Pakistan - A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Strategic Depth Conundrum

Our economy relies on agriculture, remittances, and leveraging our geo-strategic position in exchange for rent.

Pakistan - A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Strategic Depth Conundrum
Pakistan - A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Strategic Depth Conundrum
Abdul Raafey Shoukat
January 27, 2023

The past two years have seen Pakistan struggle with internal political instability, regional destabilisation, an unprecedented economic downturn coupled with climate disasters of epic proportions. With the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan and the US withdrawal after a twenty year presence in the country, the regional equilibrium has shifted. Pakistan has to maintain a close eye on the spillover effect of militancy that has already restarted, while mitigating the political crises at home. Since Imran Khan has been removed from office, the country has moved from crisis to crisis without an end in sight. The political turmoil has created unfavourable economic conditions for an already battered economy. 

Hungry Afghans wait in lines to get some bread.

High inflation coupled with a low foreign reserves has brought the country to its knees and Pakistan requires an emergency bailout. Furthermore, Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable nations due to climate change and has suffered disastrous consequences due to the freak floods that claimed the lives of 1,700 people as one third of the country was submerged underwater. With no end to the suffering in sight, this blog examines the flawed domestic and foreign policies that led Pakistan down this path and how a less security-centric and more pluralistic policy framework will create a more sustainable future for the ‘Land of the Pure’ and its’ citizens. 

Regional Destabilisation

A year and a half ago, the world watched in a mixture of shock and horror as the Taliban blitz swept over Afghanistan taking over the country in a matter of months as the remaining US forces formally pulled out of the country. On August 15th, 2021 Kabul fell to the Taliban Insurgency as Ashraf Ghani (the then head of state) fled hat-in-hand from the Presidential palace in Kabul. Today, this watershed moment in history has emboldened extremists groups across the region; with increased activity from ISIS-K, the Pakistani Taliban and non-state actors that are committed to destabilisation in the region. Pakistan in particular has borne much of the brunt of this burden and now has to deal with securing its own borders again in light of the events of these past two years. 

Historically, a policy of strategic depth has been purported by the Pakistani top security brass which has caused much ruin to the coutnry. The concept of ‘strategic depth’ is based around the idea that in case of an Indian invasion into Pakistan, a friendly government in Kabul would allow the Pakistani military the space and the leverage to retreat into Afghanistan and fight a protracted asymmetrical war from its mountains. Despite this, the Pakistani establishment has conducted seven military operations in the FATA region over the course of two decades and now again have to face the reinvigorated threat of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) around their North-Western border. Clearly, this narrow foreign policy strategy has not worked and instead the five components of border security, counter-terrorism, economic co-operation, joint transnational engagements and people-to-people contacts should be part of Islamabad’s agenda with the Taliban and its auxiliaries in Pakistan. 

Many in the Pakistani establishment welcomed the American exodus from Afghanistan, but since then this policy has backfired on its proponents in Pakistan. In the past fifty days, the TTP has carried out over a hundred terrorist attacks within the country, after the uneasy ceasefire with the Pakistani government ended in November 2022. Adding fuel to the fire, there was a cross-border firing incident at the Spin-Boldak-Chaman border on November 13th, 2022 between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani security forces in which one Pakistani soldier was killed. Taliban fighters were also reported to have torn down any fencing done along the border by the Pakistan army and did not draw any condemnation from their overlords. Pakistan has not received any concrete support by the Afghan Taliban in reigning in the TTP except mere lip service regretting the cross-border incident.

The Spin-Boldak and Chaman border crossing.

The Durand Line

The Pakistani government has inherited a host of colonial problems relating to border security. The Durand Line, another lasting colonial legacy, has never been recognized by Afghanistan as it truly does cut through tribal, ethnic and family lines. The border for the population living there is arbitrary as the people on either side share language, customs and culture. The Pakistani state upholds this detrimental colonial legacy for a host of reasons but a salient one amongst them is to quell the movement to create Pashtunistan. The idea of a sovereign homeland for Pashtun/Pakhtun people that reside on the borderlands is as old as the Pakistan Movement. And even with the Taliban in power Islamabad was hoping the issue would resolve itself but rather fares up along the Spin-Boldak-Chaman border have increased. Now with the merger of FATA with the KP province that has been coded into the constitution through the 25th constitution amendment bill in 2018, the Pakistani government wants to integrate the seven agencies with the rest of Pakistan much to ire of the militant presence within the region.  

