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India's `Pamir Knot'

By C. Raja Mohan

NEW DELHI Nov. 10. As the peripatetic Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, heads out on a three-nation tour this week, the most exciting part of the trip should be in the land of the Pamirs — Tajikistan.

Mr. Vajpayee's flight path would hopefully give him a spectacular view of the Pamir Knot from which some of the world's greatest mountain ranges — the Hindu Kush, Kunlun, Karakorum, and Tian Shan — radiate out in different directions.

Besides the Pamir Knot, the tightening geopolitical plot in Central Asia should be at the top of Mr. Vajpayee's agenda as he makes the first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Tajikistan.

Unlike some of its luckier neighbours in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Tajikistan does not have oil or natural gas. Mountainous Tajikistan has certain assets of its own — gold and uranium. But more importantly, it has a unique location.

But for the deliberately carved out sliver of territory called the Wakhan corridor in Eastern Afghanistan that was inserted between the British and Russian empires, Tajikistan would have shared a formal boundary with the subcontinent. It shares the most fertile part of the region — the Fergana valley — with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Sitting on top of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and sharing a long boundary with eastern frontier with China, Tajikistan could serve the same function as the Pamir Knot — the fulcrum of regional geopolitics.

Although India moved quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to engage the newly independent republics, it was Tajikistan that drew real close to India and became New Delhi's natural ally in Central Asia.

The Indo-Tajik strategic relationship included joint support to the Northern Alliance that resisted the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. High-level political visits from India to Tajikistan were made difficult by a bloody civil war that had hobbled the nation until the late 1990s.

Mr. Vajpayee's visit to Tajikistan has been long overdue. One hopes the results from his visit will more than make up for the delay.

* * *

Meanwhile, Central Asia appears to be entering a new phase of strategic engagement with the great powers. As part of its war on terrorism after September 11, 2001, the United States established its military presence in many parts of the region.

At that time, Washington said that American military bases in Central Asia were temporary. Given the uncertain results from the American war on terrorism, and the inability to finish off the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remnants in Afghanistan, it is now widely assumed that U.S. military is here to stay for a long time.

Russia, which seemed to cede ground to the U.S. throughout the 1990s, has under the assertive leadership of its President, Vladimir Putin, has begun to reclaim its right to be the principal security manager in Central Asia.

For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow last month unveiled a military base outside Russian territory at Kant in Kyrgyzstan. The Russian airbase is not too far from the Manas military facility at Ganci that the American forces use! Russian and Kyrgyz officials say there is no political contradiction between the two military bases.

The mere 30 km that separate American and Russian military facilities in Kyrgyzstan is symbolic of the new Central Asian geopolitics. Along with the awareness of the new threats to their security after September 11, there was an acute consciousness among the Central Asian regimes that they do not have the military capabilities to defend themselves.

External assistance was clearly needed; and the American enthusiasm for Central Asia after September 11 was welcomed in the region.

But none of the regimes want to tie their future to the whims and fancies of one great power. Diversification of security dependence, then, has become the new mantra for the region.

Besides America and Russia, the Central Asian Governments have been quite happy to expand their engagement with China which has begun to conduct frequent military exercises with the nations of the region.

* * *

The Government of India has rubbished speculation that it has established a military base at Farkhor in Tajikistan. The media reports, which have acquired a life of their own since last year, have also been denied by the Tajik Government.

But neither side denies their growing military links. The Indian military engagement with the Tajiks is said to be in the fields of training, high-level exchanges, the transfer of equipment and help in building some military facilities.

There are reports, for example, that India has agreed to reconstruct a former Soviet airbase at Aini in the suburbs of the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The two sides, however, insist that there is no deployment of Indian military personnel or the establishment of a military base in Tajikistan.

India's military involvement with Tajikistan appears part of a new Indian forward policy in Central Asia.

Last week, the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, was in Kyrgyzstan offering help in mountain warfare. Moving on to Kazakhstan, Mr. Fernandes was promising the nation to build naval capabilities to defend its oil installations in the energy-rich Caspian sea.

* * *

For India, Central Asia means more than the former Soviet Republics. The term always included Tibet and Xinjiang in China and Mongolia. A great Indian who raised the nation's standing in Mongolia passed away last week without much notice in the capital.

Kyabje Bakula Rinpoche, one of the world's most venerated Buddhist figures, died on November 4 at the age of 86. Bakula Rinpoche was one of those extraordinary men who could straddle across many incompatible worlds with grace and distinction.

Bakula Rinpoche was one of the last surviving members of the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly.

He served as a member of the State legislature during 1957-67, Minister from 1953-67, and as a Member of Parliament during 1967-77.

Until a few years ago, he served as India's ambassador to Mongolia. As a Buddhist monk, he was more of a godly figure in that nation than a mere plenipotentiary of another government. The Mongolians called him "Elchin Bagsha" — the teacher ambassador.

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