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Strategic Depth, its Forms and Requirements of Pakistan’s National Security

Strategic Depth’ is either Military or Non-military in nature. Although Strategic Depth is crucial to every country, but mostly this term has been used in reference to Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan since Soviet invasion to prevent encirclement from a hostile India and a USSR supported Afghanistan. The term ‘Strategic Depth’ was only pronounced by ex COAS General (R) Mirza Aslam Beg1 which was not liked by many at home, even when he was sitting COAS. If the concept of Strategic Depth was ever used in the past by military strategists that was in the times of cold war and in that perspective Afghanistan did provide Strategic Depth to Pakistan against any possible encirclement or invasion by the former Soviet Union. But to talk about that Afghanistan can provide Strategic Depth in case of Indian attack is a flawed concept and an unconventional theory. Besides this, a well-known fact is that this concept has never been taught anywhere in Pakistan’s Armed Forces Institutions starting from the basic tactical courses in armed forces’ schools of instruction to command and staff college Quetta and the war course at NDU, Islamabad.

            From Pakistan’s perspective, military version of Strategic Depth seems to have worked well in the past. But, in case of threat emanating from the east, Pakistan will have to find a different kind of Strategic Depth. Given the Regional and Geopolitical situation, Pakistan may not immediately take a ‘U’ turn on already prevailing concept of Strategic Depth, as it has already experienced after-shocks of its ‘U’ turn on Kashmir policy. Nevertheless, the new concept of strategic depth will automatically take over and replace the old and misinterpreted concept of strategic depth. Keeping in view the present regional and international environment, it is quite likely, that any new concept of strategic depth would come in the form of ‘Soft Power’ like Turkish Model of Strategic Depth. This paper titled ‘Revisiting Pakistan’s Strategic Depth’ is intended on the similar lines.

            No military leader or commander could be so insane to think that he would retreat his formation (troops & military assets) into Afghanistan for mustering strength and re-group for counter offensive, which means compromising on the ‘heart-land’. As we know that nuclear armed countries avoid direct confrontation with each-other and have a tendency to indulge in proxy wars through non-state actors. That’s what Pakistan and India are engaged in, and are likely to be faced with for at least in foreseeable future, until both realize the cost and effect of any such debacles. However, the buildup of nuclear weapons for use in the battlefield reduces the need for Strategic Depth at the cost of increasing risk of nuclear war. That’s why the statements of ex COAS General Ashfaq Pervaz Kayani appears to be supportive of even finding Non-military Strategic Depth and this is one thing where all military and civilian leadership seems to have unanimity of the views.2

            If, someone however, subscribe to the Indian and western propaganda then it is a separate issue. For instance, Richard Olson (ex US Ambassador to Pakistan) said Pakistan Military’s doctrine of ‘Strategic Depth’ is a concept in which Pakistan uses Afghanistan as an instrument of strategic security in ongoing tensions with India by attempting to control Afghanistan as a pawn for its own political purposes.3 Mr. Olson has described the usage of the concept in quite an unconventional fashion. Similarly, in the past, this concept had been portrayed totally out of context due to which it has led to strained relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is therefore felt that both governments need to sit down to shun away the misconceptions created by the regional as well as international players who have vested interests.

            Since past one and half decade India has very wisely adapted to the changed strategic environment of South Asia and very well knows Pakistan’s Thresholds & Redlines. In this regard, recent history of a limited war in Kargil and an attack by terrorists on Indian parliament after May 1998 nuclear detonations are the cases in point. If still some quarters delude, they should concentrate on Pakistan’s development of Al-Nasr weapon system meant to engage Indian mechanized formations at operational distances.

            The term, ‘Strategic Depth’ is being misinterpreted since long and interestingly security establishment in Pakistan never bluntly clarified it, may be intentionally, to enjoy its sexy interpretations and translations. Ahmet Devatoglu ex Turkish foreign minister who was credited as Architect of Turkey’s Reorientation also argued the concept in politico-diplomatic terms with regards to Turkey’s International Position. Other political scientists like Duygu Sezer, Ali Karaosmanoglu and Huseyin Bagci are also regarded for proposing a ‘Grand Strategy’ for Turkish Foreign Policy instead of Ankara’s traditional reactive approach. As per President Abdullah Gul now Turkey is pursuing Zero Conflict in the Region, Economic Development and Proactive Policy.4 It is in this sense that the concept of strategic depth should be seen by Pakistan. In this relation, Pakistan needs to revisit the concept of ‘Strategic Depth’ not just in relation to Afghanistan but more importantly India.