To understand this tumultuous relationship, we must consider how the Pakistani establishment has always used the Afghan Taliban as a means to an end and now that the Taliban are in power they are moving away from being answerable to Islamabad. Shortly after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s then DG-ISI Gen. Faiz Hameed visited Kabul and was photographed in a hotel with a cup of tea in his hand. This scene gives us but a brief insight into the depth of relationship the Pakistani Army has with the Afghan Taliban. The issues get complex when border smuggling becomes the norm and the Pakistani security apparatus starts treating Afghanistan as a province of Pakistan. Since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has been isolated by the international community and cut off from the very relief and aid its ordinary citizens so desperately rely on. Pakistan does what it can in terms of helping out ordinary Afghans, but the situation remains dire, as even two years into Taliban rule, people are selling their children and organs just to survive. The situation is complicated due to the tensions at the Chaman border as official trade between the countries has been shut down multiple times but smuggling still thrives. 

Members of the Afghan Taliban following the takeover of the Presidential Palace in Kabul, August 2021.

Pakistan has always sought to utilise the extremist elements in the Taliban such as the Haqqani network and use the common thread of militancy which is also present in Kashmir to steer the Taliban movement in Pakistan’s favour. Although, Pakistan’s support of jihadist forces is now coming back to haunt them as this radicalism has seeped into the Pakistani populace as well. Moreover, this has drawn condemnation from the international community as Pakistan has struggled with being taken off the Grey List of countries that engage in terror financing. It has also strained Pakistan-US relations as the US will no longer use Pakistan as an intermediary to deal with the Taliban but rather deal with them directly. President Biden’s remarks echoed this situation as he alluded to Pakistan being an unstable state which was not received well by Islamabad. This strained relation between Washington and Islamabad has been a feature in Imran Khan’s government as well, considering how the US were not given permission to use Pakistani territory to conduct military operations within Afghanistan, and the growing ant-Western sentiment that was on the rise even as Khan’s government was ousted from power. 

Political Turmoil and Economic Disaster

Pakistan has seen turmoil since Imran Khan was removed from office in April 2022. He was ousted through a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly by a narrow margin, as the opposition parties joined against him through the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and marched on the capital in an organised Long March. Khan has blamed the opposition, mainly PMLN and PPP, for pandering to the West as he had pursued an independent foreign policy and accuses the US for orchestrating his removal through the workings of politicians within the Pakistani system. Khan towards the end of his abrupt tenure, had fallen out with his army backers over the extension of the DG-ISI position then held by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, as he was more in favour of retaining Faiz then following the Army’s internal promotion process. This coupled with the worsening economic situation of the country, created ripe conditions for regime change, which has led Pakistan from one constitutional crisis to another. 

Inflation during Khan’s tenure was knocking on double digits. Something he credited the previous governments for, but even with his reforms little came to pass. Following a successful handling of COVID, a rise in global fuel prices was witnessed (credited to the war in Ukraine), Imran Khan announced a cut in domestic fuel and electricity prices through a subsidy in February of 2022. This put pressure on Pakistan’s recurring fiscal deficit and balance of payments causing the rupee to free fall to historic lows. Pakistan’s main economic woes are high inflation and fast disappearing forex reserves. This coupled with a hike in interest rates by the State Bank led to increase in prices of everything ranging from fertilisers to basic necessities as shortages in goods became a common trend. Even today, the dollar’s official rate is not what is being purchased at in the open market and Pakistan does not even have enough foreign exchange reserves to cover a month’s worth of imports. The coalition-led government of Shehbaz Sharif is in talks with the IMF but until a concrete deal is reached in which Pakistan is thrown another lifeline by international agencies and its friendly allies, the situation remains bleak. 

Imran Khan supporters protest after his outster in April 2022.

Imran Khan came into power through the support of a populist movement and on the basis of the army backing his campaign to become prime minister in 2018. Although Khan pledged to root out corruption and bring an end to dynastic politics, his cabinet was full of politicians from the old guard, politicians who pandered to the army and business tycoons who had thrived off of government kickbacks. This created a very stifling environment where he was forced to let go of his dramatic campaign promises that he had pledged to enact and surrendered to these forces which kept Pakistan in limbo while he was left with very little wiggle room. This constant backtracking (U-turns) became a feature in Khan’s tenure which led to factionalism within his party ranks and the coalition government. Many politicians who were involved in corruption schemes were part of Khan’s own party and over the course of his three year stint, public fallouts with these allies took place which also reduced the confidence the public had in his tenure. 

