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Strategic Depth Revisited: Rethinking Pakistan's Approach towards Afghanistan

Islamabad's once sought-after "strategic depth" is now becoming an elusive dream as Pakistan faces insurmountable challenges from all sides.

by TNN Editor - 23 May, 2023 1517

Muhammad Imad Abbas

On December 30th, in a brazen attack that took place in broad daylight, the bustling hub and administrative center of Peshawar fell victim to a devastating bomb explosion, resulting in the loss of 59 lives. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Mohmand faction claimed responsibility for the attack, with their leadership reportedly residing in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan issue has long occupied a significant portion of Pakistan's strategic culture. Following the partition, as Pashtun nationalism posed a looming threat, Pakistani policymakers adopted a policy of Islamic nationalism, which became a cornerstone of strategic thinking during the tenure of General Zia-ul-Haq in the aftermath of the Afghan Jihad in 1979. Islamic nationalism was seen as a means to confront and subdue Pashtun nationalism.

With the adoption of this policy, Pakistan started receiving substantial aid from the United States, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia, each carrying its own national interests. Consequently, numerous madrassas were established, indoctrinating young individuals with the concept of Jihadism.

Also Read: Lack of Women Police Officers Hinders Gender Representation in Bajaur District

Pakistan's alliance with the US during the Afghan Jihad was driven by two factors: first, to suppress dominant Pashtun nationalism with Islamic nationalism, and second, to establish an Islamabad-friendly regime in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan territory and to counter Indian influence.

However, fast-forwarding to 2023, the reality on the ground tells a different story. Islamabad's once sought-after "strategic depth" is now becoming an elusive dream as Pakistan faces insurmountable challenges from all sides.

According to data from the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, Pakistan has witnessed 100 terrorist attacks in the past two years alone. The recent surge in terrorist activities shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future. Daily casualties among Pakistan's security forces, particularly in border areas, and the resulting damage to infrastructure underscore the failure of the Pakistani state in preventing the use of Afghan territory against its territorial sovereignty.

In the midst of this situation, blame is being cast on flawed policies and short-sightedness. The former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) recently blamed Prime Minister Imran Khan for initiating dialogue with the outlawed TTP group. However, Imran Khan, in response, stated that the army was on board when the decision to negotiate with the TTP was made. These conflicting statements highlight the policymakers' uncertainty and lack of alignment when dealing with this sensitive issue.

A document released by the National Counter Terrorism Authority, presented to the Senate committee, revealed that the truce between the government of Pakistan and the TTP had only emboldened the TTP. They capitalized on the ceasefire to regroup, resupply, and subsequently resumed their violent attacks once the truce ended.

In addition to the challenge posed by the TTP, the Afghan Taliban show no signs of adopting a positive stance on the Durand Line issue. The Afghan Taliban's Information Minister, Zabiullah Mujahid, stated in an interview that the issue of the Durand Line remains unresolved. The fencing along the border has also created tensions among communities on both sides, essentially dividing a nation.

Another pressing concern is sporadic cross-border shelling incidents. On December 11, 2022, Taliban forces heavily shelled a town near the Pakistani border, resulting in the deaths of seven civilians. A few days later, on December 15, another exchange of fire occurred, claiming one more life. Although such reports have not received much attention, they indicate a growing problem.

Adding to the complexities, the Taliban even blamed Pakistan for allowing a US drone to fly over its territory, resulting in the killing of the top Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Furthermore, the readiness of the new Afghan regime to engage openly with India adds another layer of concern. The Taliban's Defense Minister, Mullah Yahoob, expressed a desire for Afghan troops to be trained by Pakistan's arch-rival, India. If this collaboration materializes, it could diminish Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistan and create new challenges for Pakistan. India, utilizing Afghan soil, could potentially support and strengthen liberation movements in Balochistan and Sindh, exacerbating an already precarious situation.

It is high time to acknowledge the realities and call a spade a spade. Pakistani policymakers must accept that the old strategic depth policy within Afghanistan has begun to fail. The Taliban 2.0, in terms of statecraft, differ significantly from their 1.0 version. They exhibit more pluralistic policies and are economically more independent compared to the 1990s. This time, they seek direct deals with regional states, reflecting a mutual desire for engagement as other countries express their interests in establishing relations with Afghanistan, considering it a new and inevitable reality.

In the midst of these dynamic global realities, Pakistan must abandon its outdated policy toward Afghanistan and focus on a unified approach. To effectively combat terrorism, policymakers must align their viewpoints regarding the resurgent groups. Moreover, collective action from the military, politicians, and society at large is necessary to address these pressing challenges.

The author is a student pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations at NUML Islamabad. He can be reached at imadedwardian@gmail.com.