Will Taliban’s Legitimacy In Afghanistan Increase Pakistan’s Influence?

There has to be a plausible reason as to why every time there is a military conflict in Afghanistan, the idea and concept of strategic depth is revived in Pakistan, writes Umer Farooq.

The Taliban are about to get complete legitimacy in Afghanistan’s domestic politics as a result of peace deal with Washington. Now can we say that the chances of a Pakistan friendly government will increase in Afghanistan? There is now little doubt that Taliban will emerge as legitimate players in the politics of Afghanistan. So can we expect or apprehend the revival of the concept of strategic depth in Afghanistan?

There are clear reports about an impending peace deal between Afghan Taliban and Washington. It is not yet clear, however, what will be the contours of such a peace deal—whether Taliban hierarchy will be accommodated in the governmental structures of war torn country? We don’t know yet.

Although there is little doubt that Taliban, as a result of this peace deal, will be welcomed as legitimate players in the political system of Afghanistan, even if they are not accommodated in the government.

There are voices coming from capitals of powerful regional countries that want to see Taliban becoming part of the regional security architecture in order to ward off threat of rise of other Sunni extremist groups in Afghan society. These regional players see the present Afghan government and its security forces, in the absence of US and NATO forces, as too weak to effectively check on the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS in Afghan society.

The past few months have seen dramatic reduction in the activities of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas. However, the regional players specially Russia and Iran see the presence of Sunni extremists groups as a major threat to their security.

Russia is said to have started directly hobnobbing with Taliban and Iran’s cooperation with Taliban is also on the rise—Iranian Special Forces are said to have conducted joint operations with Taliban against ISIS supporters in Central Afghanistan.

There are reports that regional countries including Iran, Russia and Turkey have developed a mechanism to exchange intelligence on the presence of ISIS groups in Afghanistan. There is a desire to make Pakistan part of this type of intelligence mechanism.

What does all this mean for Pakistan? Will Pakistan see an increase in its influence in Afghanistan, now that pressure to co-opt Taliban in the regional security architecture is on the rise? Does it mean that we will see the revival of old concept of strategic depth among Pakistan’s military establishment?

Strategic depth is not alien concept in military studies—there are a large number of countries aspiring for strategic depth in their decision-making processes to meet the military threats from numerically or militarily stronger neighbors. Israeli military considers strategic depth in military/physical terms as necessary for the effective defense of their country, which is physically a thin country. Some countries like Turkey want to practice the concept of strategic depth in political or diplomatic terms to increase their political influence in their neighborhood.

There has to be a plausible reason as to why every time there is a military conflict in Afghanistan, the idea and concept of strategic depth is revived in Pakistan. This happened in 1988—as the Soviet pulled out from Afghanistan was about to start as a result of international agreement—when the then COAS, General Aslam Beg talked about this concept for the first time and later in the wake of US invasion of Afghanistan as the things started to stabilize in the region, the then COAS, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani voiced his support for the said military concept.

However, the differences between the nature and content of the military and physical strategic depth, as propounded by General Aslam Beg, and political and diplomatic nature of the strategic depth, as propounded by General Kiyani, was was noticeable to many observers. General Aslam Beg was more interested in militaristic strategic depth that viewed Afghanistan as Pakistan’s fifth province, whereas General Kiyani talked about extending Pakistan’s political and diplomatic influence in Afghan society.

The physical/military version of the strategic depth may be an outdated concept even within the power corridors of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but the political and diplomatic version of strategic depth may see a revival in Islamabad as the Taliban’s position in the security architecture of the region becomes well entrenched. What are Pakistan’s chances of success if it does make an attempt to seek political and diplomatic strategic depth beyond its western borders?

There are facts, which will militate against any such notion of Pakistan achieving political and diplomatic strategic depth in the foreseeable future. Firstly, Afghanistan will remain a fractured society with Taliban emerging as one of the players, maybe the strongest one. But nevertheless, there will be other players in the field—a fact which will not allow Taliban to fully dominate the power structure of Afghanistan.

Secondly, western influence will continue to exist in the country—with large western security and intelligence presence in Kabul and presence of Western non-governmental sector will also be strong.

In other words, the international and cosmopolitan character of Afghanistan’s capital and its security structure will remain the basic feature of Afghan state, making things difficult for Afghan Taliban. Thirdly, Indian might continue to have a presence an economic player in Afghanistan.

There are facts that will facilitate increased influence of Pakistani military in Afghanistan: Firstly, the requirements of major regional players will increase the role of Taliban as partners of regional powers to act as a counter weight to the rise of ISIS in Eastern, Northern and Western Afghanistan. Secondly, Pakistan security apparatus is seen as only regional playerswith the required amount of political influence to stabilize Afghanistan militarily. This will allow some semblance of influence to Pakistan in the affairs of Afghanistan.

But, for a change, Pakistan’s establishment will be well advised not to call this influence strategic depth—as the term has outlived its utility in the domestic and regional context. Getting diplomatic, economic and cultural influence is more important in this day and age.