Natural Disasters and Lack of Infrastructure 

From June 14 to October of 2022 Pakistan experienced intense floods which killed 1739 people, caused Rs 3.2 trillion of damage and Rs. 3.3 trillion in economic losses. 33 million people were affected directly and at one point one third of the country was under water. These floods were caused by heavier than usual monsoon rains and glaciers melting at a faster rate than usual, both phenomena directly linked to climate change. UNICEF estimates that 9 million people will slip into poverty due to these floods. Being an agrarian economy, Pakistan does not only suffer from the immediate damages from the flooding but it's devastating after effects on croplands which negatively affect the entire agrarian supply chain from small subsistence scale farmers to international agri-exports which the economy relies on. Food insecurity has reached emergency levels as some official sources posit that 10 million children are in need of life saving support. Communities living near contaminated stagnant flood water are fighting against water borne diseases, with no access to basic necessities. 

Residents leave their villages with some belongings after their homes were completely overrun with water in the summer of 2022.

South Asia is one of the world’s climate crisis ‘hotspots’ where people are fifteen times more likely to die from climate effects than any other place in the world. Although Pakistan contributes less than one percent to global carbon emissions yet it bears the lion's share of climate change’s disastrous effects. The immediate damage may have rescinded to an extent but now new threats pose a danger to the food security, transport of necessary foodstuffs and the agricultural land that is rendered unusable. A domino effect is created as Pakistan’s already fragile healthcare infrastructure bearing added pressure to cater to all at risk and suffering from the floods and its after effects. The affected areas were that of Lower Punjab, Upper Sindh as flash flooding continued along the Indus River and its tributaries all the way down to lower parts of Sindh. KPK was affected by overflowing along river banks that are fed by glacier water that is melting at a faster rate than usual and lastly, Eastern Blaochistan’ already weak infrastructure took a hit as entire towns were submerged under water. 

The Pakistani government estimates that it will need $7-$14 billion per year until 2050, to build a climate resilient infrastructure. This has to be done, as Pakistan has the largest number of glaciers outside of the polar regions and higher temperatures will inevitably lead to more catastrophes like this. Firstly, Pakistan should ask the USA to climate-proof the Indus water treaty with India, as previously USAID has worked in collaboration with the Pakistani government to mitigate such risks. Secondly, all future and ongoing development such as the CPEC ventures should be climate proofed by the Chinese and stressed on by the Pakistani government. Lastly, Pakistan being an net energy importer should also look towards building a stable and sustainable energy infrastructure so it is not scrambling to address it own energy concerns every single year. Add to that the idea of dealing with Afghanistan as a province of Pakistan.

Second-generation Afghan refugees picking garbage in Karachi.

Not only Pakistanis but regular Afghans that rely on their country’s economy have suffered due to the government's assets largely frozen, leaving the country facing its most serious risk of famine in twenty years. This crisis will only worsen as winter looms large over the Afghani populace who have resorted to selling their children for access to basic necessities. Just this past week, close to a hundred and thirty people died from the extreme winter as temperatures dropped to minus twenty-degrees celcius. Scientists attribute this to a polar vortex disruption which makes Arctic winds flow further from the North Pole and settle in remote areas of Afghanistan where access to healthcare and transport is scant. The situation is dire, as the ban on women working stops NGOs from releasing their teams for aid in the country since the Taliban are strictly enforcing the women working ban. This was the one lifeline Afghans could rely on but now that has been snatched away at the worst possible moment. This has compounded multiple issues.

The Road Ahead

The country of Pakistan lies at a geo-strategic point of the world where it accesses Central Asia on its west and the Indian continent to its east. With China above and access to warm waters below it is a conundrum why we have not used this geographical leverage to our advantage. Afghanistan lies to the Northwest as the Ancient Silk Road traverses around the country. The Pakistani civil-military nexus has stop viewing their position in the world from such a narrow lens. The security centric focus of the state should be one faucet of its multi-layered approach to everything. This can only be achieved when the government and the military outline their roles clearly so as to not contradict each other, which leads to useless policies and room for corruption. The army’s recent interference has caused much of the public to lose confidence in its ability to save Pakistan from the corrupt politicians and now they are viewed as the gatekeepers of this broken system, as they seem to benefit from it the most. The military ought to limit their role as an arbitrator to political conflicts that bring the country to a standstill and not back any political campaign that seems to their advantage. The should look towards finding pragmatic solutions that allow them to use the forces within the country to their advantage. 

