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Strategic depth in Afghanistan

By V. R. Raghavan

THE GAINING of strategic depth in Afghanistan has been a major objective of Pakistan's policy. Islamabad's anxieties about its northern neighbour commenced almost immediately after Independence. The combination of Pashtun ambitions in Pakistan, the uncertain status of the Durand Line, memories of long military campaigns in the North West Frontier Agency and the fierce independence of Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah had made Pakistan anxious. A strong military sense of geo-politics among its largely military rulers also led to the need to gain control over Afghanistan. The notion of strategic depth emerged even stronger after the socialist revolution in Afghanistan and became an obsession after the Soviet intervention in the country.

In the early years of its history, Field Marshal Ayub Khan was credited for having said that the defence of East Pakistan was best obtained in the west. This was attempted to be done by forcing India to concentrate its military deployment against West Pakistan. In later decades, the militancy in Punjab was seen as providing depth to Pakistan from an Indian military offensive through the State. This also applies to forcing a large Indian military presence in Jammu & Kashmir. On the Siachen dispute, arguments were advanced in Pakistan that the Indian occupation of the Saltoro mountain range was part of a Soviet- Indian pincer against Pakistan.

There was much talk in Pakistan's military establishment on the double jeopardy of a Russian-Indian pincer from the north and east. Pakistan's media and strategic analysts also developed the argument in favour of strategic depth. The phrase received its official seal when General Mirza Afzal Beg used it during his military manoeuvres called Zarb-i-Momin. Pakistan's search for strategic depth against India had been a continuous one since its military rulers took power.

In military terms, strategic depth has some meaning if it refers to a region that provides safety and resources to an army or a country. A buffer zone could be a strategic depth in politico- military terms. Hitler's attempts to gain the oil-rich and grain- filled parts of Russia could be said to seek strategic depth. The NATO's eastward expansion can be said to offer strategic depth both to western Europe and to the erstwhile Soviet states. The Golan Heights offers the same to Israel. After the Cold War, strategic depth is better obtained by shaping relations through engagement and by adding depth to a country's economic capacity. In Pakistan's case, none of these requirements were capable of being met in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's beliefs in the value of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan were influenced by two factors. The support it received from the U.S. in waging an armed response against the Soviet occupation triggered the belief. The success of that endeavour with no apparent costs to itself, gave Islamabad the illusion of being able to play a major role in the geo-politics of Central Asia. This more than anything else led to the belief that Afghanistan provided the strategic leverage Pakistan had long been seeking. The energy-rich Muslim states of Central Asia beckoned both Pakistan and the energy-seeking multi-nationals. Iran's standing up to western pressures was proving an obstacle to long-term plans for energy extraction from the region. Afghanistan offered both shorter energy routing and political control through Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Pakistan's attempts to control Afghanistan's post- Soviet rulers proved far more difficult than getting the Soviets out of that country. Pakistan tried various groups including those led by Hekmatyar. When these attempts failed, the Taliban was backed up by military hardware and technical support, to gain control over much of Afghanistan. In the process, Pakistan was permeated with the `Afghan condition', marked by extreme sectarian violence, and vitiation of political culture through narcotics. It also found it could not prevent fundamentalist Islamic groups taking root on its political soil. The military, known in its earliest years in politics as a reformist and liberal entity, itself came under such influences. To make matters worse, the political and military establishments lost control over the strategic partner, the Taliban. When the latter came under the influence of Arab fundamentalists of the Osama bin Laden kind, the situation was lost for Pakistan. After September 11, there is little to choose between Pakistan's strategic depth in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the strategic depth of the Taliban. The quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan has led to a strategic disaster for Pakistan's military rulers.

The warning signs about the impact on Pakistan by the choice of strategic depth were not lost on some. Ms. Benazir Bhutto had cautioned against it in 1998. In her opinion, it was the Zia-ul- Haq constituency which had dreamed of strategic depth. She herself did not see how a land- locked Afghanistan could provide strategic depth. She felt strategic depth would be better obtained through Iran, which could be of assistance if Pakistan was blockaded. Others have called strategic depth an albatross round Pakistan's neck.

Pakistan has had to pay a heavy price for the chimera of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Nearly 60,000 Pakistanis have died in Afghanistan. It has had to pay heavily for sustaining the Taliban leadership and its economic ineptitude. At least for ten years if not more, every policy, Ministry and Pakistan's polity have been held hostage by the Taliban. Pakistan's economic revival has been hampered more by Afghanistan than by any other factor. In the process, Afghan society has been deprived of its moorings and the world alienated from the country. Iran's relations with Pakistan have been badly affected by the Afghan factor. The Central Asian Republics also view Pakistani policies with apprehension. Pakistan finds itself unwelcome and viewed with suspicion in most international fora. The price paid by its people is incalculable in terms of lost opportunities for political and economic stability. Investing for strategic depth in Afghanistan's unstable polity, has been a strategic folly in political, economic and social terms.

In the war now being waged in Afghanistan, Pakistan is doing its utmost to retain control over a future political outcome. This is understandable in view of the costs to Islamabad in any future outcome. The Talibanisation of Pakistan will produce an internal impact irrespective of the militia being in or out of power in Afghanistan.

If the Taliban continues to hold power, however tenuously, it will be Pakistan's burden to bear. If the former is out of power, the impact on Pakistani polity through internal upheavals will be long lasting. Either way, Pakistan will continue to pay a large price. Its compulsion to ensure the Taliban's representation in the future governance of Afghanistan, stems from the belief that it can retain a modicum of control in its strategic depth.

The explanation for Pakistan's dilemmas on Afghanistan is to be found in the military leadership's convictions. Strategic depth is a relational concept. Such depth is to be sought as protection against an adversary. Pakistan's search for strategic depth was to be a hedge against India. Neither Afghanistan nor the Central Asian states, nor for that matter Iran, posed a threat to Pakistan. The notion of strategic depth for Pakistan, combined in it a territorial base for terrorism and a proxy war against India, with the alibi of Pakistan not being directly involved. The failure of its policy lay in its inability to see the link between its needs of terrorism against India, and the price to be paid for its strategic depth spawning global terrorism.

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