Strategic Depth, Strategic Assets and the Changing Dynamics of Pakistan’s Kashmir Game Plan Printer-Friendly Page

Strategic Depth, Strategic Assets and the Changing Dynamics of Pakistan’s Kashmir Game Plan
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia

Even as the South Asian press and visual media have pounced in tabloid fashion upon Pervez Musharraf’s rhetorical tirades and caveats against India that “we are not a chhota mota (banana republic) country” and “we are not wearing chudiyan (bangles)”, and Indian repartees on chudiyan being a sign of the strength of Indian women and how a chudiyon-waali (bangle wearer-Indira Gandhi) had sundered Pakistan into pieces in 1971, the more interesting and pertinent comments of Musharraf in the selfsame sabre-rattling interview on state-run TV (October 22nd) have been glossed over. Consider what the megalomaniacal CE-cum-COAS-cum-President meant by the following:

Q. Does Afghanistan give Strategic Depth to Pakistan?

A. These are old theories. After India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers, if anyone perceives that one would try to get some strategic gains, it would be a sheer folly. It is not possible now that we will be overrun and will go to Afghanistan for strategic depth. (Emphases mine)

The putative abandonment, loss or ‘sacrifice’ of Strategic Depth since September 11 is a revolution in Pakistan’s security doctrine and Kashmir policy at best, as Musharraf seemed to be portraying it, or a casuistic ‘sour grapes’ eyewash of a strategic nightmare at worst. In either case, it is a moment of supreme significance for the dynamics of conflict in South Asia. The import of this loss can be best understood by going back to the origins of Strategic Depth and enumerating what it earned for Pakistan in two decades. 

Mirza Aslam Beg, General Zia-ul-Haq’s high profile army chief, is credited with the authorship of Strategic Depth in the early eighties. Theoretically stated, it was a proactive defensive strategy of securing ‘Islamic Depth’ in the west to counterbalance the conventionally superior ‘Hindu India’ by strengthening diplomatic and military relations with Afghanistan and the Arab world to the extent that in the worst-case scenario of India invading and overrunning Pakistan, the Army High Command could relocate westwards and use Afghanistan as a frontline ally from which to roll back Indian ‘expansionism’. Practically though, Zia’s regime was well aware that India respected the sanctity of the Line of Control and that in every war since 1948 India has resisted the temptation of crossing the de facto border. No responsible Indian decision-maker has ever stated overrunning Pakistan as an objective either in war or peacetime (in sharp contrast to quixotic assertions by Nawaz Sharif’s foreign minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, that Pakistan could “overrun India in three days”!). That India is the status quoist power in the dispute was well known to the creators of Strategic Depth. In this context, Thomas Thornton’s phrase to describe Pakistan’s life as “fifty years of insecurity” is misleading because India has never militarily contemplated or attempted to forcibly occupy its smaller neighbor.

Depth, in the garb of a defensive shield, was in fact an offensive tactic to “bleed India with a thousand cuts in Kashmir.” (Zia) Afghan opium poppies and mujahideen, the two swords of ISI machinery, would be the servicing fuel and ammunition for overthrowing “the tyranny against our Kashmiri brethren” (Beg). Depth was also a conduit through which mercenaries and “guest militants” from various Arab nationalities could be recruited for the jihadi terror in Kashmir and this turned into a reality by the mid-nineties when the indigenous movement in the valley was practically hijacked and overwhelmed by foreign fighters. Strategic Depth was thus the lynchpin of Pakistan’s offensive infiltrationist game plan in Kashmir.        

Have I underplayed the Pakhtunistan angle which some claimed to be the other defensive rationale for Depth? When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, leaving a hostile superpower friendly with India right on Pakistan’s western doorstep, Islamabad regurgitated the spectre of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s struggle for a separate Pakhtunistan uniting Pakistan’s NWFP and Pushtun areas across the Durand Line. The quest for a ‘friendly government’ in Kabul was presented by the Zia regime as a preventive to separatism in Pakistan’s frontier areas and ipso facto an act of national self-defense. In the larger geopolitical chessboard, it was depicted as a securing of one flank and a pre-emptive move to break Pakistan’s encirclement on eastern and western fronts. Again, this was a case of the men in uniform proposing a scenario and the silent majority in the country having to accept it with unquestioning obedience, for dissident thinkers like Eqbal Ahmed have repeatedly stressed that Afghanistan was “an irritating but innocuous adversary with territorial claims on NWFP” and that Strategic Depth in this context was a “mis-named mirage”. Frontier Gandhi’s peaceful and unarmed secessionist movement was effectively crushed by Punjabi rulers with ISI talons and the movement had lost all vigor and resistance by the seventies (Abdul Wali Khan and Afsandyar, Ghaffar’s successors, find shrinking mass appeal and state persecution insurmountable hurdles today).

