'Strategic death'?

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a rare press briefing, said, “We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it.” These words underlie the fact that the Pakistan Army has still not given up on the idea of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan – a policy that has proved to be disastrous for Pakistan in the past few decades. If one reads between the lines, General Kayani’s statement is also indicative that though Pakistan may not want to control Afghanistan, it wants a government of its own choice in place to control the war-torn country. While General Kayani boasted that the successful military operations in the tribal areas have led to a substantial decline in cross-border attacks on Nato forces in Afghanistan, militants in Peshawar blew up a tanker carrying fuel for the Nato forces on Monday. This is not to say that the general was wrong in his assumptions; of course there have been fewer incidents of this sort in the recent past as the militants were engaged in heavy fighting with the Pakistan military. It has finally dawned on the military that to tackle this rising militancy, it has to crush the terrorist network. General Kayani’s remark that “a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan can provide Pakistan a strategic depth” speaks of a realisation that we can ill-afford a volatile neighbour at a time when there is already a tenuous security situation within our own borders.

In view of the various international conferences recently held on resolving the Afghan conundrum, General Kayani has offered Pakistan’s services in the training of the Afghan National Army. India has already implemented a similar offer and in view of the burgeoning trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the balance of favour may tilt towards India. Inevitably, Pakistan will not be too happy about it if this continues. But we have to realise that Pakistan should have offered to help the Afghan army a long time ago instead of waiting for India to make the first move and then jump belatedly onto the bandwagon. A proxy war developing between India and Pakistan on Afghan soil is no secret any more; the army chief’s ‘concerns’ about the Afghan army developing a potential to take on Pakistan come in the wake of India’s entry into the Afghanistan imbroglio. Both India and Pakistan must stop trying to outdo each other, as it will only further destabilise the region. A peaceful Afghanistan will translate into a peaceful South Asia.

After the London conference, efforts to reconcile with ‘soft’ elements in the Taliban are underway. The Taliban leadership has declined this olive branch as it has gained strongholds in many important areas of Afghanistan and sees itself coming back to power once the US-led Nato forces leave the country. Some observers are of the view that the reconciliation drive will not bear any fruit due to the persistent intra-tribe and factional tussles in Afghanistan. Insiders in Afghanistan say that the Taliban will not give up their stance against the international forces and cannot be bought. President Karzai is trying to get Saudi help in mediating between Kabul and the Taliban.

Scepticism over the reconciliatory efforts has a lot of weight, as the foreign forces now seem inclined to cut their losses and withdraw. If the US-led forces leave Afghanistan in a quagmire this time around, the world will have to pay an even heavier price than last time. As for Pakistan, our military should be very cautious in supporting the Afghan Taliban. What if the Afghan Taliban, after coming to power in Kabul, support the Pakistani Taliban? After all, nuclear-armed Pakistan is a bigger prize than even Afghanistan. GHQ should revisit the infection in the armed services of jihadi sympathisers. A nightmare scenario is looming if we do not give up the idea of ‘strategic depth’, which may eventually turn out to be ‘strategic death’.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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