The concept known as ‘Strategic Depth’ arose out of Soviet Russia when Bolshevik policymakers decided to utilise Russia’s natural width and distance of major cities from borders during time of war. This policy shift was brought about by inglorious defeats of the Russian armies at the hands of the Japanese (in 1905), First World War (1914-18) and Polish-Soviet War (1919-21). This tactic is also known as ‘Soviet Deep Battle’ or ‘Deep Operation’. This policy became part of the Red Army regulations in 1936. The plan involved a strategic retreat, pulling forward formations of the enemy ‘inwards’ and as a second step, attacking the space left behind that army. The plan couldn’t be employed initially during the Second World War (1939-45) simply because Stalin had ‘purged’ many senior commanders responsible for developing the plan. During the later stages of the war, Soviet army was able to execute the policy (at great human cost) and defeated the Nazi forces.
By 1973, Pakistan had fought India thrice in conventional and unconventional wars (1948, 65, 71), ending up on the losing side of at least two of the three attempts. Someone in the ruling elite came up with the idea of deploying ‘Strategic Depth’ in Pakistan. This particular genius was probably unaware of Pakistan’s lack of natural depth, proximity of our major cities to the borders and some basic military history. As a part of this strategy, Afghanistan was supposed to have a ‘Pakistan-friendly’ government so that in case of India-Pakistan hostilities, our valiant forces could retreat to Afghanistan and then launch a counter-attack from there. The policy was not formally spelt out in this many words but the implications were going to be the same. It was a unique strategy in history of warfare where a government/army was planning a defeat in advance.
As a first prong of this strategy, the ‘anti-Pakistan’ government in Afghanistan (headed by Sardar Daoud Khan) needed to be destabilised. During 1973-77, an insurgency was going on in Balochistan and Afghanistan thought to provide shelter to ‘insurgents’. General K.M. Arif wrote the following in his book, “An Afghan cell had been created in the Pakistan Foreign Office in July/August 1973. It met regularly for the next three years, under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Bhutto or Mr. Aziz Ahmad [then Foreign Secretary] and gave out policy guidelines. The Inspector General Frontier Constabulary (FC) and the DG ISI worked in concert to conduct intelligence missions inside Afghanistan. The Afghan leaders, Gulbeddin Hekmatyar and Rabbani came into contact with the Pakistani authorities during this period. The Pakistani intelligence agencies also kept communication channels open with the deposed king, Zahir Shah, who was living in exile in Italy”.
Regarding Pakistan’s role in nurturing and training Islamists from Afghanistan, Husain Haqqani wrote in his book ‘Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military’: ‘In 1976, Hekmatyar split off from Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan to form the Hizbe Islami (Islamic Party), which also operated from Pakistan. Rabbani wanted to move cautiously and gradually, building broader support before seeking power. Rabbani, in the initial stages was reluctant to convert Jamiat-e-Islami into a militia or a guerrilla army although later, after the Soviet occupation, the party became a leading band of Mujahideen. Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, on the other hand, from the beginning was willing to embrace radical methods. His militancy soon made him a favourite of the ISI, which was at that stage more interested in generating military pressure on Daoud’s regime than in laying the foundations of a sustainable Islamic revolution in Afghanistan. Between 1973 and 1977, Afghanistan and Pakistan fought what can best be described as a low-intensity proxy war.’
The Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979 proved to be a godsend for Pakistan’s policymakers. When the operation ended a decade later, a new prong was added to the theory. Since we could not—theoretically and practically—defeat India in a conventional war, we used non-state actors in the garb of ‘Freedom Fighters’ to attack India and to serve as our ‘first line of defence’. It must be noted that General Aslam Beg was one of the early proponents of this theory and during his stint as an instructor at National Defence College (NDC), he propagated the same ideas. He became the Chief of Staff in 1988 after a plane full of generals rammed into the ground in August. General Musharraf, Director General Military Operations (DGMO) during Benazir’s second stint in office (1993-96) approved of this idea and sought formal permission from Benazir to deploy military-trained fighters in Kashmir.
The only time in our history that this ‘theory’ worked was during the Kandahar Hijack of December 1999. Indian Airlines Flight 814 flying from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by terrorists and flown to Amritsar, Lahore and then Dubai. This merry-go-round ended on the tarmac of Kandahar airport. Afghanistan had a ‘friendly’ government at the time, which meant the Taliban (whom we had supported in the early 90s against the ‘Mujahideen’ whom we had trained in the 70s). By that time, a quasi-democratic government in Pakistan had been sent home by a coterie of generals headed by General Musharraf. The hijackers demanded release of three convicts present at that time in Indian jails: Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmad Omar Saeed and Mushtaq Zargar. After some negotiations, the Indian government caved in to these demands and the convicts were flown to Kandahar in exchange for all Indian Airlines passengers on board. While this whole drama was being played out, the ‘genius’ behind the idea of Strategic Depth must be smiling in his grave.