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)


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For Pakistan strategic depth is, the cheap and mad human resource for the covert wars against India. Most of the afghans in tribal region, bordering are very brave, not literate and are totally radicalized in last 30 year by Pakistan’s ISI through organisations such as Taliban. If these people start thinking logically they can not be used for by Pakistan’s ISI for their innumerable operations in India and Afghanistan. And ISI and Pak army can not afford to loose these cheap human resources who have played great roles in past Indo-Pak wars.

Posted by Pravinraje | Report as abusive

The Pakistani military and leaders will sell the Taliban to the highest bidders and then will try to justify it to the common people by telling them that Taliban was always an Indian invention anyway. And whats more the Pakistani people will belive them anyway.

Posted by SunilKumar | Report as abusive

I think there should be a debate in Pakistan about strategic depth. Only then will successive policy makers and the general public would be able to own its policy.

At the same time, we must not forget that the threat from India to the rest of the region is grave. Apart from spilling terror into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province from Afghanistan, meddling into the internal affairs of countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, India has slaughtered thousands of innocent people in its own territories (from Kashmir to Gujarat). India should not be allowed to be the regional policeman.

In fact, to solve the problems of South Asia, India should be merged back with Pakistan to create a greater Pakistan (as was the case from 10th century to 18th century).

Posted by hussainahsan | Report as abusive

Very interesting discussion here. In my personal view this problem had been created in 1947 with partition and the only way it can be solved is by the re-integration of the sub-continent, through a fast track SAARC union, with Myanmar in it if possible. India is the biggest player and the biggest looser in the region if it does not make this happen. Can the Hindu elite share ruling power with Muslims, that is the big question that broke things down in 1947 and is still haunting the region. Now things are spiraling down to ever more complications, but there is no alternative but to go back where it all started, albeit through a different vehicle like SAARC union. British strategic shortsight and Russian treachery also played in handing over Xinjiang and Tibet to PRC and finally the breaking of the subcontinent created this cauldron of trouble. Xinjiang and Tibet has been lost forever. Pakistan has been pushed to a corner to have no choice but to deal with the devil that is China, so it is India and only India’s responsibility to change that reality and bring wayward Pakistan back to homeward bound, this must sink in Indian leadership and only then through unilateral moves from the Indian side we may see some change. Blaming Pakistan for India’s travails will not help one bit, if India wants to secure its own and its regions future then it must take matters in its own hand, not by force, but with tact, diplomacy and charm offensive. And the global powers such as the US and EU must make it their priority as well, to stabilize the region. This will be much cheaper than sending half of US Army in Afghanistan, which only further complicates the situation on the ground.

Posted by axindi | Report as abusive

@In fact, to solve the problems of South Asia, India should be merged back with Pakistan to create a greater Pakistan (as was the case from 10th century to 18th century).”
Posted by hussainahsan

–@India SHOULD be merged back with Pakistan”—-Well, that way Pakistan should become leader of Muslim world and the global superpower. There is no end to imagination and no restriction on dreams. But what you are suggesting is called the nightmare of Pakistanis, who do not want Pakistan dissolving into India to become “greater India”. At a different level, Bollywood is doing that job very well. I can already see Pakistani media quoting Hindi movie lines; so it is happening but does not look like “Greater Pakistan”.

In any case, I do not know about “Greater Pakistan” that existed in 10th century to 18th century, but from the events in 1971 I can agree with you that there did exist “Greater Pakistan” in 1947.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

[…] Myra MacDonald has an interesting article on “strategic depth” that warrants attention.  She begins by citing a Pakistani commentator, and then discusses her own personal perspective given her history in the region.  This is an extended read, but well worth the time. Kamran 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: […]

Posted by The Captain's Journal » Gates to Pakistan: Fight Our Common Enemies | Report as abusive asia/22gates.html

It seems that the U.S. is adding some sort of strategic depth on one end, by giving Pakistan drones, to gain their co-operation, while asking Pakistan not to maintain enmity with India, how laughable.

Has Gates lost his marbles and thinks he can trust the liars in Pakistan? I have one name for the Pakistan establishment… all…LIARS. Once a cheater, always a cheater and always a liar. One day, Pakistani Army if they engineer another war with India via their proxy strategic depth agitation at India, Pakistan will not hesitate to use reverse engineered Drones to kill Indians.

