Pakistan’s much-maligned concept of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has always evoked strong and conflicting responses. Speculations have been rife on the military and non-military objectives/connotations of such an ostensible Pakistan policy. The military objective(s) would have supposedly had the Pakistan military use Afghan territory as a strategic rallying point where they could retreat and regroup in the face of an overwhelming Indian offensive; as a precursor to a counter-offensive/riposte or a resistance movement. The non-military objective(s) would have Pakistan seek a friendly Afghanistan which could become a stepping stone to creating regional connectivity and economic interdependence, especially with the largely Muslim CARs.
Pakistan has failed to attain either of these supposed policy objectives.
Historically speaking, nations have either exploited their integral strategic depths (as Tsarist Russia -USSR did against Napoleon and Hitler in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively) or acquired strategic depth in neighbouring countries, to eventually defeat aggressors. South West Africa (now Namibia) Peoples Organization (SWAPO) did so by acquiring strategic depth in Angola while fighting the occupying South African Defense Forces. Israel, a country that was 137 km across at its widest point and 9 km at its narrowest at its inception, conquered and created strategic depth by moving its borders to the West Bank, post the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Afghans acquired strategic depth in Pakistan (a reversal of expected roles?) once their country was totally occupied by the erstwhile USSR. The Afghan resistance movement was based, organized, equipped, trained, launched, guided and supported by Pakistan. Millions of Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan and are still being supported by it. So, Pakistan ended up providing strategic depth to Afghanistan in both the military and non-military senses of the term.
Pakistan’s concept of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan for military purposes was ill-conceived and might have eventually turned out to be a massive strategic faux pas. It was flawed on many counts. One, it lacked a realistic analysis of the regional strategic environment, especially trilateral relations between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Two, this was an improbable and impractical concept that increasingly lost all its relevance with time and Pakistan’s improving military and strategic capabilities.
Three, Pakistan’s apparent lack of integral geographical depth perhaps assumed far more serious proportions in its strategic appreciations and assessments than was rational. Four, Pakistan has always maintained a critical strategic balance with India, thus making any military (mis)adventures against it unfeasible militarily, economically, and politically. Five, the Indian military has never had the capacity and/or capability to force the Pakistan military to retreat, en masse, along the entire front and deep to its western borders. It still does not. Sixth, Afghanistan is a landlocked country; has very difficult terrain and a poorly developed communication system along the entire Pak-Afghan border which does not readily support large-scale military operations/movements. Seven, in geographical terms alone, Iran could have been a much better choice, if such strategic depth had to be inevitably acquired.
The terrain on the Pak-Iran border is not as difficult and it has functional seaports which might have allowed Pakistan external links/contacts. Eight, most crucially, the nuclear-missile factor. This alone should have put paid to this utopian concept of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. Any hypothetically successful Indian offensive would sooner than later breach one or the other of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds and force it into decisions of grave, strategic import. The Indians would be wary of breaching such nuclear thresholds. The deterrence is tangible and assured. (Therefore, India’s unremitting rhetoric of fighting Pakistan while remaining within the nuclear overhang!) The nuclear-missile factor thus makes the seeking of any ostensible strategic depth in Afghanistan or elsewhere, absolutely redundant and superfluous.
On the non-military side too, Afghanistan’s policies towards Pakistan have always been conspicuous for their latent and obvious hostility, misplaced hubris, and irksome, baseless arrogance. The Afghans always bring up the contentious issue of the Pak-Afghan border to vitiate the environment as and when required. The Indians have invested heavily in Afghanistan to deny Pakistan its apparently desired strategic depth and peaceful western borders. They moved decisively, occupied and neutralized Pakistan’s so-called strategic depth and with Afghan connivance converted it into a veritable launch pad for exporting state-sponsored terrorism into Pakistan.
It is in their interest to keep Pakistan’s military engrossed with Afghanistan, fighting terrorism endlessly and thus distracted from its eastern borders and especially from their genocidal atrocities in IIOJ&KR. All Afghan governments (and intelligence agencies) regardless of their political persuasions, have been knowingly and willingly complicit in facilitating India in this war of terror against Pakistan. Even today, with the Afghan Taliban safely ensconced in Kabul, Pakistan continues to bear the dastardly terrorist attacks of the TTP, ISK, and others of their ilk. The Afghan Taliban remain adamant that Afghan soil is not being used for terrorist activities against Pakistan—though the evidence proves otherwise. However, anyone who befriends and supports the TTP, ISK, etc—avowed and proactive enemies of Pakistan—cannot possibly be Pakistan’s true friend too!
Post Operation Zarb e Azb, Afghanistan provided “strategic depth” to the terrorist groups driven out by Pakistan’s military. It gave them a new lease on life; safe havens, and leeway to reorganize, re-group, refit, re-equip, re-train, recruit and relaunch their War of Terror against Pakistan. The TTP, ISK, etc cannot possibly operate cross-border without Afghan Taliban’s tacit approval and patronage. Pakistan must review its policy towards Afghanistan and start strenuously exercising its numerous leverages over it. It is time now for it to look the Afghan Taliban in the eye, start imposing its will on this unsustainable strategic environment and mould it proactively to its own advantage. It must move emphatically to secure its vital national interests. It must undertake decisive kinetic operations against the TTP, ISK, etc, unilaterally; if need be, astride the Pak-Afghan border too. The Afghans view a policy of appeasement as a sign of weakness. Instead of its ministers repeatedly making pathetic bee-lines to Kabul, Pakistan must force the Afghan Taliban to respect and help secure its vital national interests!
The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at email@example.com and tweets @K846Im