The Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s ‘Strategic Depth’
The concept of strategic depth originated out of Pakistan’s troubled relationship with Afghanistan during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and India used Afghan territory to operate against Pakistan. Strategic depth can best be understood as a defensive posture in which a country seeks to expand its presence across geographic boundaries. This expansion allows the country to prevent an adversary from using additional territory to launch attacks. The country can also disperse assets (especially nuclear weapons) into the expanded territory, increasing its ability to absorb an attack and strike back. General Mirza Aslam Beg, Pakistani army chief from 1988-1991, was credited with the authorship of strategic depth. In his view, it was a way of securing ‘Islamic Depth’ in the west and counterbalancing the conventionally superior ‘Hindu India’. This could been done by strengthening diplomatic and military relations with Afghanistan and the Arab world so that in the worst-case scenario of India invading and overrunning Pakistan, the Army High Command could relocate west and use Afghanistan to roll back India. The concept of strategic depth has now developed through repeated crises and confrontations with India and is intimately connected to second-strike capability and nuclear doctrine. Because of the geographic size and overall economy of the contrasting countries, Pakistan fears that with a lack of strategic depth, India would be able to divide the country or threaten its territorial integrity.
A stable, friendly Afghanistan is an integral part of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Islamabad also continues to want a friendly regime in Kabul to be part of strategic depth. After the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan supported the Pashtun militant faction, Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. By 1994, the traditional leadership in Kandahar had been eliminated and a new movement emerged- the Taliban. From 1994 onwards, these mujahedeen were trained and funded by Pakistan as part of the plan envisioned by General Beg to ensure future Taliban support. The idea was to build an additional infantry force that would provide strategic depth, in terms of Afghan man power, in case the country was ever attacked.
The fall of the Taliban regime resulted in a major opportunity for India to gain footholds in Afghanistan. With the Taliban’s defeat, India now enjoys unrivalled access to President Karzai and the Afghan government. India’s new presence in Afghanistan is part of an overall strategy for projecting influence in Central Asia and denying Pakistan the strategic depth it badly wants. A sort of competition arose after the fall of the Taliban over Afghanistan’s alignment. Pakistanis complained that Indian consulates in Afghanistan, especially the two located in Kandahar and Jalalabad, close to the Pakistan border, were launching pads for covert attacks on Pakistan. Indians charged that attacks on their Afghan consulates in cities where Pakistan also had consulates were supported by the ISI.
In addition to the Indian presence now felt in Afghanistan, government leaders left over from the Northern Alliance continue to have ties with India. In fact, many of them were either educated in, or residents of, India for some time. Pakistani leaders believe that these personalities need to be kept out of the Afghan government. Since Karzai, the relatively progressive intellectuals, and most of the Afghan Diaspora all oppose the Taliban, there is a belief in Islamabad that their most secure allies continue to be components of the Afghan Taliban, including the Jalaluddin Haqqani network. Although the Pakistani Taliban constitute a short-term threat, close historical ties with the mujahedeen and the importance of strategic depth means that the Afghan Taliban will remain untouched.