TTP militants that operate along the Pak-Afghan border region.

In the case of Afghanistan, we require a stable and secure trade connection to link ourselves to the Central Asian states. There is unlimited potential to be the bridge between Central and South Asia and this will only be achieved through the Pakistani government working in earnest with the Afghan regime not only for its security aims but to further both country’s economic prowess. This will have an automatic net positive effect, as the stress on security will reduce and thriving trade through Afghanistan will also help establish a structure which both countries can rely on to uplift their dire situation. To address Pakistan’s security concerns in terms of the TTP and the radicalization risk faced by the Pakistani populace we have the answer in the form of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and its leader, Manzoor Pashteen. 

Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the nonviolent PTM.

The TTP and PTM: Radicalisation, Non-violent Protest and Pashtunistan

The PTM is a nonviolent movement, which respects the Pakistani constitution, asks for accountability from the Pakistani army in terms of how they conduct their operations in the federal agencies of FATA. It fights for civilian safety, demands answers for enforced disappearances and voices support for IDPs, plus the ethical treatment of prisoners. They are staunchly anti-TTP and explicitly ask the establishment to stop supporting militancy in the region. The Pakistani establishment has scapegoated, shunned, tortured and arrested them on the suspicion of them being Indian-funded and promoting the Pashtunistan cause. 

The Pakistani state should rather welcome this movement and uplift it using mass media campaigns so that the country is aware of the people who have suffered the most in the War on Terror. The PTM movement is widespread and already enjoys popular grassroot support. Instead of imprisoning its leaders like Ali Wazir and Manzoor Pashteen they should join hands with a movement that respects Pakistan, wants peace and can stir the masses towards supporting the Pakistani state in its endeavours only if the establishment looks after them as full citizens of this country as well. PTM will have the right rhetoric to deal with the competing claims of TTP leaders like Noor Wali Mehsud who boast that their fight against the Pakistani state is supported by clerics in Pakistan especially the Deobandi institution of Dar-ul-Uloom which the Taliban draws inspiration from. While this is not the case, Pakistan needs a spokesperson with the street power and widespread support of Manzoor Pashteen who has been purporting this anti-TTP agenda to counter the sympathetic yet growing Taliban rhetoric.

The touted potential map of a Pashtunistan (country of Pashtuns).

This will give a platform to not only amplify genuine grievances that the people of North Pakistan have suffered at the hands of militants but also quell the myth of a ‘Good/Bad Taliban’ policy as all of them follow the same pattern of terror that the state of Pakistan has tolerated for too long. In case the Pakistani establishment is sceptical of the case of Pashtunistan being brought to the forefront, then they should guarantee the rights and safeguard the people of FATA and the KP province in earnest. The PTM has not given a reason for them to be persecuted by the state and they do not have separatist aims. This signals the aims of PTM and the state converge and together they can win the ideological war which has been ongoing in the hearts of Pakistanis that are exposed to the radicalism of militancy wrapped in a religious cloth.  

The armed forces can invest their resources on relief efforts and sustainability so desperately needed by Pakistan as the weather continues to get more extreme with each passing year. Pakistan should not wait for the floods to damage the country every year but rather create the safeguards necessary to tackle these natural disasters. The healthcare industry, trade, transport and our main earner, the agrarian economy of Pakistan is all affected by this and soon not much will be left to save. On the economic front, Pakistan desperately needs to diversify its economy as we are a rentier state. Our economy relies on agriculture, remittances and leveraging our geo-strategic position in exchange for rent. 

Pakistan is a country which has been blessed with abundance, natural resources are plenty and our true potential will not only allow us to uplift ourselves but the nations around us. As stated above, we could do so much more than just extract rent from our geographical place in the world, if only we are able to address the structural challenges and rethink our internal and external strategies. 

Pakistan - A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Strategic Depth Conundrum

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