India courts Tajikistan to swing Afghan endgame

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi : Signalling an upswing in its “Connect Central Asia policy”, India is gearing up to roll out the red carpet for longtime Tajik leader Emomalii Rahmon Monday — an important visit from a country which is critical to Afghanistan’s stability and host to the only military facility New Delhi has overseas.

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will hold wide-ranging talks with Tajikistan President Rahmon, who has helmed the energy-rich strategically located nation for the last two decades, to deepen bilateral economic and strategic ties.

At the end of the talks, India will unveil a substantial development assistance package for the Central Asian country, official sources told IANS.

There will also be discussions on Indian assistance for upgrading the Ayni base and setting up a military hospital in Tajikistan, said the sources. India has its only overseas military base in Tajikistan, which is operated by the Indian Air Force in collaboration with the Tajikistan Air Force.

The visit coincides with the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Tajikistan.

On top of the agenda will be the ongoing flux in Afghanistan, where the hardline Taliban militia is eyeing the exit of the international combat troops in 2014 to recapture the country they ruled for five years till the ouster of the Mullah Omar regime in 2001.

India and Tajikistan had partnered in the Northern Alliance that played a pivotal role in forcing the Taliban regime out and are set to intensify their collaboration to prevent the Islamist zealots from capturing Kabul.

In fact, Tajikistan, which shares over 1,400 km border with Afghanistan, faces threat from Taliban-linked terror groups like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and is already reeling from the spillover effects as thousands of Afghans have taken shelter in the country.

Tajikistan’s importance to the shifting Afghan calculus is evident from the way Pakistan is courting the Central Asian country. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari met the Tajik president in Tehran on the sidelines of the NAM summit Thursday and invited him for the fourth quadrilateral summit on Afghanistan in Islamabad Sep 26-27, to which the presidents of Russia and Afghanistan have already been invited.

Against this backdrop, India and Tajikistan will be looking to expand their counter-terror cooperation and intensify consultations on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

India has taken positive note of the secularization policy by the Tajik president. In a bid to shield his country from the malignant spread of extremism, Rahmon has banned religious instruction in schools.

Connectivity will be another key issue in discussions as both sides look to expand the number of flights between New Delhi and the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

India plans to operate up to 14 flights to Dushanbe. Tajikistan, on its part, will begin four flights.

In June this year, India unveiled its Connect Central Asia policy which entails a proactive multi-pronged diplomatic thrust by India to accelerate ties with the energy-rich Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

With its core strengths in capacity building, IT and human resource development, India is uniquely poised to transform the resource-rich strategically-located region that suffers from a massive infrastructure deficit.

India has a long way to go to catch up with other major powers in the region, with its bilateral trade less than $1 billion compared to China’s $29 billion and the US’s $26 billion, respectively.