'Strategic depth' at heart of Taliban arrests
By Shibil Siddiqi
Pakistan has recently arrested a number of top Taliban leaders, including the
second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and many of the Quetta shura. It
also killed in a drone attack Mohammad Haqqani, a leader of the powerful
Haqqani network that Pakistan had been loath to target. Many commentators,
including influential think-tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment, have
struggled to explain Pakistan's motivations behind the arrests and have hoped
they embody a volte-face in its policies towards Afghanistan.
In actuality the arrests are far from representing a paradigm shift in
Pakistani thinking. Pakistan's approach to Afghanistan can be boiled down to
two words: "strategic depth", the holy grail of the nation 's strategic policy
for more than two decades. Strategic depth remains the central pillar in
Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan. However, the concept itself is being
Pakistan's security establishment as a consequence of the sliding balance of
opportunities and threats, both foreign and domestic.
The military concept of strategic depth refers to the distance between actual
or potential frontlines and key centers of population, logistics and industrial
and military production. Having such depth allows a country to withstand
initial offensives and enables it to regroup to mount a counter-offensive.
Pakistan's geographic narrowness and the presence of key heartlands and
communications networks near its borders with its mortal enemy India means that
lack of strategic depth has long haunted its military planners. It was
identified as a grave concern by General Arthur F Smith, the chief of general
staff in India, as early as 1946 when an independent Pakistan existed only on
the Imperial drawing board. The possibility of a friendly - or better yet, a
pliant - Afghanistan providing this much vaunted depth in relation to India has
long been a mantra for the unimaginative Pakistani generals that have long
controlled the country's defense and foreign policy direction.
However, Pakistan's early years, marked by nearly constant internal crises,
international isolation, foreign policy disarray and military weakness, meant
that this remained a pipe-dream. The language of a "common defense posture"
cropped up in the late 1950s and 1960s, couched in both strategic and
ideological, ethno-religious terms. But Afghanistan remained both strongly
allied to India and within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.
The opportunity to furnish a friendly government in Kabul remained elusive
until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the seemingly imminent
mujahideen victory in the late 1980s. It was then that strategic depth through
a client government in Kabul was adopted as official military doctrine. This
fueled the vicious Afghan civil war in the 1990s and drove Pakistan to help
install the Taliban in power in 1996.
The Taliban victory was seen in Islamabad as a strategic coup. Pakistan had
managed to install a friendly government while excising nearly all remnants of
Indian and Russian influence from most of the country. Afghanistan also became
an important center for Pakistan's proxy war against India in the disputed
territory of Kashmir. At last, Pakistan had seemingly attained the conception
of strategic depth that had animated its Afghanistan policy for nearly two
The attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent American
occupation of Afghanistan resulted in the loss of Pakistan's primary influence.
It brought many changes to Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan. However,
giving up on the idea of pliable Afghanistan dominated by Islamist Pashtun
(read Taliban) was not one of them. While reprising its role as a frontline
American ally, Pakistan maintained some important links to the Taliban, banking
on them emerging as the eventual victors when North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) forces withdrew.
But change has been brewing. For weeks now the Pakistani Foreign Office has
talked about the need for a "pluralistic" government in Kabul, the first time
that Pakistan has discussed the political order in Afghanistan in such terms.
But the decisive shift from the real players - the army's general headquarters
- came only recently.
In a rare press briefing on February 1, Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq
Parvez Kiani hinted at the contours of an updated policy. "We want strategic
depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it," said the general, "A
peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan strategic depth."
Talking against wanting a Talibanized Afghanistan, he added, "We can't wish
anything for Afghanistan that we don't wish for ourselves." The statements are
unprecedented for a Pakistani leader, no less the chief of its hawkish army.
The general also reiterated that he was ready to mediate between the Americans
and the Taliban, an offer he had also made earlier on his visit to NATO
headquarters in January.
At least two related factors have caused the shift in the way Pakistan views
strategic depth. The first is the belated realization that even though the
Taliban would almost certainly be able to outlast NATO, it is no longer
possible for them to win an outright military victory and rule the country like
they did from 1996 to 2001.
There are numerous reasons for this, the most salient being that the Taliban
are no longer a unified fighting force, nor are they the unknown and idealized
quantity of their original incarnation. Further, many former mujahideen
commanders have substantial investments of various shades to protect and
therefore, have a vested interest in the status quo, as do Afghanistan's
non-Pashtun minorities that are now far better organized and entrenched both
politically and militarily.
And the Taliban have hardly ingratiated themselves to the West or Afghanistan's
neighbors. Any Taliban attempt to extend control beyond the Pashtun belts to
the non-Pashtun central and northern areas of the country are likely to result
in a grinding stalemate - one that would continue to destabilize Pakistan while
bleeding it economically.
