Of strategic depth

May 15, 2020

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

THE dastardly attacks which took the lives of over 40 mostly Hazara civilians in Kabul and Nangarhar earlier this week barely raised an eyebrow in the Pakistani mainstream. The attack on the maternity ward of a hospital which killed and maimed newborns was especially gut-wrenching. Yet aside from a couple of perfunctory condemnations from official places, and a news item or two, there was virtual silence on this side of the border.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the Taliban apparently denied responsibility. The theory goes that there are now more militant Islamist groups that control swathes of Afghanistan, including IS. Such matters are notoriously hard to investigate at the best of times. But the real question is not which militant organisation orchestrated the killings but why violent ideologies of hate continue to proliferate in the name of Islam in Afghanistan, and, for that matter, in Pakistan as well.

It is an old story but it merits repeating here: the genesis and spread of militant Islam in this region is not a renegade phenomenon, but due to the patronage of the Pakistani state. What was for decades in establishment circles known as strategic depth — the simulation of Afghanistan as a ‘fifth province’ — dovetailed with the American, Saudi and, for that matter, much of the Western bloc’s geopolitical designs in the 1980s. And then, infamously, things went pear-shaped for the establishment after 9/11 when Washington turned against its erstwhile allies in the name of the ‘war on terror’.

This is an old story and it always ends badly.

Whether or not strategic depth is still a cherished ideal within the security establishment is, many decades later, by the by. Millions of young people in this country have bought into the idea that there can be a ‘good Taliban’ that fights ‘foreign infidels’ in Afghanistan. But there can be no more painful indicator of the ideological engineering that has taken place within Pakistan than the fact that logics of ‘strategic depth’ apply to ethnic peripheries in our own country. There is, for instance, growing evidence that militants are increasingly resurgent in the recently merged tribal districts of KP that border Afghanistan. How, given all that has taken place in this country since 9/11, is it still possible to maintain the myth of ‘good Taliban’?

Let us be clear: all of the propaganda in the world does not make for a peaceful and prosperous country. Pakistan’s body-politic remains amongst the most fractured in the world. Alienation in the ethnic peripheries — not least of all on the border with Afghanistan — remains acute, and this will not change until the deep ideology of ‘strategic depth’ is totally displaced in the Pakistani mainstream.

By this I mean that the Pakistani state — and the many ordinary people who live in cities as well as more developed, central regions — must stop conceiving of the peripheries as territories to be secured and the resources there to be exploited, while the people of these regions remain mere footnotes in the so-called ‘greater national interest’. When these nominally equal citizens ask to be treated as such, they are subject to vilification and disciplining. This has happened dramatically in the case of the anti-war PTM in the ex-Fata districts over the past two years — most recently when Arif Wazir was shot dead — but even the Pakhtuns of the tribal districts are not as disaffected as the long-suffering Baloch.

Let it not be forgotten that the latter remains Pakistan’s richest province in terms of natural resources. The state wants Saindak, Reko Diq, Gwadar Port, Sui and much more, but it still can’t bring itself to be answerable to Balochistan’s politically conscious young people and explain the scandal of missing persons? Successive governments in Pakistan have acknowledged historical injustices in Pakistan, but establishment thinking has not budged.

Then there is Gilgit-Baltistan where precious natural resources are appropriated by the state — some under the guise of ‘land reform’ — with little concern for the large and growing population of young people who rightfully want both control over resources and political self-determination. Tharparkar is yet another border region in the southeast, ignored for decades, its largely Hindu population swept under the carpet. But now that there is coal to be mined, Thar is suddenly important? No wonder that its politically conscious people are suspicious of the state.

This is an old story, and it always ends badly. I am as principled an opponent of American imperialism in Afghanistan as any other. But doctrines of strategic depth devised by our own establishment are no better than those of the ‘enemies’ we love to hate, both beyond our borders and within them. No state — and its privileged segments in ‘developed’ regions — can lay claim to a moral high ground while the people of its own ethnic peripheries are enslaved as colonial subjects.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2020