On the Afghan endgame


Strategic depth vs strategic stability

Tentative signals on the opening of serious negotiations for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan now seem to be acquiring concrete shape. According to latest indications, talks between Mullah Omar’s emissaries and American officials are moving meaningfully encompassing, as a first step, the anticipated release of five Taliban inmates from Guantanamo prison. Reports also suggest that these negotiations are likely to be conducted directly between the Americans and the Taliban. This is understandable since they are the acknowledged protagonists in the Afghan conflict.

But does this mean that Pakistan should be excluded from the talks. The US has professed to keep both parties in the loop suggesting that their interests and views would be heard but not necessarily taken on board. This might not be the best way forward for reasons discussed later in this article.

Pakistan on its part can, if it chooses, use its leverage by virtue of its location and purported influence over the Taliban to either obstruct or facilitate the negotiating process. A rational determination of its long term interests in Afghanistan would likely augment the impact of its diplomatic intercession. Clinging to outdated criteria of security would devalue its clout in defining the Afghan endgame.

So how do we see our interests in a future Afghanistan? Continuation of the doctrine of strategic depth or something more in tune with the temper of the times?

Strategic depth is predicated on the ready availability of a secure hinterland where a defeated army can take refuge to recover and regroup for a counterattack. Questionable even in the era when it was first propounded, based as it was on the presumption of unconditional cooperation of the neighboring regime, in today’s security environment its validity stands further eroded. It runs directly counter to Pakistan’s rejection of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Simultaneously seeking physical depth outside our territory reduces the credibility of this doctrine since it implies acceptance of a situation of conventional military surrender. Strategic depth takes the nuclear factor out of the equation which emphatically impugns the concept of first use. Forswearing strategic depth is but a natural corollary of the emergence of Pakistan as a credible nuclear power.

Strategic depth makes another questionable assumption i.e. the untrammeled revival of the political dispensation that prevailed prior to 2001. Firstly, the configuration of forces inside Afghanistan and the positioning of powerful global interests around it, including those of our close friends like China, effectively nullifies this possibility. To expect the international community to countenance the reconstruction of a protectorate for global jihad, after having expended a colossal effort in countering it, would be tantamount to closing our eyes to the real world.

Second, we need to objectively determine whether such a scenario, assuming for argument’s sake that it is plausible, would be in our national interest. Once again, we will be saddled with the depredations of that regime and called upon to act as defenders of its actions. Once again, the sins of a medieval creed would be passed on to us, entrenching further the international perception of Pakistan as the conveyer belt of extremist violence. This would virtually entail Pakistan’s severance from the international mainstream. We need to ask ourselves whether this price is worth the dubious gains that we stand to reap in pursuit of an impractical if not a moribund strategic concept.

Having said this Pakistan, as a directly affected party and still home to over two million Afghan refugees, has several core concerns which must be recognised in the interest of durable Afghan peace.

These concerns are both legitimate and vital. A stable Afghanistan is essential for our development and security which presupposes adequate representation of all ethnic groups and military factions in the political structure which emerges from the negotiations. Attempts to short-circuit the preponderant Pashtun belt would prolong the conflict and confirm our fears of a lopsided approach to reconciliation. The ferment so engendered would travel to our side of the Durand Line. Due empowerment of the Afghan Pashtun falls well within our interests.

Afghanistan should not be allowed to become an Indian stronghold. The proposed training of the Afghan officer corps by the Indian military is at best contentious and must be abandoned. To be stable, Afghanistan should be truly neutral which precludes any Indian role in this discipline. To persist with this approach would be tantamount to giving Pakistan a justifiable reason to obstruct the peace effort. Attempts to sandwich Pakistan between two long and insecure borders would raise legitimate questions about America’s real designs in this region.

A negotiated settlement must include the disablement of the TTP. It is a fact that an armed insurgency cannot endure without external patronage. This has been conveyed to us time and again in the context of Kashmir and the Haqqani network but is equally applicable to the activities of TTP. Our overtures of peace towards this outfit will bear little fruit given its known external links. To be durable, a peaceful solution would of necessity have to include the conclusive neutralisation of this menace.

For all these reasons it would be beneficial to give Pakistan a seat on the negotiating table, to dissuade it from pursuing delusional agendas like strategic depth, to enable it to constructively bring to bear its influence on the Taliban and to afford it the opportunity to put forth its concerns with regards to the Afghan endgame.

The writer is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and European Union. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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