Another overlooked factor in Pakistan's evolving strategy in Afghanistan is
that a victory for the Taliban is no longer a desired outcome for Pakistan's
security establishment. The economic, political and diplomatic cost of bringing
and sustaining the Taliban in power would be far too high. Nor can Pakistan
afford to leave the Taliban unchecked in Afghanistan when it is struggling with
its own Islamist insurgency with barely checked shades of Pashtun nationalism
lurking below the surface.
"It makes no strategic sense for Pakistan to support radical Islamists in
Afghanistan when it faces a full-blown Islamist insurgency at home," Kamran
Bokhari, the Middle East and South Asia director for Stratfor, said in an
interview with Asia Times Online. "By watching the melon, even the cantaloupe
catches color," Bokhari said, using a popular Urdu aphorism to refer to the
material and ideological support that the Taliban would engender for anti-state
groups in Pakistan.
The Taliban are still the main vehicle for Pakistan to exert influence in
Afghanistan. But, according to Bokhari, "It doesn't want them running the
show." Accordingly, for the first time Pakistan has opened channels to
non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan. It is also making an increasingly successful
bid via Washington to become more involved in training the Tajik-dominated
Afghan National Army (ANA). Combined with the fact that the Pashtun Taliban are
the largest political and military force in the country, Pakistan would be in a
commanding position in Afghanistan even if it did not attain the posture it
sought in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.
Reassessing Pakistan's arrests
Enter the recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan. The arrested leaders -
Mullah Baradar in particular - are suspected of pursuing their own agenda
independent of Pakistan. It is believed they participated in dialogue with the
US, the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and the United Nations by
using back channels that bypassed Pakistan.
The Pakistani arrests have abruptly shut these channels down. They have also
given Pakistan physical control of high-level leaders who potentially can
represent the Taliban in future talks - or even scuttle them if need be. The
arrests are meant to be a clear signal to the US, the Afghan government and the
Taliban that Pakistan will not go along with any negotiations in which it
doesn't have a place at the table.
In Kiani's words, "[Pakistan's] strategic paradigm needs to be fully realized."
Both the Americans and Karzai are persisting in their efforts to minimize
Pakistani influence. But given the breadth and depth of its involvement and its
indispensability to NATO's occupation and plans for withdrawal, they are
unlikely to succeed.
The arrests also signal to the Taliban that they do not have carte blanche in
running their insurgency in Afghanistan. They need to accommodate Pakistani
interests or risk being completely isolated. By forcing them to negotiate,
Pakistan is sapping the Taliban's greatest asset - time. As with any guerrilla
force, the Taliban exhibit a preference for long-term attrition over short-term
victories. This is why most successful insurgents consistently lose battles and
win the war.
By forcefully imposing itself as a mediator between the Taliban and the US,
Pakistan is attempting to shape the outcome of negotiations in a way that will
preserve the imperative of strategic depth. Accommodation with other ethnic
groups in Afghanistan will also keep the Taliban off-balanced enough to prevent
their encroachment on Pakistan through ties with the Pakistani Taliban and
other extremist Islamist organizations. This will serve to isolate the
Pakistani Taliban from their comrades in Afghanistan. Pakistan's insurgency
will become less cross-border than it has been, allowing it to force similar
settlements on some insurgents while critically weakening and eliminating
Too much, too late?
Pakistan's retreat from a maximalist position is a welcome one. But there are
lots of moving parts in the strategic machinery that it is setting into motion.
Distrust between Afghanistan's ethnic groups today is matched only by their
distrust of Pakistan. Its recent moves can only further isolate Pakistan from
the Taliban and the Pashtun in general, while non-Pashtuns have long looked
These elements may crystallize into enough opposition on the ground to
ultimately limit Pakistani influence. It is also worth remembering that in the
1980s Pakistan overplayed its hand by refusing to negotiate over a future
Afghan government. Pakistan had hoped to prolong the Red Army's agony as well
as Western support to extract the best possible terms, but failed to anticipate
the speed of both the Soviet withdrawal and the West's loss of interest. It may
now make the same mistake vis-a-vis the American occupation.
Iran's, India's and Russia's distrust of Pakistan and the Taliban has grown
after the two met with a view to a common platform on Afghanistan. But the US,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey axis may be able to browbeat an agreement
that allows an American withdrawal from Afghanistan with some pretence of
having left a stabilized country behind.
Ultimately, Afghanistan's stability and Pakistan's elusive strategic depth will
continue to rest on the knife's edge of continuing accommodation and
understanding between Afghanistan's various ethnic groups on the one hand, and
its unruly neighbors on the other. It is a tall order.
Shibil Siddiqi is a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Global Power
and Politics at Trent University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus,
the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and ZNet. He can be reached at[email protected]