Central Asia: India’s real strategic depth?

Feb 27, 2012

By Shalini Sharan
Central Asia political.pngThe collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago changed the Eurasian landscape dramatically. The emergence of newly independent post-Soviet states ushered in a new era of geopolitics in the region that captured the interest of existing and emerging superpowers. Rich in oil and gas reserves and potential providers of effective transit routes into the rest of Eurasia, Central Asian countries have great strategic potential for South Asia, and especially for India. Seeking to balance the growing Chinese and Pakistani influence, and promoting stabilization of Afghanistan, India has a great interest in the Central Asian states. However, the strategic importance of Central Asia has not been exploited fully. If India is indeed looking for a strategic depth in its immediate neighborhood, Central Asia is where it should be looking. 

The imminent drawdown of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan has sent warning signals to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. In the years that will follow the retreat of troops, Afghanistan’s stability, and the potential losses from the lack of it, will rest within the region. India and Pakistan play an important role in stabilizing Afghanistan but have pursued fragmented policies marked by distrust and antagonism toward each other. India’s geopolitical tensions with Pakistan often hinge around the ‘strategic depth’[1] that Pakistan seeks in Afghanistan to contain India’s rising influence in the region. The purely military aspect of the term ‘strategic depth’ seems obsolete today. Indeed a more nuanced look at the region suggests that soft power and non-military engagement have become a part of the quest for strategic depth [2]. This reinterpretation of the term offers the opportunity to analyze the potential for India’s “look North” policy toward Central Asia. If Afghanistan is to become a playground for the two nations then India’s strategic depth should begin in Central Asia. 

Militarily, India has had a weak presence in Central Asia compared to the US and Russia. The Tajik-Indian relations are crucial in establishing India’s military presence in Central Asia but previous efforts have been thwarted by Russian influence that led to delays and subsequent cancellation of what would have been India’s first military base overseas at the Ayni air base. The Ayni air base is located near the Tajik-Afghan border and could potentially be key to securing Indian interests in Afghanistan as a match for Pakistan. Previously, in 2001, India had set up military hospitals that served wounded Northern Alliance leaders during the fight against the Taliban which helped establish good relations with the Tajiks. Now, talks are floating about re-opening of Indian military hospital and extending Indian presence at the Fakhor Air Base. Given that India’s only border with Central Asia near Kashmir is separated by a narrow strip of Afghan land, and is occupied by Pakistan, the Tajik airbase will be absolutely instrumental in gaining military strategic depth and India should continue to pursue that option. However, this military endeavor will require the crucial consent of the Russians which has limited Tajikistan’s options for engagement with India.  

Currently, the Tajik-Indian relations are the only military footprint that India has in the region. The Indian Army Chief’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in November of last year  is an indicator of the seriousness with which India is now looking at re-engaging with Central Asia. Nevertheless, the road will not be easy given the past experience in dealing with the shifting positions that the Central Asian leaders have demonstrated. Projecting India’s engagement as a mutually beneficial endeavor will be necessary in obtaining unwavering Central Asian consent. In the short run, increasing cooperation in other fields will bolster good ties.  

Strengthening economic cooperation 

Economic cooperation is another major pillar of establishing strategic depth. Economic integration of the war-ravaged Afghan economy may not be the panacea for the region’s woes but it offers a somewhat positive outlook on the future. Since Central Asia will be the pivot of such a restructuring, it is vital that India demonstrates full willingness to be a partner with the Central Asian countries that will have a substantial role to play in Afghanistan’s future. Although Central and South Asia have been geographically more connected through the ancient “Silk Road,” the analogy has not been observed in practice during the past two decades. India, particularly, has displayed limited engagement with the Central Asian Republics. India lags significantly behind all the major players in the region (Russia, China, Iran, US and Turkey) in trading volumes with the Central Asian countries and has failed to exploit the vibrant consumer market. According to some estimates, there is a potential of $450-500 billion in trade that India could conduct through Central Asia and Afghanistan by 2015 which could be achieved if the political economy of the region shows improvement. Current numbers fall critically short of that estimate: In 2010, Kazakhstan was India’s largest bilateral trading partner ($210 million) in Central Asia, followed by Uzbekistan ($73.43 million), Turkmenistan ($37.91 million), Tajikistan ($34.06 million), and Kyrgyzstan ($25.21 million).  Secretary Clinton’s “New Silk Road Vision” builds on the historic concept of intercontinental connectivity but this reprisal will require active and committed movement from the Indian side. 

