Afghanistan, Pakistan and the idea of strategic depth

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chhaya

The perspective that Pakistan has long viewed Afghanistan as a country that provides Islamabad strategic depth against India is once again coming into play. This is especially because the international community generally and America particularly watch how Islamabad positions itself vis-à-vis the return of the Taliban to Kabul.

There is of course a strong military-intelligence community in Pakistan that believes that the Taliban triumph is by extension their triumph since the Taliban leadership owes them a great deal accrued over the last 20 years of the US invasion and occupation. There have been reports of celebration in some quarters in Pakistan over what they regard as a victory of the Taliban and, with some glee, a defeat of the United States.

The idea of strategic depth is an interesting one but it is no longer certain how consequential it is in the face of great advancement in weapons and other technologies. The logic of territorial fallback is of a 19th or early 20th-century vintage which may not have the kind of importance it was believed for a long time. However, in so much as Pakistan feels it has the reassurance of territorial depth against India because their mentees are now in control of Afghanistan it has relevance for India.

There is an added factor to Pakistan’s sense of triumph and perhaps even relief which has to do with its assertion that India has long fomented separatism in Balochistan via groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army which had the ability to operate from Afghanistan. With the Taliban in charge Islamabad would expect Kabul to eliminate that threat altogether.

Left to Pakistan it would like India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan completely erased. What is standing in its way is that ordinary relatively liberal and urban Afghans have great love and regard for India. According to one estimate, some seven million Afghans are entirely urban-dwellers, young and largely unfamiliar with the terrible cruelties of the Taliban. In the overall scheme of things, they may not be so influential, but it is a constituency that might prove problematic for the Taliban. India has the ability to use its soft power to influence this constituency.

The biggest problem that the Taliban will come face to face with rather quickly is their woeful ignorance and even incompetence in running a country. They can no longer pretend to be outsiders armed with nihilism against the system because they are the system now. It is one thing to gleefully wield American weapons and dress up in American combat gear, including helmets with night-vision goggles but quite another to run a country that will soon be out of hard cash.

That is where India and the world need to watch out for the role that China is expected to play. China’s leadership is completely devoid of reformative impulses or obsession to introduce Jeffersonian democracy like America. It will quickly establish a ruthlessly transactional and pragmatic relationship to exploit Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources as well expand its much-cherished Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is even while ensuring that the Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalist virulence does not seep into Xinjiang Province and its grotesquely persecuted Uyghur Muslim population.

There is thinking doing the rounds of social media that the US withdrawal is a fiendishly well thought out plan by Washington to saddle China with the Taliban in Kabul. The logic being that China will be mired in the quagmire and in the process, its feverish march to the world superpowerdom will be slowed if not halted altogether. That is a rather fanciful notion at best. People forget that China’s international operational method is markedly different from America. It has no reformative impulses to alter the societies it gets involved with. Its primary goal is to serve its national economic interests. For now, Afghanistan offers that possibility, and the Taliban will soon desperately need funds.

It can print some Sharia currency but who is going to accept that?

With today’s twin explosions at the Kabul airport, it is certain that the Taliban will come under great pressure via some tough sanctions unless it guarantees that such acts are stamped out. Of course, there is also the likelihood where once most of the Americans and other non-Afghans have left the country the international community may not care much as long as there is no external terrorist attack mounted from the Afghani soil. Among the things that the Taliban ought to fear is international indifference as it struggles to govern an impoverished country that is also facing serious droughts.