“Pakistan’s concept of strategic depth is dead”, said the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Speaking to an Indian channel, NDTV, she added that, “Pakistan’s policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has been proven wrong and the country now needs to focus all its strength on dealing with the militants”. The statement clearly reflects that, in her opinion, Pakistan’s flawed ignorance of the multiplicity and interconnectedness of a large number of terrorist threats for far too long has only aggravated its security problems.
There has been a huge contrast in what the international community has endlessly believed and what has been the assessment of our security establishment. Had we not believed in the concept of strategic depth, the launching of military operation Zarb-e-Azb would have been delayed. Surely, such a choice made in time would have saved many precious lives. The situation became complicated to the point where the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, had to say, “The army was prepared to fight against the entire spectrum of threats”. More than anything else, this statement is meant to reassure the international community which so far has believed that the Pakistan Army only fights the Taliban groups that it considers to be opposed to Islamabad. The fight against the entire spectrum of threats means an end of selected military targeting. So is strategic depth as a concept actually dead?
Over the years, the concept of strategic depth has travelled full circle from being entirely unacceptable as a practising military doctrine to a failed non-military method of fighting an irregular war that allowed no one to win. Americans have viewed it as our ‘two-faced strategy’. They have even called it ‘our double game’. To us, it has been a non-military method to preserve and promote our national interests.
Publicly renouncing that extremism was a tool of our Afghan policy, we never abandoned the ‘useful balancers’ that could fight our covert proxy in Afghanistan. Such balancers included social/welfare organisations and political parties with extremist and sympathetic views towards the Taliban, radicalised madrassas and the financial networks that supported them. Strategic depth before the initiation of a military operation in North Waziristan meant reducing and limiting the threat on the western front by using all the useful balancers to fight a proxy to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan. The failure of this concept was only a matter of time as more than keeping the Indian influence out of Afghanistan, the pursuit of strategic depth as a strategy was making it harder for the Pakistani government and army to exercise its own influence and writ in the heartland of Pakistan.
The policy and concept of strategic depth in Pakistan has a long history. Over the decades, the concept has changed and evolved to take a variety of military and non-military shapes. General Mirza Aslam Beg is credited as the creator of this concept. The army he led in the late 1980s and early 1990s was riding high on its success as it blocked and limited the Russian invasion up to Afghanistan. After the Russian exit from Afghanistan, the Pakistan military’s strategic thinkers led by General Mirza Aslam Beg elucidated Pakistan’s Afghan policy to include a military component that read, “[The] Pakistan Army can now, in a conventional Pakistan-India military conflict, retreat to mainland Afghanistan, regroup and launch a counteroffensive against India”. But was this actually possible?
Surely, Pakistan is a geographically narrow country and an Indian attack could cut through and divide Pakistan into two halves, but serious military thinkers always believed that Pakistan’s military response could be anything but withdrawing into mainland Afghanistan. Describing it as a misplaced priority, Kamran Shafi, writing for Dawn on January 19, 2010 described its ‘tactical impossibility’ in the following words, “Will our army pack its bags and escape into Afghanistan? How will it disengage itself from the fighting? What route will it use, through which mountain passes? Will the Peshawar Corps gun its tanks and troop carriers and trucks and towed artillery and head into the Khyber Pass, and on to Jalalabad? Will the Karachi and Quetta Corps do likewise through the Bolan and Khojak passes?” To sum up, General Beg in the period leading up to 9/11 had failed to find any serious buyers of the military component of this strategic concept.
Then the 9/11 happened. The entire world, led by the US, using the carrot and stick as a tool, tried to urge Pakistan to close up its shop in Afghanistan and also abandon all its strategic interests. Pakistan and its army instead resorted to a policy of containment — buying time in pursuit of national interest, allowing the continuity and execution of some dangerous things. In Hillary Clinton’s words, one such dangerous thing that Pakistan did was “keeping poisonous snakes in its backyard expecting they will only bite its neighbour”.
Not the snake charmers but serious political and military thinkers and strategists were running Pakistan’s Afghan policy. In the post-9/11 scenario, the presence of Isaf and India in Afghanistan were Pakistan’s main worries. Its western frontier laid exposed to large military presence in the neighbouring country.
From the Indian interests of gaining foothold in Afghanistan stemmed Pakistan’s strategy of reluctance — a strategy that necessitated structuring and recognising the Taliban both as good as well as bad. Against the bad (ideological orientation with al Qaeda) — military operations were initiated. Against the good (such as Haqqanis) — indemnity was extended.
Pakistan also seriously doubted that after the withdrawal of American forces, Americans will continue to pay $9 billion per annum to the Afghan government to maintain and keep the 300,000-plus Afghan security forces they trained? Dreading the scenario where this half-trained security force would break up into wild militias and join the ever-fighting tribal warlords to earn their keep, the Haqqanis emerged and stood out as the favourable shield and buffer that Pakistan was prepared to live with and keep.
“We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it” and “a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth”, said General Kayani before his retirement.’ Today, Zarb-e-Azb is the Pakistan Army’s latest military initiative that seeks to strengthen the now visualised concept of strategic depth in which Pakistan and Afghanistan can together free themselves from the terrorists’ enslavement and jointly fight against terrorists. Both countries need to conduct military operations on their sides of the border to root out terrorists. Only if the two countries join hands in a mutual fight against terrorism can the military operations against terrorists ultimately succeed.
President Karzai in a letter written to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has given a seven-point agenda for cooperating in the fight on terror. The last point mentioned in the letter is actually the starting point, “a roadmap for bilateral coordination and contact to take the war on terror forward”. It is hoped that both countries with mutual cooperation can jointly construct such a road map.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2014.