Strategic depth and terrorism

Pakistan’s concept of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan for military purposes was ill-conceived.

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!

Imran Malik
The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at and tweets @K846Im

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at and tweets @K846Im.

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