Whither strategic depth!

Afghanistan for long has been a geopolitical quagmire for Pakistan

Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri June 21, 2021
The writer is a senior journalist currently associated with a think tank based in Islamabad. He can be reached at iamehkri@gmail.com.

Afghanistan for long has been a geopolitical quagmire for Pakistan. It has tested our national resilience time and again. From the impugned Durand Line to the enigma of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistan has always been singled out for having ulterior designs beyond its frontiers.

Islamabad, nonetheless, has paid a heavy price owing to its geography. The Kremlin’s Great Game – in pursuit of warm waters – bled it to the core. Subsequently, it was forced to take the brunt of the region’s largest human displacement. Today, Pakistan is home to around three million Afghan refugees, and its social fabric torn to the core. Even after two decades of American misadventure in the landlocked state, in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, Pakistan is still nursing its wounds. Yet, it is doing all it can in its obsession to ensure peace and security in the region. This is so because the ‘invaders’ and the ‘encroachers’ from Moscow and Washington, respectively, simply decamped – leaving Islamabad behind in the lurch.

A tweet from the State Department, the other day, brought to the fore a very pertinent observation. It said: “We call on neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to those seeking international protection and … to provide …assistance to existing and new Afghan refugees ...”

In other words, Pakistan’s generosity is being tapped, once again. As pullout begins, the US fears Taliban stride. This aspect is likely to plunge the region into another mass exodus. And, of course, it is Pakistan that would once again be hosting millions of refugees.

So where is the much-trumpeted notion of ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan? In reality, it is Pakistan’s territory that acts as a safe haven for the uprooted Afghans.

Let’s see how this term was coined. Former Pakistan Army Chief Gen Aslam Baig, while addressing his soldiers on August 25, 1988, said: “The days of hegemony of superpowers are over … the three countries – Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan – are emerging free, strong and resilient… to unite together to form the bastion of power – the ‘strategic depth’ of the Muslim World.” Since then, Gen Baig has been quoted out of context.

Nevertheless, it sounds like a defeatist concept of withdrawal, in case of an Indian ingress over Pakistani soil. Pakistan Army never had that second-thought ever on its platter.

Former Ambassador to the UAE Asif Durrani believes, “if strategic depth is used in a geographical sense then Balochistan provides much better depth than Afghanistan where Indian planes can cross in less than 10 minutes.” That sounds rational.

However, Richard Olson, former US Ambassador to Pakistan, sees it as a policy to “to use Afghan soil as an instrument of strategic security – and an attempt to control Afghanistan for political purposes.” This inspired a parochial section in Pakistan to even dub Afghanistan as the ‘fifth province’.

But history has proved it, otherwise. This strategic depth derivative was a flawed concept. In fact, it was a ‘compulsive’ thought for the Colonial British. The Windsor Empire always saw Afghanistan as a buffer for Czarist Russia. This paradigm later split a homogenous nation of 45 million Pakhtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line into two suzerainty halves.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy has been hostage to forces of inertia. Few hard facts are as follow:

*Though Pakistan defeated the Soviets with Mujahideen help in 1989, Islamabad supported the Americans to take over Afghanistan.

*Successive elected governments in Islamabad never had a formal equation with Kabul.

*Again after 9/11, Pakistan joined the American bandwagon. The aftermath of the ‘war on terror’ cost Pakistan more than 70,000 lives.

*And, last but not least, Pakistan cleansed its tribal areas of Afghan remnants and influence; what to talk of meddling deep inside Afghanistan?

Pakistan’s foremost obsession should be, and is, to see a peace regime in Afghanistan. Director General ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar recently pronounced, “Pakistan will not support any military takeover by Taliban. It isn’t going to happen.” This is despite the fact that it is Pakistan that has prevailed over the Taliban to sign on the dotted lines in Doha! When and where is Pakistan using Afghan soil for strategic manoeuvring? It isn’t there at all.


Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2021.

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