Pakistan: ditching “strategic depth”

January 20, 2010

Indian farmer in front of Taj MahalKamran Shafi has a column up at Dawn mocking Pakistan’s old strategy of seeking “strategic depth” - the idea that in the event of war with India its military would be able to operate from Afghanistan to offset its disadvantage as a small country compared to its much bigger neighbour:

“Let us presume that the Indians are foolish enough to get distracted from educating their people, some of whom go to some of the best centres of learning in the world. Let us assume that they are idiotic enough to opt for war instead of industrialising themselves and meeting their economic growth targets which are among the highest in the world. Let us imagine that they are cretinous enough to go to war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and effectively put an immediate and complete end to their multi-million dollar tourism industry. Let us suppose that they lose all sense, all reason, and actually attack Pakistan and cut our country into half.

“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?

“More importantly, how can Afghanistan be our ‘strategic depth’ when most Afghans hate our guts, not only the northerners, but even those who call themselves Pakhtuns?”

Pakistan’s policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has been up for discussion since 9/11, when it was forced to abandon the Taliban regime it had backed to try to contain Indian influence there and give itself the space that it felt was so lacking on its eastern border. I have heard Pakistanis saying it was a stupid idea; others saying that even within the Pakistan Army there was a recognition that strategic depth nowadays was best achieved through building a strong domestic economy. Unlike 1971, when Pakistan was cut in two after Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, won independence with Indian military support,  the notion that it might be split in half by an Indian offensive pretty much became outdated when both countries announced they had tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

So is Shafi tilting at windmills? Attacking an idea that belonged to the last century?

Not entirely. Strategic depth has become ingrained in the narrative of relations between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — so taken for granted that I remember being rather surprised myself when a subeditor, quite rightly, asked me to explain what it meant. It may no longer apply in the pure military sense of providing a space to which the army can fall back and where reserves and supplies can be stored, but as a theoretical and emotional concept it lingers. (That is presumably why Shafi felt the need to bury it, since he must have heard the various incarnations of the debate on strategic depth far more than most of us.)

As a concept it continues to inform India and Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan in ways that are likely to become increasingly important as the United States prepares to start winding down its military presence there in 2011.  India has expanded its involvement in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and Pakistan in turn is seen as unwilling to tackle the Afghan Taliban as long as it believes it might need to use them to counter Indian influence there.

Both India and Pakistan say they have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. For India, Afghanistan is part of its near-neighbourhood; it has historical relations with the Afghans and it does not see why Pakistani “sensitivity” should stop it from pursuing its commercial and political interests there. For Pakistan, Afghanistan is a potentially difficult neighbour which has never recognised the Durand Line, the British colonial legacy which fixed the border between the two countries, and where Indian involvement only complicates an already delicate situation.  Both India and Pakistan tend to see each other’s role in Afghanistan as part of a zero sum game, their view of each other’s intentions informed by six decades of distrust and the festering Kashmir dispute.

I’ll come back to this subject in more detail later, but in the meantime it is worth asking what we mean by strategic depth.  Does the expression need to be ditched altogether, or simply redefined?

Postscript: A  Google search threw up this article from 2002 on Pakistan’s approach to strategic depth.  Do read it through as it is still relevant today.

(File photo of the Taj Mahal)

10 comments

Comments are closed.