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Is this the end of the strategic depth doctrine?

 

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, July 11, 2014

 

Has the military finally realized that the strategy of supporting non-state actors will always backfire?

The alarming unraveling of circumstances in and around Iraq – the declaration of the caliphate by the new goliath of jihadists – al Baghdadi – and shocking fissures that Pakistan is experiencing internally underscore a stark, bitter reality: using religion as a political instrument entails unavoidable, debilitating, unintended consequences.

Clearly, both the United States and Pakistan seem to be getting a taste of their own medicine; the former witnessing in awe a dramatically pulsating Middle East, including the endless violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya – a direct consequence of its geo-political ambitions that arose from a desire of bleeding the Soviet Union and promoting American geo-commercial interests across the globe.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is embroiled in multiple crises – rooted primarily in a myopic, megalomaniac and at best a delusionary view of the world. It is ironic, though not unexpected, that the military establishment dreamed of securing military strategic space in Afghanistan through its proxies. It is now scared to death that the same proxies are either biting back or providing strategic space to those the army is fighting in Pakistan, and if they returned to power, could once again take Pakistani militants of all hue and colour under their wings – the way they did in the dark 1990s.

Seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has turned out to be like digging one’s own grave. It has hollowed out Pakistan socio-economically and polarized it politically. Cultivating and condoning relations with non-state actors represents a fatal blunder and its consequence is the biggest challenge to the country’s social cohesion, peace and security.

The Afghan Haqqani Network represents one such non-state actor. Spread all over the greater Paktia Region (Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Logar and Kunar), the Network draws on recruits from the largest Zadran tribe that is settled in the Pakistani Waziristan region too. Jalaluddin Haqqani’s entire extended family has been living around Miranshah, running seminaries and mosques and commercial businesses. It was all common knowledge, and hence the continuous pressure by the United States to go after them. Even the Indians have been wary about the network because they believe it was behind major attacks on the Indian diplomatic missions and the guest houses for Indian workers in Kabul and Jalalabad.

The Haqqanis provided shelter to the terrorists who fled the 2009 South Waziristan military operation

It is quite ironic that the Haqqanis provided shelter to all those militants and terrorists who escaped from the South Waziristan military operation in October 2009. They included TTP renegades, as well as Uzbek, Arab, ETIM, and Punjabi militants. Both Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Maulvi Sadiq Noor as well as Said Khan Sajna, now the good guy, served as the social shelter to these militants, who are openly waging war on Pakistan’s political and economic interests.

Of what strategic benefit has the partnership of Haqqanis or Hafiz Gul Bahadur been if they protect “local as well as alien” enemies of Pakistan?

Back in the dark days of the Taliban rule, during visits to Kabul and Kandahar, we could see how the Pakistani military personnel deployed there would defend their engagement with the Taliban. This engagement practically excluded Pakistani diplomats and one could easily discern the schism that existed between the Pakistani military and civilian officers deployed in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The former enjoyed practically unfettered access to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his deputies. The latter would have to wait for days to get through even to the deputy of Mullah Omar.

The intelligence officers knew about the status that Jaish-e-Mohammad’s dubious chief Maulana Masood Azhar enjoyed in Afghanistan; Omar’s deputy Ameerul Momineen for Pakistan. Similarly, Taliban provided quite a protocol and security escort to Riaz Basra, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi fugitive. But officially, Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the then foreign minister, always denied Basra’s presence and would ask Pakistani ministers and ambassadors about the LeTs whereabouts. Punjabi Taliban, including those associated with the Harkatul Mujahideen of Maulana Fazlurrehman Khalil, also lived and trained in western Kabul near the former defense ministry until many were killed or forced to run for safety in the face of relentless bombing by the US-led coalition forces in October 2001.

The romantic but consequentially disastrous obsession with strategic depth forced the security forces both in FATA and Balochistan to look the other way for years, or even facilitate, these militants. And at times, security agencies would even condone the misdeeds of such partners, particularly the heads of countless seminaries in both regions, for the simple reason that the Pashtuns inhabiting either side of the 2,560km long Durand Line were considered as the bulwark against anti-Pakistan forces.

Little consideration went into the consequences of such partnerships in pursuit of “strategic depth.” Personally, I would say the theory of strategic depth met its nemesis in 2009, when the security forces came under relentless attacks in the South Waziristan region, both by local as well as Uzbek militants, compelling the then COAS General Ashfaq Kayani to launch the ground operation in October. These militants eventually took refuge in North Waziristan – under the protection of Haqqanis, Gul Bahadur, Sadiq Noor and many others – and thereby made the military establishment finally realize the futility of reliance on these so-called assets – who often blackmailed the establishment for monetary gains.

How can a destabilized Afghanistan, infested with civil war and insurgency, provide strategic depth to Pakistan?

In a lengthy interaction with some writers shortly before the Waziristan operation, Kayani had told us that he no more believed in the Strategic Depth philosophy. How can an internally destabilized Afghanistan, infested with civil war and insurgency, provide strategic depth to Pakistan, he quipped when somebody from among the group suggested that the army apparently remained obsessed with that philosophy.

Similarly, the seminaries in the Pashtun areas of Balochistan played host to a number of Afghan Taliban commanders as well as Uzbek and Arab militants, thereby undermining Pakistani law. On the one hand, the clerics were vowing allegiance to the state of Pakistan, and on the other, they were sheltering the de facto enemies of Pakistani interests.

Gen Kayani’s reported reluctance in launching an operation in North Waziristan – as claimed by his former spokesman Maj General Athar Abbas – most probably also flowed from his insistence on the civilian ownership of the operation. He had often argued that the military’s image had taken unprecedented battering under General Musharraf, with the rank and file of the army quite demoralized. Rehabilitating the image and restoring their confidence would only come through a civilian ownership of military operations, he argued.

Now that the circumstances have torn apart the philosophy of strategic depth, one wonders whether the military is determined to go after all non-state actors who exploited the establishment’s desire for establishing influence in Afghanistan. Some also exploited the obsession with Kashmir and thereby got away with murderous, anti-state acts.

Pakistan will have to demonstrate through indiscriminate action against all non-state actors that it means business.

The success of the operation will depend on whether ambivalence on partnerships with non-state actors gives way to a categorical commitment on following the constitution of Pakistan, whose Article 256 clearly states: “No private organization capable of functioning as a military organization shall be formed and any such organization shall be illegal.”

A big looming question is, what next? What will happen to the status of FATA? And will a real political process accompanied by the enforcement of rule of law follow?

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk