In popular imagination of the Pakistani society, the country has to be larger and stronger than it is at present; and what better way to achieve this objective than entering into military alliances, where our military partners could act as a territory that can expand Pakistan’s geographical expanse? This is how, in short, the Pakistani populace understands the concept of strategic depth— a concept or an idea that could be dubbed as an all-time favorite of Pakistani military planners.
So, the popular imagination and the strategic desires of Pakistani military planners have been reinforcing each other since the starting point of our military history. Especially in strategically adventurous times, these desires and imaginations assume overly joyous proportions.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban military takeover of Kabul was largely seen by Pakistani elites and middle classes as an event which could lead to the expansion of Pakistan’s geographical reach, if not at the practical level, then in imaginary circumstances where the Pakistani elite could see Afghanistan as its backyard.
The only problem with this imaginary situation is that Pakistani elites and middle classes are leading a lifestyle socially and relatively liberal than the culture the Taliban are introducing in the Afghan society.
Reinforcing this popular fantasy was another event in Islamabad; the ISI chief recently a conference of eight regional intelligence agencies to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan. A leading journalist in her report on this conference has tried to give the impression that this conference will bring the eight regional countries closer strategically, politically and militarily, thus feeding the popular hope that Pakistan will soon be breaking geographical barriers and will achieve the feat of acquiring strategic depth in the region.
This strategic depth syndrome is as old as Pakistan itself and has its origins in the thinness of West Pakistan’s geographical expanse.
At places Pakistan is less than 100 miles in width. Pakistan’s strategic communication links are at most places within the enemy’s artillery range. Strictly militarily speaking, the development and import of ballistic missile technology in South Asia have changed the nature of strategic depth syndrome —much of Northern India and even Central and Southern India are within range of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles. This reality, however, doesn’t alleviate Pakistan’s vulnerability in case of India’s conventional, especially armored, attack.
In the past, strategically adventurous circumstances in our neighborhood has led Pakistan’s military leaders to openly talk about strategic depth with reference to a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul. In the past, two army chiefs, including General Aslam Beg and General Ashraf Pervez Kiyani, have openly talked about strategic depth with reference to Afghanistan.
While Beg’s idea was more inclined towards making Afghanistan our fifth province, Kiyani used to refer to this idea more in the nature of political and diplomatic influence.
Strategically adventurous circumstances in our neighborhood has led Pakistan’s military leaders to openly talk about strategic depth with reference to a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul
Both the ideas, however, were dangerous for the smooth functioning of Pakistan’s political system and for a balanced foreign policy with limited objectives that Pakistan could afford. Over extension of objectives in foreign policy have in the past ruined our political system and vitiated our geo-strategic and geo-political environment in our region.
It has led to the birth of a major military threat, which endangered the very survival of Pakistan. In 1980s and 1990s when General Zia fueled the civil war in Afghanistan by insisting on the government of Afghan Mujahideen—with creation of strategic depth in mind—this was the starting point of creation of internal security threat in the form religiously inspired militancy.
The last thing Pakistan needs is a military alliance. Why? Primarily because this will lead to over extension of our foreign policy objectives and it may eventually undermine our fragile political system by disturbing the precarious civil-military balance, and sap all our energies and resources which we need to advocate and promote our genuine foreign policy goals at the regional and international stage. The last thing Pakistan needs is a military alliance. There is little doubt that the country populace sees the rise of Taliban and meeting of eight intelligences as something of military significance. This is the duty of the Pakistani state to inform the people of the real significance of these developments. It should not have any military content. It should not become the basis of any jingoistic policy.
A military alliance, or even an expectation of a military alliance, could send a wrong signal to our neighbors, who are already uneasy with our public display of gloating over the fact that India has been squarely excluded from the power game in Afghanistan and its economic investment in that country has gone down the drain.
A military alliance would aggravate our military threats without enhancing our sense of security. States sometimes deliberately avoid a course just to avert the adversary from perceiving that act as threatening in order to avoid a situation where our own act can further complicate the security environment.
Eight intelligence chiefs conference in Islamabad included spy masters from Iran, China, Russia and some of the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan would be feeding their populace wrong information if they create an impression that this could become a platform for a future military cooperation. The flight of popular imagination could lead to the speculation that this military cooperation would be advantageous for Pakistan in its rivalry with India. After all, we have been attaching such an expectation to our military alliance with Washington in the 1950s and 1960s. First of all, Pakistani state managers would be doing a great public service if they can inform the public that none of these seven countries, whose intelligence chiefs participated in the Islamabad conference, would be willing to facilitate or accommodate Pakistan’s rivalry with India within any future strategic or military cooperation with the state of Pakistan.
Most importantly, these managers will be doing another service to the country if they could inform the public that Taliban’s soft corner for Pakistan could in no way provide a military advantage to us. In fact, the concentration of Sunni militant groups in Afghanistan could prove to be the biggest strategic and diplomatic disadvantage for Pakistan. Another mass casualty attack in the region, if it is traced back to Afghanistan, could create a new military threat for our country.