Islamabad shifts course on Afghan strategy

Islamabad shifts course on Afghan strategy

Pakistan drops longtime ‘strategic depth’ doctrine envisioning pro-Islamabad government in neighboring Afghanistan

By Aamir Latif and Shadi Khan Saif

KARACHI / KABUL (AA) - In a major policy shift, Pakistan this week said it had abandoned its longtime doctrine of "strategic depth", which envisioned a pro-Pakistan government in neighboring Afghanistan.

"The idea of strategic depth no longer exists," Pakistani Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz told a joint session of the Pakistani Senate’s defense and foreign affairs committees, saying there was no need for such a doctrine in view of the country’s current nuclear capability.

Aziz was reportedly responding to questions raised by senators regarding ongoing diplomatic tensions between Islamabad and Kabul and recent flare-ups along the two countries’ shared border.

Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, who attended the meeting, told reporters later that Pakistan was more than capable of neutralizing a potential Indian military attack with a tactical nuclear strike.

"There is no longer need for ‘strategic depth’ [in Afghanistan] because Pakistan is a nuclear state," Asif said.

"In case India uses its ‘cold-start’ doctrine [in the event of a war], then we have an edge in the form of our nuclear tactical weapons to neutralize the situation," Asif asserted, referring to India’s reigning military doctrine.

- 'New thinking'

Pakistan’s "strategic depth" doctrine, first articulated in the 1980s by former army chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Baig, envisions the use of Afghan soil to respond to a potential military attack by India.

Kabul, for its part, frequently accuses Pakistan of using the doctrine as a justification for manipulating domestic Afghan politics -- including alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban with a view to destabilizing the Afghan regime.

Notably, Pakistan was among only three countries -- along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates -- to have recognized the Taliban government after the militant group captured Kabul in 1996.

Analysts, meanwhile, say the abandonment of the "strategic-depth" doctrine is a milestone in Pakistan’s long-term security policy.

"This is new thinking on the part of the [Pakistani] army," Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst and retired army lieutenant-general, told Anadolu Agency.

The "strategic depth" doctrine, Masood explained, had given rise to a host of misconceptions, including the notion that Pakistan wanted a "remote-control" regime in Afghanistan for use against India in the event of war.

"This [misconception]… ran counter to the notion of Afghan sovereignty," he noted, adding that the recent policy change sent a message to the Afghans that Pakistan did not need to control their government to defend itself from an envisioned attack by India.

"It delivers a clear message to Kabul that Pakistan is able to defend itself with its nuclear deterrent," Masood asserted.

"Perhaps Pakistan has realized that the quality of its relationship with Afghanistan is more important than the notion of ‘strategic depth’," the analyst said.

- Border flare-ups

Islamabad’s stated strategy shift comes amid a recent spate of violent flare-ups along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

On Sunday, the Afghan Border Force (ABF) opposed construction of installations by Pakistan at the strategic Torkham border crossing, which links Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to Pakistan’s federally-administered tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The move soon led to intermittent exchanges of cross-border fire between the ABF and the Pakistani military that has since resulted in limited casualties, including the death on Tuesday of a high-ranking Pakistani army officer and an ABF officer one day earlier.

A number of civilians, including children, have also reportedly been killed in the on-again, off-again artillery exchanges.

Col. Mohammad Ayub Hussainkhail of the ABF says his forces remain on "high alert" and would not allow the Pakistani army to carry out any "illegal construction" at the flashpoint crossing.

Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (who shares executive power with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani) has also blamed Pakistan for attempting to build installations on the border in alleged violation of mutual agreements and international norms.

The Torkham crossing is of symbolic importance to the Afghan people, many of whom do not recognize the "Durand Line" -- the official border with Pakistan, which was imposed by the British in the 19th Century during India’s colonial period.

Anti-Pakistan sentiment has recently been on the rise in Afghanistan since Islamabad introduced new border measures barring Afghans from visa-free entry.

Previously, thousands of Afghans used to visit Pakistan each day -- visa-free -- for medical treatment, commercial purposes or study.

Following the recent exchanges at Torkham, however, Afghans have staged anti-Pakistan demonstrations across the country.

In the southern Helmand province on Tuesday, hundreds of local residents -- chanting anti-Pakistan slogans and vowing to defend their country from transgressors -- gathered to show support for the Afghan military.

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