In Anti-Terror Fight, India & Uzbekistan Must Strengthen Ties

Uzbekistan is keen to join connectivity schemes that India is pushing such as the railroad from Chabahar to Zahedan.

Updated05 Nov 2019, 11:52 AM IST
Opinion
4 min read

Ever since the talk of a US pullout from Afghanistan gained ground, India has been paying greater attention to Central Asia. This manifested through the growing exchange of visits between Indian and leaders of the Central Asian republics, and India stepping up its aid commitments to the region.

This week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Uzbekistan, the first such visit in 15 years. As far as visits go, Rajnath Singh’s visit appears to be fairly routine, but it does mark a period of enhanced ties between New Delhi and Tashkent. Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s biggest military power and the country has also inherited important defence industrial assets such as the factory producing Il-76 transport jets, which the Indian Air Force also uses.

Rajnath Singh signed three MoUs to enhance cooperation in military medicine and military education and training fields, and held bilateral consultations with his counterpart, Major General Bakhodir Kurbanov. Thereafter, both ministers presided over the inauguration of the first joint military exercise ‘Dustlik 2019’, which begins today, 4 November, and will continue till 13 November at the Chirchiq Training area near Tashkent. India also extended a USD 40 million line of credit for the procurement of goods and services from India.

Much Dynamism Has Entered Uzbekistan’s World View

A great deal of dynamism has come into Uzbekistan’s world view, following the ascension of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the office of President following the death of its longtime dictator and President Islam Karimov in 2016.

Mirziyoyev ended the isolationist policies of his predecessor, and has inaugurated a phase of engagement and the opening up of his country.

He paid a state visit to India a year ago in 2018, where a range of agreements and MoUs were signed. India also extended a USD 200 million line of credit for affordable housing. A few months later, in January 2019, Mirziyoyev was the guest of honour at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit.

The then Defence Minister Abdusalam Azizov was part of Mirziyoyev’s delegation in 2018. Subsequently, the Indian Defence Secretary visited Uzbekistan in March 2019, and the two sides held the first meeting of a Joint Working Group on Defence Cooperation in February, and the first defence industry workshop in Tashkent in September 2019.

Uzbekistan’s Tough Stance on Taliban

Uzbekistan’s strategic location vis-à-vis Afghanistan is obvious from the fact that it was through the Friendship Bridge in Termez that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was launched in 1979, and it was by the same bridge, that the Soviet forces returned ten years later in 1989. Termez was also the southernmost point of the Northern Distribution Network that the US created in 2009 to bypass the Pakistani stranglehold on supplies for its forces in Afghanistan. Its airbase was the main support base for German and Dutch forces operating with the ISAF in Afghanistan.

Under President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan took a tough anti-Taliban stand, and it is no coincidence that among the most radical of Islamist forces allied to the al-Qaeda was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and borders all of them. Along with Liechtenstein, it is considered a doubly landlocked country, because its Central Asian neighbours also happen to be landlocked. For this reason its leadership is eager to promote greater connectivity with the outside world.

In 2018, on the eve of  Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Oman and that of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New Delhi, New Delhi acceded to the Agreement on the Establishment of an International Transport and Transit Corridor between Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (Ashgabat Agreement).

Uzbekistan Understands the Importance of Counter-Terrorism Cooperation

The country pushing India to sign the agreement was Uzbekistan, which is keen to join the connectivity schemes that India is pushing — the International North South Transportation Corridor, and the railroad from Chabahar to Zahedan, which could be extended to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Uzbekistan, for its part, has built a railroad connecting Termez, on the border with Afghanistan to Mazar-e-Sharif.

In 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the construction of a 650 km highway to link Gwadar with Termez, via Chaman and Kandahar. Nothing seems to have come of this project as yet.

The uncertain situation in Afghanistan has injected some urgency into India’s Central Asian policy.

It may be recalled that following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, India began providing assistance to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik who led the Northern Alliance against the Islamist group. The aid came through Dushanbe and went to Farkhor, at a base maintained by the Indian intelligence services, which was on the border between Tajikstan and Afghanistan. A vital component of the aid was the military hospital at Farkhor, which treated the Alliance’s war-wounded. Massoud, who was injured in an al-Qaeda attack on 9/11, died in this facility after he was rushed there.

Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are important from the point of view of Afghanistan.

But the latter is more important in a larger perspective. It is more populous and developed. The SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure is headquartered in Tashkent, and because of the IMU, Uzbekistan understands the importance of counter-terrorism cooperation.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 04 Nov 2019, 12:43 PM IST

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