During the first two decades of twentieth century (1900-1920), Russia had fought and lost two wars in different theatres. The first defeat was at the hands of Japan in 1904-5 which culminated in forced ouster of many top officers. The second loss came during the First World War and only the ‘October Revolution’ led by the Bolsheviks changed the course of Russia’s involvement. The Bolshevik-organised ‘Red Army’ under guidance of Leon Trotsky was able to regain some of Russia’s lost territories. After the war, military strategists devised the concept of ‘Strategic Depth’. They theorised that core industrial area should have a certain distance from the frontlines so that if anyone invades, there is enough time for the armed forces to absorb the shock and then start an offensive and push the invader back. During the Second World War, Poland and other territories on Russia’s borders were used as ‘Strategic Depth’ and the ultimate battle took place with the advancing Nazis in and around Stalingrad.
After failing to win wars waged against India in 1947 and 1965 and losing half the country in 1971, Pakistan’s policymakers devised a new plan to confront India. Pakistan doesn’t have Natural Strategic Depth since many major cities in Punjab are located near the border with India. The plan envisaged a friendly government in Afghanistan in case India attacked Pakistan’s Eastern border. In case of an Indian onslaught, the Pakistan Army could withdraw, reorganise and after gaining their balance, could carry out counter attacks in order to evict the enemy from captured areas. The chief architect of this plan was a certain Mirza Aslam Beg, who theorised it and later rose to the position of ‘Chief of Army Staff’. To act upon this plan, an Afghan Cell was set up in the Foreign Ministry in 1973. The political leadership, including Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were taken on board and they acquiesced to the plan.
As a first step of this plan, Afghan political dissidents were funded and trained by the military in Peshawar, long before there was Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In 1979, Russian forces entered Afghanistan, ostensibly to support the Amin government ruling the country. It was the height of cold war and United States saw this action as an opportunity to teach the Russians a lesson. Pakistan offered its services and CIA money was funnelled through Pakistan to train and arm the seven ‘Mujahideen’ groups that fought the Russians. Soviet Russia’s retreat in 1987-88 resulted in a political chasm in Afghanistan where the ‘Mujahideen’ fought each other over the spoils of war. General Aslam Beg was leading the Pakistan Army by that time. Another facet was added to the ‘Strategic Depth’ doctrine in that era. It was decided that non-state actors (in form of militant organisations) would act as Pakistan’s ‘First line of Defence’ against India. This prong of the strategy was implemented further under a certain DG Military Operations, Pervaiz Musharraf. In the 1990s, Pakistan was pursuing and was partially successful in implementing its dangerous ‘Strategic Depth’ policy in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Taliban, a friendly force for Pakistan were ruling on Pakistan’s eastern flank while Pakistan-trained ‘insurgents’ were creating enough havoc in India’s backyard.
In 1998, Pakistan’s eminent public intellectual Eqbal Ahmed wrote an article titled ‘A Mirage mis-named Strategic Depth’ for Al-Ahram weekly. In the article, he criticised the government for pursuing this strategy. About the concept of Strategic Depth, he wrote, “Unfortunately, in any meaningful way, it [Strategic Depth] does not exist. In military thought it is a non-concept unless one is referring to a hard-to-reach place where a defeated army might safely cocoon. Yet far from improving the tenuous notion of “strategic depth”, the Taliban’s victory is likely to augment Pakistan’s political and strategic predicament.” Lt. Colonel Khalid Masood Khan, writing in these pages recently lectured the nation on improving ties with Afghanistan because, “Pakistan also provides Strategic Depth to Afghanistan” as opposed to India.
Firstly, the Strategic Depth idea is a relic of the days gone by. Israel doesn’t enjoy any Strategic Depth against its neighbours and in the 1967 war, they chose to negate this factor by pre-emptive strikes. In Pakistan’s version of Strategic Depth, the premise is that we would lose the war first and will then take back our territories. In the age of ballistic missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, these outdated concepts have no place in military strategy. This mysterious depth has led Pakistan into a ‘ditch’. The esteemed Colonel mentioned current Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s book to elucidate his point. It is a mere conjecture that the esteemed colonel probably didn’t read the book before mentioning it (or worse still, actually read it and believed in it). Professor Davutoglu’s book titled ‘Strategic Depth’ was originally published in 2001 and is a roadmap for Pan-Islamism and how Turkey can regain its lost Glory. The book was called a ‘Pan-Islamist’s Adventure Guide’ by Turkish journalist Ümit Kıvanç.
Pakistan has indulged in proxy warfare and interference in Afghan affairs for too long a time. It is not easy to convince the Afghans now about friendship in light of what we have done to their country in the last three decades. There is an acute lack of trust between the two neighbours and we have to give up the “Strategic Depth” notion now if we want peace in the region and in our own backyard. Let’s stop flogging this dead horse and bury it for good.
The writer is a freelance columnist.