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Islam and Politics ( 12 Nov 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan and Its Strategic Depth: A Tale of Two Narratives

By Najam Sethi


THERE are two narratives that define Pakistan’s national security. One is as old as the country itself and has become part of the national mindset. This is the anti- India paradigm that underpins the powerful corporatisation of the Pakistani military and tilts the balance of power away from the civilians. The other is a consequence of the ouster of the USSR from Afghanistan and the end of the Cold War in 1989-90 when an ethno-Islamist civil war erupted in Afghanistan in the 1990s and finally led in 1997 to the establishment of a Taliban-Al Qaeda regime in Kabul. This is the base of the Af-Pak paradigm.


The overlapping of these two narratives since 9/11 has created a politicomilitary crisis in the region that is taking a heavy toll of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and threatening to spill over into India and China. Significantly, though, both narratives are riddled with holes and propaganda. That is why we have so many problems and so few solutions. Consider.


India does not pose a security threat to Pakistan. All Indo-Pak military conflicts were triggered or provoked by Pakistan. In 1948, Pakistan sent tribal lashkars into Kashmir, followed by regular forces, to wrestle Kashmir from India. In 1965, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar by infiltrating regular soldiers disguised as Kashmiri Mujahideen into Kashmir to rouse the “locals” and start an armed struggle against the “Indian occupiers”. In 1971, a ruthless combination of West Pakistani generals and politicians created the East “Pakistan problem” and provoked rebellion, war and secession. In 1999, the Pakistani military sneaked soldiers disguised as Kashmiri Mujahideen into no-man’s land and captured the Kargil heights with a view to cutting off India’s strategic artery to Kashmir.

Each conflict with India was triggered by the Pakistani military establishment and used to manufacture layers of domestic consent about a perpetual and heightened “security threat” from India. This was done to establish the military as the preeminent political player and corporate entity of Pakistan.


The second narrative began when the Pak-US sponsored jihad in Afghanistan led to the ouster of the Russians and a scramble for power among the Mujahideen in the 1990s. The theory of “strategic depth” was subsequently coined to justify the installation of “pro-Pakistan” Pasthun regimes in Kabul, culminating in a formal recognition of the Taliban regime of Mullah Umar in 1997. It was now “pay-back” time on Pakistan’s long-drawn out “investment” in Afghanistan that dovetailed neatly into the India factor because it enabled Pakistan to set up training bases for Pakistani jihadis who were infiltrated into Kashmir to liberate it from the clutches of India.


Thus a pro- Pakistan, Talibanised Afghanistan became the perfect strategic depth- facilitating pad for enhancing India’s insecurity! The two narratives seemed to merge seamlessly into a springboard for the misadventure in Kargil in 1999.


BUT 9/ 11 put paid to this grand anti- India, strategic depth narrative. The ISI miscalculated when it ignored the developing regional and international threat from Al- Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite the American Cruise Missile attacks in 1998 via Pakistani airspace on Osama Bin Ladin’s training camps in Southern Afghanistan near Pakistan’s border.


The ISI miscalculated again when it actually encouraged Mullah Umar to defy the USA and provoked American Daisy Cutters over Kabul. The American invasion of Afghanistan installed an anti- Pakistan, secular regime in Kabul dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks and led nominally by Hamid Karzai, a secular pro- India Pushtun, compelling Pakistan to provide “ safe havens” in North Waziristan for its fleeing Taliban “ assets” and Al- Qaeda in the expectation of re- launching them after the US left Afghanistan sooner than later.


This has proven to be the ISI’s third and biggest mistake. The US has not only dug its heels in Afghanistan, spending a trillion dollars in the process, but its war against the Taliban- Al- Qaeda network in Pakistan’s tribal areas has also had the unintended consequence of seeding the Tehreek I Taliban Pakistan ( TTP) which is aggressively waging war with Pakistan and threatening to overrun the NWFP. It is the introduction of this new factor of the Pakistani Taliban that has made for a desperate and dramatic paradigm change in Af- Pak from Pakistan’s point of view. From the soft notion of an anti- India “ strategic depth” based on a limited and dependent Talibanisation of Afghanistan, the paradigm has been transformed into a desperate, existential struggle to save Pakistan itself from the powerful virus of Al- Qaeda infected Talibanisation in the area.


At this juncture, the Pakistani military had two options. It could have unequivocally joined forces with America to crush all Taliban- Al- Qaeda networks, especially in FATA. But it hasn’t done this because it fears that such a course of action would eventually lead to the strengthening and consolidation of the pro- India Karzai regime which draws its strength from the Tajiks and Uzbeks. This, in turn, could renew that political strain in Afghanistan that seeks to encroach upon Pakistan’s Pashtun areas.


IT COULD also translate into hard strategic loss to India, given the budding strategic relationship between India and America in South Asia and the increasing Indian footprint in Afghanistan. More critically for the military, by enabling Indo- American dominance of South and West Asia and stressing economic markets, trade, gateways and pipelines, it would integrate Pakistan’s economy into that of India and reduce the military’s corporate stranglehold over civil society and politics in Pakistan.


Therefore the military has chosen a two- track policy aimed at eliminating the TTP while protecting the Afghan Taliban from NATO/ ISAF so that the conflict in Afghanistan is extended and America is pressurised to devise an exit strategy that takes into account Pakistan’s true fears about an Al- Qaeda infected Taliban leftover in Pakistan without making it subservient to, or dependent upon, India. The composite idea is to compel America to give a ringside seat to the pro- Pakistan Afghan Taliban in any future dispensation in Kabul that fulfils a number of conditions: first, it should encourage the Afghan Taliban to disconnect from Al- Qaeda and redeem their original sin of 2001 when Mulla Umar stuck to Bin Laden and provoked an American intervention in Afghanistan; second, it “ balances” the ethnic factor in Afghanistan without endangering Pakistan by claiming its Pashtun areas across the Durand Line; third, it neutralises the pro- India factors in the current situation in Afghanistan by ensuring that Afghanistan is not hostile ( if not friendly) to Pakistan; fourth, as a consequence, it cuts off the ideological, physical and financial lifeline to the TTP and Al Qaeda which have become the scourge of Pakistan; and fifth, it enables Pakistan to fashion a “ live and let live” policy with India which helps to build trust and resolve outstanding disputes.


America’s “ exit strategy” from Afghanistan therefore assumes critical importance. If America insists on looking at the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the joint problem, then the war in Afghanistan will drag on, exhaust and demoralise America and even conceivably spill over at any time into an Indo- Pakistan conflict. But if America and Pakistan were to join hands in prying apart the Afghan Taliban from al- Qaeda by giving the Afghan Taliban a hot seat in Kabul and then going after Al- Qaeda and the TTP, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for America, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The consciously manufactured India paradigm has been overtaken by the unintended Afghan paradigm for Pakistan and the Pakistan military needs a safe and secure exit from Al Qaeda no less than America in Af- Pak.


The writer is the editor of The Friday Times , Lahore

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