Strategic depth maligned out of context

Asif Haroon RajaPak-Afghanistan Map

Pakistan has been playing a constructive role in resolving internal feuds of Afghanistan since 1980s and has avoided the game of pitching one ethnic community against the other to serve its selfish interests. All the seven Mujahideen groups involved in Afghanistan Jihad against the Soviet forces had placed their trust in Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif during his first stint from 1990 to 1993 had a role in persuading the Afghan warring groups to mend fences and agree to an arrangement of holding reins of power in Kabul in turn for six months. The agreement didn’t last because of President Burhanuddin Rabbani refusing to hand over power on expiry of his tenure. It angered Gulbadin Hikmatyar and re-triggered internecine war.

After seizing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban pushed Northern Alliance (NA) under Ahmad Shah Masood to northern Afghanistan. Pakistan didn’t cede to Kabul’s repeated request to recognize Taliban regime. They were told to first take all ethnic communities on board. When NA cracked up and several of their leaders like Gen Malik tilted towards Taliban because of differences with their party leaders, the Taliban exploited their infighting and captured Mazar-e-Sharif in May 1997. This breakthrough prompted Pakistan to accord recognition to Taliban regime and soon after Saudi Arabia and UAE followed suit.

It is a well-known fact that Pakistan enjoyed excellent relations with Taliban regime. The latter was beholden to Pakistan for the reason that most had grown up in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Many received religious education in Madrassahs including the ones run by Maulanas Samiul Haq and Mufti Mahmood. They had not forgotten the role of Pakistan in Afghan Jihad and hosting five million Afghan refugees. Even now, 3.1 million registered and non-registered refugees are living in Pakistan. The Taliban regime was helped by Pakistan in overcoming its teething problems.

The two neighbors cemented their relations so affectionately that it gave birth to the idea of strategic depth. It implied any of the two countries getting overwhelmed by an adversary falling back to an alternative position in depth to regroup and then strike back. It also envisaged coming to the assistance of the aggressed country and collectively fighting the adversary. The underlying reason behind this concept was Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth and all its core areas and strategic communications placed perilously close to its eastern border with India.

Friendly Afghanistan under Taliban dashed Indian military’s plan of encircling Pakistan by posing a threat from the east and the west and also took care of Pakistan’s vulnerability of strategic depth. However, this concept was neither incorporated in our defence policy nor practiced in any war game. In erstwhile East Pakistan, our forces had no such option during the 1971 war to prolong the war. Against overwhelming odds, they could either perish or surrender. Russia got saved from getting overwhelmed by French forces under Napoleon and then by German forces because of its vast strategic depth. While our pseudo intellectuals have been ridiculing this concept without understanding the spirit behind it, none ever highlighted Indian encirclement plan which was set into motion in 2002.

All the goodwill and camaraderie earned by Pakistan was washed away by Gen Musharraf when he ditched Taliban and befriended USA after 9/11. Although Afghan Pashtuns as a whole suffered a great deal at the hands of US-NATO forces aided by Pakistan but Taliban suffered the most. Rationally speaking, the Taliban should have never forgiven Pakistan for the wounds it inflicted upon them, but it is their large heartedness that they are still trusting Pakistan. They must have comprehended the dilemma of Pakistan in that timeframe when it was given a choice to either assist USA in its military adventure or else get destroyed.

In case of exercise of second option, there would have been no safe haven in FATA for the Taliban to fall back, regroup and fight back to reclaim lost territory. The Taliban made good use of the concept of strategic depth by undertaking a tactical withdrawal into FATA to save Afghanistan and its people from getting annihilated. Pakistan too agreed to US demands under similar constraints. Afghanistan’s destruction was inevitable even if Pakistan had not ceded to US demand of becoming a coalition partner.

Another aspect worth noting is that Pakistan has suffered the major brunt of war in Afghanistan since 1979. If Pakistan betrayed Afghanistan in 2001; successive regimes in Kabul have been bad mouthing Pakistan and had preferred India over Pakistan. Hamid Karzai has all along been casting aspersions and leveling baseless allegations against Pakistan. He has helped India in fulfilling its dream of posing twin threat to the security of Pakistan.

Karzai having failed to woo Taliban is convinced that his failure is owed to Pakistan military. He and his regime carry the perception that Taliban leaders are in the pocket of Pak military. This perception is erroneous since Pakistan doesn’t enjoy decisive influence over them to make them change their principles and chartered goals. However, it is a fact that Pakistan today is better placed than any country in the world to interact with Taliban and reach at an amicable solution to Afghan crisis. Afghan Taliban are mindful of the fact that Pakistan is providing strategic depth to them and as such remain inclined towards Pakistan.

In Pakistan, there has been too much of stress on Pashtun and non-Pashtun Afghans because of misplaced animosity of non-Pashtuns that Islamabad helped the Taliban in capturing power in 1996. It must not be overlooked that 95% of Afghanistan population comprise of Sunnis. Hence our aim should be to establish rapport with Sunnis rather than remaining fixed on ethnicity.  It is indeed very satisfying that despite NA tilt towards India and its open-ended antagonism against Pakistan, the ISI didn’t get carried away by emotions and not only maintained links with Taliban that had been ditched by Pakistan after 9/11, but also kept making subtle efforts to befriend NA leaders. ISI’s sustained efforts started bearing fruit after Abdullah Abdullah pitched against Karzai in November 2009 presidential elections lost the race due to massive rigging and foreign interference. His confrontation with Karzai and his Pashtun supporters brought him closer to Pakistan and he responded positively to ISI’s friendly gestures.

Gen Kayani and DG ISI Lt Gen Zaheer were instrumental in persuading the Taliban to open their political office in Doha and to restart talks that were stalled in March 2012 because the US didn’t stick to its promise of swapping prisoners. They are again making efforts to convince the Taliban to make their Doha office functional, after Karzai’s needless sabre rattling over the issue of plaque and flag last month. The two are in a position to bring warring Pashtun and non-Pashtun leaders to the negotiating table and reach a political solution. The situation has further become conducive after the takeover by Nawaz Sharif.

While it is true that the US is unclear about its safe exit and future course of events in Afghanistan in post 2014 period, Pakistan too is not clear as to how it intends dealing with Afghanistan once the security vacuum is created. No roadmap has been devised except for rhetoric that we want peaceful and friendly Afghanistan. So far, the dice is loaded against Pakistan.   The US must reciprocate Pakistan’s efforts for peaceful transition in Afghanistan by sapping ties with TTP and persuading India and Karzai regime to do the same. The US must play its role in ending covert war against Pakistan from Afghan soil. A solution is possible if the US plays a straight game and doesn’t get influenced by intriguer India which is highly upset over the recent developments and peeved Karzai who is feeling left out.

The writer is a retired Brig, a columnist and a defence analyst.

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