Af-Pak: what strategic depth?

Pakistan's military and political class have obsessed over gaining 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan for years, but the at times absurd concept is incompatible with Pakistan's zero-sum approach to regional politics.
Aziz Hakimi
4 February 2010

Pakistan’s chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said on Monday that Pakistan has no interest in establishing control over Afghanistan, while adding that a peaceful Afghanistan would provide Pakistan with 'strategic depth' in the region.

“We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it,” the general said while speaking to a group of journalists at the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpendi, Pakistan.  “A peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth,” he said, while warning that it was essential to address Pakistan’s long-term strategic concerns for stability in the region.

Besides the infamous Durand Line, the concept of Pakistan’s “Strategic Depth” in Afghanistan has always been a source of controversy in the relations between the two countries and the irony is that neither Afghans nor Pakistani politicians have given a clear definition of this term.

General Kayani admitted that Pakistan’s objective of supporting the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan was to gain a ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, which he hoped that now ‘a peaceful and friend Afghanistan’ would provide it.   His comments indicate that Pakistan’s policy makers are still interested in the old policy of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, which may influence their approach to Afghanistan and related issues such as fighting the Taliban and participating in regional cooperation.

Many analysts believe that the Pakistan army fights only the Pakistani Taliban groups that it considers to be opposed to Islamabad while Afghan Taliban groups, including the Haqqani network, are largely provided the opportunity to operate in the North Wazirestan area of Pakistan lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Pakistan has resisted repeated American requests to fight Haqqani network, which in the eyes of the US military is a major threat to security in Afghanistan.  The latest such request was made by US Defence Minister Robert Gates on his recent visit to Pakistan, but the Pakistani army resisted on the basis of the army being “over-stretched.”

Meanwhile, Serajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the network, in an interview with Aljazeera TV claimed the responsibility for the attacks on the heart of Kabul on 18 January.  Afghan Police investigations and arrests following the attack also confirm that the Haqqani network was behind the raid which left 5 killed and 17 injured.

It is also important to note that General Parvez Musharraf as well as General Ashfaq Kayani had described Haqqani network leaders as Pakistan’s “strategic assests”.

The Military “Strategic Depth”

What though, do Pakistani official mean by gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan?

Militarily speaking, strategic depth describes the insulation of a fighting unit’s core capacity (cities, industry etc) and its distance from the front line. But varied and at times contradicting concepts of “Pakistan’s Strategic Depth in Afghanistan” have emerged from Pakistani and Afghan soldiers and analysts.

Some Pakistani military strategists retain a military understanding of the term and appear to believe that Afghan’s territory could provide a strategic rallying point in the case of an Indian attack. They are concerned about the fact that Pakistan geographically is a narrow country and an indian attack can cut through the country and divide it into two halves.  In such a case, they believe, Afghan territory could provide a suitable “Strategic Depth” to which the Pakistan army can retreat and regroup in order to launch a counter attack.

This same idea helps explain Pakistan’s interest in a “friendly” government in Afghanistan, one that would be willing to violate its impartiality in a possible Indo-Pak conflict, and allow the Pakistani army to retreat to Afghan territory to gain strategic depth.

Kamran Shafi a Pakistani Journalist recently satirised this concept in the Pakistani newspaper, DAWN.  He writes in case of an Indian attack “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?

And what happens to the Lahore and Sialkot and Multan and Gujranwala and Bahawalpur and other garrisons? What about the air force? Far more than anything else, what about the by now 180 million people of the country? What ‘strategic depth’ do our Rommels and Guderians talk about, please? What poppycock is this?”

Bearing in mind Afghan-Pakistani antagonism and the intensifying tensions within Pakistani politics, as well as domestic problems such as Baloch separatism and growing militancy inside Pakistan, focusing on gaining “Strategic Depth” in Afghanistan could at best be described a misplaced priority.

A non-military Strategic Depth

There is another concept of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, which is fundamentally different to the military concept; a rather polarised vision, according to which Pakistan seeks to improve relations with Islamic countries such as Iran, Turkey, and the middle eastern and Persian Gulf states via Afghanistan and thus effecting the creation of an “Islamic pole” in opposition to “Hindu” India.

Since its separation from India in 1947, Pakistan has been trying to help establish such an axis. Its westward turn, based on developing closer economic, trade and cultural relations with Muslim countries, can be interpreted in this context.

Nevertheless, Pakistan has failed in its efforts to create such an “Islamic union” and its main reason has been the fact that despite common religion, each of these countries have always been separated by even stronger culture, political and sociological boundaries, hindering Pakistan’s efforts to promote the idea of Islamic Unification. Supranational Islamic unification in the region and beyond confounded General Zia Ul Haq and many more in decades gone-by.

Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, which turned Pakistan into a western bridgehead in Afghanistan, Pakistani politicians were worried that Pakistan did not have a visible role in regional relations and were outraged that the West often saw Pakistan as a derivative of the challenges posed by India’s non-alignment, regarding it as a “rebellious state of India.”

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, however, it was not only Afghanistan that was largely abandoned by the West but Pakistan too.  Robert Gates, the US defense minister, touched on this point during his recent visit to Pakistan, acknowledging that cutting off defense ties with Pakistan in the early 1990s, was “a grave strategic mistake driven by some well-intentioned but short-sighted US legislative and policy decisions”.

The Taliban regime, nurtured and supported by Pakistan, once again provided the space for the non-military “strategic depth” that Pakistani politicians relied on, hoping that it would eventually provide a means to secure better trade and economic relations with central Asia and middle east.  It was in this context that the Taliban-era Benazir Bhutto government tried to persuade Turkmenistan to agree to exporting its gas to Pakistan through a pipeline crossing Afghanistan; a plan that would facilitate Pakistan’s access to central Asia’s rich energy sources.

9/11 and the consequent invasion of the US-led coalition, despite ousting Pakistan’s favored regime, provided Pakistan with an unprecedented opportunity to expand its role in regional politics as the west’s favoured nation and benefit from US military and development aid. In June 2008, the U.S. government reported that nearly $11 billion in military and economic grants had been delivered to Pakistan since 2002, nearly three times more than Pakistan’s total arms purchases from the United States during the fifty years prior to 2001.

Yet, this often controversial Pak-Am union, however, appears to have failed to resolve Pakistan’s strategic disputes with its old rival, India.  Pakistan accuses India of using its growing influence in Afghanistan to stir up tensions in Pakistan, particularly through its support of Baloch separatists.  Pakistan has been made nervous by India-US arms deals and nuclear cooperation, while India has complained that military equipment and technology supplied to Pakistan is being redirected to its eastern border.

Some analysts believe that India, the fifth largest foreign donor to Afghanistan, is using its growing influence to hinder Pakistan gaining a strategic depth in Afghanistan, while attempting to halt China’s economic influence from mounting in Afghanistan. Such a situation reinforces Pakistan’s reluctance to end support for the Afghan Taliban, whom Pakistan views as a tool to exert pressure on its regional rivals and ensure its strategic demands are taken into consideration.

Bearing in mind this new and complex regional politics, it seems the time has come for Pakistan to re-define the old concept of gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.  Pakistan cannot gain any form of strategic depth without the consent and cooperation of Afghanistan and its neighbours.

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