Operating outside of any regional trading framework, India regards Central Asia as an important partner in satisfying its energy needs for a bourgeoning economy. Dependent on the Middle East for most of its imported energy, India’s ONGC Videsh has acquired stakes in Kazakh oil fields and the long stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is gaining traction despite the looming security concerns. Other milestones include the Kazakh-Indian civil nuclear cooperation , and partnership with Uzbekistan  in its domestic LNG market. India is also showing leadership in connecting with the Iranian port at Chabahar to develop connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia which bypasses Pakistan. 

Common threats and challenges: Potential for cooperation?

Islamic extremism emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan and terrorist activities on domestic soil have been the center point of India’s debate on the weakness of its national security structure. The attack on the Parliament of India in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 serve as a chilling reminder of the fact that safe havens for terrorists have yet to be eradicated. The Central Asian countries have experienced a rise in terrorist activities as well. The proximity of Central Asia to the Afghan border has raised the possibility of spillover of extremist activity in the region. Tajikistan has suffered the most due to its porous borders with Afghanistan and rampant corruption that has been fueled by the drug trade. Uzbekistan too is grappling with the threat from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic Jihadist Union (IJU) which seek to undermine domestic stability. Failing to tackle these problems may lead to a northward movement of the threats emanating from the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. In India, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has been the mastermind behind major terrorist attacks and has been involved in terrorist activities in Central Asia and Chechnya as well . 

Tackling the security problem by hosting joint counterinsurgency and counterterrorism mechanisms will show that India has the capacity to be a security partner outside of the Collective Security Training Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Security structure such as the CSTO and the SCO are unlikely to provide the capacity tantamount to NATO’s but with increased support from other countries could certainly develop a credible status. To that end, India should keep pursuing its bid to become a full member of the SCO. Now that India has signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, and pledged training support for Afghan soldiers, there is great potential in partnering with Central Asian countries. Additional cooperation in fighting the drug trade and tightening border security will complement counterterrorism efforts. 

Maintaining a balanced position

At the same time, Russian and US interests in the region need to be taken into account; subverting their influence should not be in the Central Asia-India equation at all. India will be unable to match the military might of the United States, or offer an alternative to the historical ties with Russia. For India, the priority in the region should not be to seek the role of a regional hegemon but to adopt policies that forge partnership within the current power structure in the region. The dominance of the CSTO and SCO in limiting foreign military presence may seem like a dead end but there are numerous other ways to establish a robust Indian presence in Central Asia. Ultimately, the Central Asian states have the autonomy to build alliances and India should prove itself a worthy candidate. 


Notes and works referenced

[1] The military term ‘strategic depth’ refers to the distance between combat frontlines and the key assets of combatants that necessitates capacity build-up within boundaries as well as geographic expansion of power to create capability to respond to an offensive attack. The term was used by General Mirza Alam Beg, former Pakistani army chief, to define Pakistan’s extension of power into Afghanistan to control the threat from India. 

[2] Ahmet Devatoglu, the former foreign minister of Turkey, reinterpreted the commonly used military term.  He expanded it to the political diplomatic realm to leverage Turkey’s geographic and historic ties to expand its regional power and influence.
Kuchins, Andrew C. “A Truly Regional Economic Strategy for Afghanistan.” The Washington Quarterly, 2011. www.twq.com/11spring/docs/11spring_Kuchins.pdf 

Moore, Scott. "Peril And Promise: A Survey Of India's Strategic Relationship With Central Asia." Central Asian Survey 26.2 (2007): 279-291.