            It’s ridiculous to think that Pakistan wanted to occupy Afghanistan and make it our fifth province, for example! And just in case any of us dared to suggest that some price had to be paid to achieve this sublime objective, the retort is ingenious: ‘but that was not a very smart idea; it destroyed the global balance of power and now the sole surviving superpower is running amok’ and it has started suffering from Imperial Overstretch. Strategic depth, within and without, is of course the need of every country. ‘Friendly neighborhood’, ‘near abroad’, and ‘buffers’ are some of the more familiar variants – serving more or less the same purpose. And of course it is not merely a spatial concept (Israel has it in the USA), it is also economic, political (alliance building), and is best provided by the unity emerging from within a nation.  Now that Poland’s overtures towards Ukraine have been described by Stratfor a pursuit of strategic depth, may be this doctrine can be placed in its right perspective.5

            The worst scenario for Pakistan is hostile India on its east and pro-India Afghanistan on its western border posing twin threat to its security, which it can neither afford nor ignore. In all the wars with India, while the people of FATA defended the northwestern border, Afghanistan stayed neutral. The situation may be different in any future conflict since the TTP remote controlled by foreign agencies and NA heavy government in Kabul indebted to India and nurturing an old grudge against Pakistan for helping the Taliban in gaining power in 1996 will in all likelihood support India. Conversely, if the Taliban regain power, they would have little choice but to maintain friendly ties with Pakistan since they will have to contend with hostile Iran in the southwest, NA in northern Afghanistan, not so friendly China in northeast and Russia in the north.6 At this point in time India has gained Strategic Depth by billions of dollars of UD direct investments and civil nuclear deal. On similar lines, Pakistan will have to negotiate a civil nuclear deal with China and/or Russia. Pakistan should intensify its efforts to be made member of SCO. Inclusion in this larger economic group will afford Pakistan more economic security and open doors for bigger trade with countries along Silk Route. Similarly, with little more diplomatic efforts and focus on Moscow and Beijing Islamabad can get into Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). All these steps if coupled with gas pipelines (TAPI & IPI) will have all the more potential to add to Pakistan’s strategic depth vis-à-vis India.

            Pakistan’s interests and policies in Afghanistan are now charged with more mature approach whereby it hopes to have a friendly and stable government in Kabul, where it is not threatened by anti-Pakistan elements. However, for Pakistan there is serious competition, even challenges from other regional players already present in Afghanistan, one of them being India with so much of investment in this country. So far, Pakistan and Afghanistan are collaborating in persuading the insurgents to accept peace through reconciliatory process. For both countries a regional and accommodating approach is essential for promoting and realizing potential friendly relationship. However, since the initiative has been wrested by the Taliban, they refuse to accept a settlement on American terms. Their chief demand before making peace with the government is the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. India is acting as a spoiler and is continuing to devise strategies to keep Afghanistan and Pakistan destabilized and the two neighbors on warpath.7

            Notwithstanding his preference for India, Karzai realized the importance of Pakistan and the influential role it can play in stabilizing Afghanistan. He can therefore, ill-afford to buy animosity of Pakistan particularly when the US and its western allies have decided to pull out by the end of 2014 (first drawdown timeframe given by the US) and the Taliban surge is on the rise. Given the history of India’s relations with Pakistan, it should remain wary of Indo-Afghan strategic partnership. India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan is a threat and increasingly destabilizing factor for Pakistan’s security. Therefore, Pakistan should continue to convince the US and Afghan regime into limiting India’s role in Afghanistan and should also increase its volume of investment and reconstruction/ development works to be able to compete with other competitors and make a place for itself.8

            When we embark upon this path, role of foreign office will definitely increase and they would be required to give their professional input for policy formulation. Usually the emphasis most of the countries place on the relevance of structural versus non-structural variables in formulating foreign policy, three schools can be identified. The first school restricts the role of non-structural factors to accounting for anomalous behavior. The second school argues that non-structural variables should also be included in order to understand the policy’s timing and style, and in times of security plenty, its content. While the third school contends that it is the international structural factors i.e. state’s strategic interactions with other polities that shape most foreign policy. Following the test of their forecasts versus the historical record, this school of thought emerges as providing the most accurate account and as the most promising avenue of research for Neoclassical Realism.9 In the context of Indo-Pak relations – challenge would be to promote military-to-military CBMs without undermining the civilian governments in both countries.10

            The concept of achieving Strategic Depth (Turkish Model) could be materialized by having good economic relations with Russia, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, China, Nepal and Bangladesh. However, in my view, Strategic Depth with regards to Indian offensive could be found in Jammu & Kashmir or on the periphery of India. Strategic depth, in this case could be even in the form of heavy economic investments in each-other’s country and energy interdependence on each-other. So Pakistan will have to explore those areas in which Indian investments will not weaken Pakistan’s economy but at the same time would bar India from showing aggression towards Pakistan. These ties can further be categorized as:-

  1. Economic Ties. China, Russia, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and CARs.
  2. Military Ties. China, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh.


1,2,3 22 Mar 13

4 22 Mar 13

5  Lt Gen (R) Asad Durrani, Strategic Depth, within and without, is of course the need of every country, and it is not a spatial concept, published on 19 Oct 2011

6,7,8 Brig (R) Asif Haroon Raja, Why Strategic Depth is Crucial

9  Tudor Onea, Dartmouth College, USA

10 Neet, Lal 2010

By: Saeed Muhammad

Published in March 2013

Rewritten: Jun 2015

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