Revisiting Pakistan’s ‘Strategic Depth’
It's time for Pakistan to go on the diplomatic offensive and open up to India by letting trade pass through to Afghanistan.
Two words that hold our country hostage is our policy of maintaining ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. Apart from referring to a poorly titled adult film, the policy envisages to protect Pakistan’s eastern borders from unwanted Indian influence.
However, the consequences of continuing with this policy and differentiating between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban, has led to accusations of Pakistan playing a ‘double-game’ in Afghanistan. For many the accusation has become quite stale and repetitive. It seems to have become an open secret, with many accepting it as a reality, a part of the status-quo for dealing with the troubles in the region.
Whether the policy has been successful is debatable. The military’s and the ISI’s continued links with the Haqqani network ensures that they are a sought after broker for any back channel attempt to woo the Taliban.
The strategy aims to maintain Pakistani influence in/over Afghanistan, and to thwart alleged Indian designs. However, the policy has at the same time made Pakistan quite unpopular with large segments of the Afghan establishment. Interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs, while demanding an end to foreign influence in Pakistan is met with much ridicule in foreign capitals; it reeks of hypocrisy.
The policy is also questionable, as it breeds violence, and is responsible for the deaths of thousands in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As the violence continues, Pakistan is sure to be in the news, accused for fostering, abating or at the very least tolerating continued bloodshed to maintain its interests.
The result is the ‘image deficit’ that haunts Pakistan. The dismal public response to the floods in Pakistan for example was attributed to this effect. It has also been more difficult for our economic managers to garner favourable trade concessions and development grants. Winning over wider public support remains a problem, as Pakistan remains associated with fostering rather than curtailing violence in Afghanistan. Politicians in the west are portrayed as weak by the right-wing media, such as Fox News in the US, for taking initiatives to support Pakistan.
Look at any article posted on any western news outlet. The comments question the calls for sympathy for Pakistan as we are branded as supporters of terrorism, who inflict material and physical damage on their interests.
An alternative strategy
There needs to be an alternative to our current strategy. The alternative need not be between defending Pakistan from India or bowing before it and allowing it a free hand in Afghanistan. We need to engage with both Afghanistan and India to leverage our geographic position to develop strategic depth with positive connotations.
The US, Afghanistan and India have been pressing Pakistan to allow the transit of Indian goods over Pakistan through to Afghanistan and vice versa for years. I say, let the goods pass, hell put them on the trains. That will help to give our faltering railways a financial shot in the arm. Extend the Iran-Pakistan pipeline into India, let the gas flow. Transit fees galore! Rather than questioning Indian development aid to Afghanistan we should support it. Geographically it’s more of an advantage for us, as any increase in economic activity in Afghanistan will immediately suck in Pakistani exports.
What would the advantages be? Imagine the headlines. Pakistan would look like the peace builder, shunning international criticism and situating itself as committed to the development of an Afghan state. We would also be seen on the diplomatic offensive vis-à-vis India. With Pakistan offering so many incentives, India will have to respond in the affirmative. After all India is cultivating its image as a regional and global superpower, the ball will firmly be in India’s court. It cannot be seen rebuffing genuine gestures from its old foe.
Importantly, a policy that leverages our geographic position economically rather than militarily negates any association with violence. We would be treated as victims rather than the guilty.
If India is indeed developing consulates across Afghanistan housing RAW agents that ferment trouble in Pakistan, improved economic ties will help shed a spotlight on the functioning of these consulates. As Pakistan becomes vital for transporting Indian-Afghanistan exports and imports to each other, minimising any threat to these links will become a primary concern for Indian traders. This will build added pressure on those who dare concoct nefarious designs to fuel militancy in Balochistan for example.
India can switch on and off the belligerent rhetoric as India’s economy has little or no interests in Pakistan. However, a Pakistan which is vital for Indian trade, supply of resources etc will have no choice but to tone down any sabre rattling that seems to be a cyclical part of Pakistan-India relations.
So where does Pakistan’s security come in?
In any period of belligerent hostility Pakistan will have the ability to cut of energy and trade links. Containers can be seized, Indian traders in Pakistan arrested, and diplomatically we can garner support by portraying ourselves of peace. We have gone the extra mile to foster our relations with India and support a viable Afghanistan. India would be seen as the aggressor. How is that for maintaining strategic depth?
Our present policy allows for India’s security establishment to deal with her interests in Afghanistan ignoring any media or public scrutiny. A policy that places economic links at its foundations will open up Indian policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan and the actions of its security agencies to wider scrutiny. The competition between competing interests will insure that whatever policy is actually implemented is a watered down compromise that is not a real threat to Pakistan.
We have to find alternatives to the status-quo. With the nation reeling under flooding, terrorism and economic stagnation we are more dependent on foreign assistance than at any point in our history. They are not many variables that we can control for. We can’t control how the foreign press paints us, how we are perceived abroad etc. However, what little we can do to help alter these perceptions, we must. And this does not have to lead to subjugation to Indian influence that many right wing commentators would suggest.
If we are to continue with our obsession with thwarting Indian designs, can we please do it in a manner that doesn’t hold us all hostage to violence and paint us as terrorist?
Shaping global opinion is a long term effort which must start sooner than later. Our challenges for the future, access to water, natural disasters caused by climate change and development depends in a large part to interaction and support of our neighbours and the international community. Politics and security needs are always a concern, but we must get society at large, the world over on our sign. We are not the cause but the victims. Strategic depth? Sure, but by other means.