water. Release of 1.2 billion US dollars is fully in consonance of long standing US-Pak relationship.

In this backdrop, India’s “Connect Central Asian Initiative” has to be pragmatic and not just a desk book proposition. India needs to penetrate into the Central Asian economy and energy area. If Indo-Pak bilateral talks are meant to be result oriented then India, in pursuance of her ‘connect CA initiative” will have to make two demands here and now. One is that India must have an overland connectivity to Central Asia through Pakistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan corridor. The second is that India must be allowed air passage over Gilgit-Baltistan and the peripheries of Wakhan across the Western Pamirs to Central Asian capitals. An international agreement has to be arrived at for reopening these links permanently.

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