Pakistani anxiety to control Afghanistan as a marionette has nothing to do with the red herring of endangered territorial integrity in the west but, as US Ambassador to Tajikistan Grant Smith recently emphasized to me, “has everything to do with India/Kashmir”. To improvise on a Clintonomic phrase for all those who still buy defensive Strategic Depth as the real intent of Islamabad- It’s the Kashmir covetousness, stupid! The decisive overthrow of Taliban by the Northern Alliance in the war against terrorism and the refusal of the international community to invite Pakistan’s acolytes, the self-contradictory “moderate Taliban”, to the discussions on a new pluralistic order in Afghanistan is a big blow to Pakistan’s Mission Kashmir and could once again throw up the scenario of Islamabad training and equipping opponents to destabilize the new multi-ethnic government a la 1992-6 until another pliable puppet like Hekmatyar or Taliban is coronated. But as long as the dispensation in Kabul won’t be a ‘friendly government’ and Burhanuddin Rabbani is ensconced, does Pakistan have any option other than allowing Kashmir to return to normalcy?

Going back to the interview, it is necessary to read between the lines on what Musharraf implied when he introduced the new variable of nuclear weapons as if they could now act as substitutes for the depleted Strategic Depth. As Nawaz Sharif’s scheming and bellicose chief of army staff, Musharraf was an ardent advocate of Pakistan going nuclear and the reasons thereof became clear when the latter engineered the Kargil intrusion in 1999 (with or without the Prime Minister’s complicity). Intelligence reports reconstructing the genesis of the Kargil war indicate that right since Pakistan’s nuclear tests, Musharraf began making public statements that “while the probability of conventional war between India and Pakistan was virtually zero, proxy war was highly probable given the nuclear balance between them.” His calculation was that the atomic bomb and world concerns about a nuclear conflagration in Kashmir would deter and limit Indian retaliation to unlawful salami-slicing of small pieces of territory, because the adversary would not consider the losses to be worthy enough for escalation. “What Pakistan attempted at Kargil was a typical case of salami slicing” propped up by nuclear blackmail (Kargil Review Committee Report, p.242). With ‘Strategic Assets’ in the backdrop, Kashmir could be militarily wrested from India inch by inch and the international community can be expected to restrain Indian ripostes owing to fears of the conflict going nuclear. It is another matter that the world saw through the game, condemned Pakistani aggression and actually forced Nawaz Sharif to withdraw from Kargil, but as the Indian Prime Minister revealed later, so petrified was Washington of the quasi-war erupting into nuclear pyrotechnics that it recommended at the early stage that Delhi let Pakistan take some of the land that it had stealthily encroached upon. By constantly ratcheting up scenarios of nuclear war, Pakistan under Musharraf will try to repeat Kargil along other sectors of the 450-mile border and redraw a “New LOC” with blood.     

Pakistan’s Strategic Assets thus emerge less as defensive deterrents (India anyway has a no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy) and more as ‘bombs in the closet’ under whose cover offensive military movements into Kashmir can be carried out. With the erosion of Strategic Depth in Afghanistan and with Kabul resounding in echoes of “death to Pakistan”, the piece de resistance of Islamabad’s armory in its pernicious attempt to wrest Kashmir by force will increasingly be the bomb. Depth will not entirely be abandoned while pursuing the nuclear feint and all means would be adopted to install a ‘friendly government’ in Afghanistan, but with Colin Powell categorically declaring, “Pakistan will not be allowed to foist a government of its choice in Afghanistan again”, the premium Generals in Rawalpindi place on the atomic bluff for achieving their Kashmir acquisition schemes will be magnified in the immediate future.

A posteriori, it would be in the interests of abiding peace in South Asia if Pakistan’s Strategic Assets are commandeered and neutralized by the United States. Numerous press-leaks that the Bush administration will consider such an action if there is a coup against Musharraf by ‘rogue elements’ in the army or if it is lucidly proven that the ISI or pro-Taliban Pakistani nuclear scientists transferred weapons-grade Plutonium to Osama bin Laden have already been doing the rounds, but these hypotheses are predicated on an artificial divide between ‘moderate Musharraf’ and his radical lieutenants. No such gradation exists in reality and if Washington sincerely wishes for durable peace in the subcontinent, it should use its present leverage on Pakistan to extinguish the ‘Islamic Bomb’.

[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]