Five meetings on security in a week and I heard nearly a dozen times that Pakistan doesn’t need nor seeks strategic depth. That’s codswallop. Every state needs strategic depth and given Pakistan’s geographical location, she more than some others.
I hear the sound of bayonets pulled out of scabbards so let me repeat, Pakistan needs strategic depth. Hore Choopo!
But pray, what is this ‘hated’ concept?
Broadly, in military terms, it refers to a state’s ability to deal with an offensive through elastic, multi-layered defence, absorb the initial thrust, stress the enemy forces and inflict attrition on it through multiple counter-strikes that would lead to the offensive petering out and falling short of its objectives.
At a basic level it is a rather simple calculation of distances between the frontlines and/or any forward battle sectors and a state’s strategic assets: industrial areas, key urban and population centres, communications lines, military production centres, in effect the state’s heartlands or, to put it another way, all the soft and hardware whose agglomeration makes a state viable.
For politico-military planners this becomes a central precept. How vulnerable such assets are and what strategy must be adopted to ensure that a state can absorb a methodical offensive and still be able to respond to and defeat an adversary.
Pakistan’s physical thinness that runs along its length helps it in having shorter interior lines, a plus for quick mobilisation. But it also makes her vulnerable to a sweeping offensive with thrusts directed at strategic locations. Pakistan’s mil-ops strategy against a potential Indian offensive, given a relatively weaker air force, more reliance on air defences and lesser logistics and reserve capabilities, has entailed a combination of holding the Indian offensive in certain areas and striking in others. This meant identifying points of no penetration (Lahore and Sialkot, for instance), points where the Indian forces could be pulled in, areas where Pakistan would strike back and also, areas where, if need be, Pakistan could cross over.
This is a very simplistic overview of a complex mil-ops strategy which subsumes multiple operational plans. But the logic is to use interior lines that benefit the defender rather than taking the stress of exterior lines necessary for an offensive. All these concepts continue to be debated which is exactly what the job of a military is, Pakistani as much as any other.
The current confusion is owed to the ‘brilliance’ of former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg who posited it in relation to Afghanistan. His concept was unpopular even when he was the chief and it has never been entertained by serious military planners. No one thinks of placing military and other assets in Afghanistan and thus acquiring strategic depth. Afghanistan, for a host of reasons, one worse than the other, never offered any such possibility outside of the heat-oppressed brain of General Beg. But just because that was nonsense doesn’t make the idea of strategic depth nonsensical per se.
Also, the concept goes beyond the mil-ops categories. During a talk once I formulated it in political-diplomatic terms: strategic depth being the ability of a state to reduce threats by a combination of strategies which includes improving relations with neighbours to try and bring the possibility of an armed conflict to zero and thereby creating space for economic development and projection.
Since then I have been directed to one of the works by Ahmet Devatoglu, the current foreign minister of Turkey who is widely credited with being the architect of Turkey’s reorientation. The book is called Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position. It is written in Turkish and I don’t know of an English translation. But what I have gathered from some research on the internet, it seems that Mr Devatoglu has also argued the concept in political-diplomatic terms.
Not just that. It seems that this process of rethinking Turkey’s relations with its neighbours and the world in general began before Mr Devatoglu’s book came out. Other political scientists like Duygu Sezer, Ali Karaosmanoglu and Huseyin Bagci are also credited with proposing a “‘grand strategy’ for Turkish foreign policy” instead of Ankara’s traditional reactive approach. The same thought was put to me in March 2010 when I interviewed President Abdullah Gul in Ankara: zero conflict in the region; economic development; proactive policy.
It is in this sense that the concept of strategic depth must be seen. And from this perspective, Pakistan needs it not just in relation to Afghanistan, but even more importantly, India.
Put the bayonet back in the scabbard and rethink the concept, thank you.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 8th, 2011.