Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
With the return of the Taliban to Kabul and the disgraceful exit of the US from Afghanistan, some analysts around the world are explaining the security challenge in Afghanistan through the Pakistan-specific framework of the strategic depth policy approach. The latest example is Professor Christine Fair’s recent interview with CNN where she referred to the strategic depth policy to explain Pakistan ‘destructive’ role in Afghanistan.
As a theoretical approach in military studies, strategic depth refers to the distance between the enemy’s frontline and the combatants’ main centres, such as military bases, industrial or commercial hubs, and main population centres. It underscores that the larger the distance between the enemy’s frontline and the defender’s main centres, the better are the chances for a successful defence.
For Pakistan, the strategic depth approach means that Pakistan could not bear the first attack by the Indian army because Pakistan is a long territory that is narrow in the middle, and lacks the necessary strategic stretch to first absorb and then respond to India’s first attack. Pakistan thus needs Afghan territory as a secure strategic space to relocate Pakistan’s military assets and to increase, and thereby also weaken, the Indian line of attack, which would facilitate the Pakistan army in successfully repulsing the invading Indian army. The approach, as applied to Pakistan, is inadequate to explain the perennial security challenge in Afghanistan.
First, it does not explain why Afghanistan could not become a modern state that is also capable of exerting control over its entire territory in order to prevent it being used by militant groups. The country could never develop state institutions, military and civilian, political parties and civilian administration that covers the entire country and a revenue system to finance the state institutions, including the armed forces. The only government of Afghanistan that extended state control over the entire territory was Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), founder of the Afghan state as it stands now on the world map. The Amir used brute force to impose the state writ, including the forced conversation to Islam of the entire population of Kafiristan, the killing of religious leaders in Kandahar and the massacre of the defiant Shinwari tribesmen, followed by the public display of their severed heads to deter others from challenging the state writ. After the Amir’s death, no other leader of the country could exert the state writ on the entire country.
The fact that Afghanistan is not a modern state capable of controlling its territory is one important reason why it suffers from persistent security problems. The fragmented nature of the dominant tribal society in Afghanistan ensures that the state is only one of the socio-political forces competing for control in the country. This weakness of the Afghan state tempts the competing regional and international powers to use the Afghan territory for proxy wars. This in turn ensures that there will be peace in Afghanistan if the competing regional and international powers agree on peace in the country, which is not easy or likely due to the conflicting interests of the involved states. Even if one minuses Pakistan from the proxy war in Afghanistan, it would still be unlikely to ensure peace in Afghanistan as long as the regional and international powers have not reconciled their conflicting interests in the country.
Second, the strategic depth approach contradicts Pakistan long standing position on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The approach implies that Afghanistan is strategic space of Pakistan under its control, which in turn implies that Pakistan does not recognise the Durand Line as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In reality, Pakistan has always insisted that the line is the international border between the countries and has now even fenced the border. The tribal areas on the Pakistani side are now legally integrated with the rest of Pakistan. To its advantage, Pakistan has already integrated its Pashtuns in the state institutions, especially the armed forces, and as a result confronts no popular secessionist Pashtun movement in the country.
Third, the approach implies that Pakistan will relocate, in case of war with India, its military assets, including its nuclear weapons, to Afghanistan to protect them. It, however, fails to explain why would Pakistan relocate its military assets to Afghanistan, a fragmented social space where a considerable section of society is influenced by the over seven decades old Afghan oral historiography that regards Pakistan as an enemy ‘unnatural’ state created by the British to destroy Afghanistan and that it is the duty of Afghans to destroy Pakistan if they are to see peace and prosperity. The hostile section of Afghan society would make Pakistan’s relocated assets more vulnerable than they could be in Pakistan in the face of an Indian attack. It is also unclear whether Pakistan today even needs to relocate its military assets to Afghanistan in case of war with India.
Pakistan’s most important interest in Afghanistan is that there should be a government in Kabul that ensures that the Afghan territory is not used by anyone to destabilise Pakistan. Also, a peaceful Afghanistan that facilitates Pakistan economic relations with Central Asia is also in the interest of Pakistan.
Pakistan shares cultural and linguistic linkages with Afghanistan. This implies that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have an advantage over the competing intelligence agencies involved in the proxy wars in Afghanistan because the Pakistanis have better tacit knowledge and insights about the Afghan tribal dynamics, which they use to their own advantage. This, however, does not mean that Pakistan can singlehandedly outmanoeuvre the other competing intelligence agencies, as the advocates of the strategic depth approach may assume.
Explaining the political instability in Afghanistan with Pakistan-specific ideas that undermine the impact of the wider geo-political context of Afghanistan are not helpful to understand the perennial geopolitical challenge that Afghanistan has become to itself and to the region and the world.
The writer is an Associate Professor at the University of Tromsø, UiT, The Arctic University of Norway.