Pakistan’s Afghanistan Plan: Strategic Depth 2.0

Pakistan’s Afghanistan Plan: Strategic Depth 2.0

The past month has seen an unusual flurry of diplomacy between the U.S. and Pakistan, with relations going from troubled to tense to partially reconciled. The row began when outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Haqqani Network was a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI. The Pakistani government and military responded by denying any such links and strongly cautioned against U.S. unilateral action inside Pakistan. The U.S. then took steps to lower the temperature, dispatching U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, followed by a high-profile visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by CIA Director David Petraeus and newly appointed Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Clinton urged Pakistan to take action against the Haqqani Network, but in a surprising volte face also publicly asked Pakistan to "encourage the Taliban to enter negotiations.” Pakistan agreed to do the latter.

The entire episode shined a bright light on the Pakistani security establishment’s ties to the Afghan Taliban. This relationship has often been described as Pakistan’s “double game” or “hedging strategy” and is explained as arising from Islamabad’s desire to gain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan -- that is, to have a friendly, Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul as an insurance policy in Pakistan’s historical rivalry with India. This vision of strategic depth surfaced in the late-1980s and defined Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. The policy amounted to rendering Afghanistan a satellite state and had a two-pronged focus: Deny India military and political influence in Afghanistan, and ensure that the government in Kabul would not incite Pakistani Pashtuns to secede. Accordingly, Pakistan provided the Taliban logistical, military and political support under the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and helped them capture Kabul in 1996.

While Pakistan is still pursuing “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, some evidence now suggests that the precise meaning of the concept has changed from its 1990s version. In a report released in June 2010, Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia analyst at the Atlantic Council, argued (.pdf) that Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani’s desire for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan signified “a major shift in strategic thinking” within the Pakistan army. A more recent report by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Jinnah Institute (.pdf), surveying the various positions of Pakistan’s “foreign policy elite” on Afghanistan and the United States, also contained similar arguments. Certain participants consistently pointed out that the security establishment’s thinking on Afghanistan had evolved. Personal conversations with Pakistani journalists and analysts also confirm the conceptual shift.

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