If Paks want drones, they should provide location of all of their nuclear launch sites, lock stock and barrel.

Fighting the war on terror should not ever have conditions.

It seems that the west and U.S. never want to learn from its mistakes, while handling rogue nations, held hostage to their own armies.

If Iraq is any indicator on how the Right Wing nuts in the U.S. behave, and if Barack Obama fails re-election, the U.S. votership is going to go Republican and those war-hawks are not going to play jumping jacks with Pakistan, the way the current administration is, they will not budge an inch with Pak establishment, they will dictate terms sternly and directly.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive

I am amused and stunned that US is still believes pakistan more than any other ally. Drones are best if they are not in the hands of pakistan. You can probably see it quickly in the hands of Taliban and potentially being used against India.

It could be clandestinely taken to china and manufactured in China quickly and sold back to US and possibly other countries around the world at half the price.

I will not surprised if US starts importing it from China and Pakistan the same drone they gave it to Pakistan.

I am sure the US think is smart and they are not fools. If they are they should rethink on the drone being given to Pakistan.

Posted by mouli | Report as abusive

Idiots running around like headless chickens, we havent even been given the little toys yet ha ha…

We need the toosl to do the job maybe the few dozen appaches would be nice but than what would idiots make of them?

Posted by Magic786 | Report as abusive


Ahmed M. Quraishi is a crackpot if you know him well. His redefinition of “Strategic Depth” (SD) appears nothing more than an identity crisis of Pakistan. He posits that running away from this neighborhood to Central/West Asia will get Pakistan some respect and position and that religion is not a factor. That’s BS. In any case, other than bomb what does Pakistan has to offer to the Muslim nations he mentioned. Pakistan’s problem of identity crisis is not going to be solved by following one or the other country.

@Although there is a sense of realization within the Pakistani military establishment that the country’s Afghan policy went wrong, there remains a deep belief about the inevitability of Pakistan’s strategic links to Central and West Asia within the institution. This is not propaganda spread by right-wing Taliban-sympathisers within the ruling establishment, rather a proposition sponsored by a pool of eclectic, strategically-oriented civilian and military minds.”

I know one of his friends Zaid hamid who is anything but “eclectic, strategically-oriented civilian and military mind”.
Watch these nuts for their views on Mumbai attack/India. This duo even 1yr after 26/11 is singing the same conspiracy theory songs that it was doing right after 26/11, despite all the evidence in place. Please get this translated if you do not know the language he is speaking.  /tss-ahmed-quraishi-with-zaid-hamid/

In the end there is no sound alternative to making some basic peace and having some basic trust built even with your enemies so as not to have sleepless nights each day. This will not happen until Pakistan stops living on freebies that normally are associated with maintaining the (terror) industries of no use to anyone. Going Westward in Asia is not a solution to Pakistan’s problems. Becoming self reliant and building business relations (even without solving all the problems) so that India and Pakistan have stakes in each other good enough not to destroy each other is a more positive approach. AQ’s redefined SD will not bring any liberalism in Palistan but bring in more religion, more wahabbism, more extremism, more polarity in south Asia. Hardly a solution. Having relationship with countries is one thing but that’s not what he seems to be saying.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Nuclear weapons were used once in history and no country can ever use them again. Possession of these weapons does not give a country any extra edge over others globally. All it accomplishes is in-house support for the leadership of that particular country.

Pakistan cannot be talking about exercising the nuclear option at the drop of a hat. Even if Pakistan were ever so foolish to use such a weapon, it would become an instant pariah on the international scene. No country least of all Pakistan which is so dependent on international aid can survive the fallout, UN sanctions of 1998 is a case in point. Pakistani media and its leadership need to be more responsible and less jingoistic.

The use of militant Islam as a means of low intensity aggression against any nation is not acceptable in the post 9/11 world. Pakistan therefore needs to see the writing on the wall, and dismantle these institutions which it has supported so far, to further its influence in the South Asian region. State support for religious militancy is fraught with pit-falls, as interests of a nation state are much broader than the strict and narrow ideology of a religious group or sect. It does not take much provocation for these groups to turn on the benefactor itself, Pakistan is experiencing it today!

Pakistan has to build trust in its neighborhood. It cannot continue being a local bully, teetering on the edge, using threats and nuclear coercion as the new instrument of foreign policy.

Posted by South_Asian | Report as abusive