Strategic depth, in Military terms, refers to the internal distance within a state from its Forward Defended Localities (FDLs) or the distance from the frontline to its centre of gravity or Heartland, its core population areas or important cities or industrial installations. It refers to the consideration relating to the vulnerability of the centre of gravity of a country to the enemy’s onslaught in case of war as against the capability provided by the space available within the territory to halt enemy’s advance, counter attack and restore the balance. Militarily, a country having more strategic depth is considered to be at a greater advantage as compared to the one having lesser space. Strategic depth is a geographical factor, which naturally strengthens the defense capability of a country and on the other hand places great challenges on the aggressor; it reinforces the natural capacity to absorb a military aggression from the defender’s point of view, and also burdens the aggressor with the problem of maintaining a long logistical tail. Thus the strategic depth of a country is directly proportional to its national security, especially in case of hostile neighbors.
In military history, Russia is considered to be a classic example of a country gifted with great spaces within its territory, which the aggressors had to venture in order to reach its centre of gravity. The deeply located heartlands of Russia; Moscow and Stalingrad, seriously hampered the advances of the Napoleonic and the German invasions in 1812 and World War II respectively. The long logistical tails of these invaders, which could not be effectively maintained, took a heavy toll on their armies. This factor, apart from adverse weather conditions is considered to be the major cause for their failures. Thus the strategic depth of Russia played a substantial role in defeating the advance of these invaders.
On the other hand, Israel, for being a geographically narrow state is the best example of a country having lesser strategic depth. From military point of view, the critical lack of physical internal space makes it very vulnerable to its neighbors. The Israeli aggression in 1967 during the Six Days War, besides getting control of the water resources at Golan Heights of Syria, pushed its line of defense forward to a formidable obstacle, the River Jordan, by capturing the West Bank territory of Jordan. Mainly, the aim was to increase the internal space in order to provide more strategic depth to the Country.
After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, President, General Zia ul Haq’s endeavors in the process of helping the Afghans, desperate to evict the invaders and USA eager to destroy its long time cold war enemy, were also aimed at restoration of the strategic depth of Pakistan from the north which had been lost as a result of the invasion.
Unfortunately, given the aggressive designs of its hostile neighbour, Pakistan, being a geographically narrow country is at a great disadvantage as compared to India. The physically constricted breadth of Pakistan from east to west astride the river Indus, and a 3000 km Eastern border (including LOC) with India, makes it very vulnerable against a potential sweeping offensive by Indian military. India has about three times more depth than Pakistan and the proportional average depth of Pakistan as compared to India is meagre. Thus, in the opinion of some military strategists, the Afghan territory could provide a strategic depth to Pakistan in case of an Indian onslaught, where, at the time of need Pakistan Army can withdraw, reorganise, and after gaining their balance, can carry out counter attacks in order to evict the enemy form the captured areas. The factors of terrain, demography and sustainability in this regard are best suited for Pakistan, provided the political government in Afghanistan is friendly and supportive.
Notwithstanding the military factor, there is another dimension to the strategic depth; a political one, which deals with the treaties and alliances with different friendly countries based on trade, economic, social, cultural, demographic, political and military factors. These could be at the regional or global level which can be in the shape of combination of strategies; political, economic and military co-operations between those countries having similar threats and national interests. In this regard, Pak-China strategic and economic collaboration is a landmark of cooperation between two countries, which has placed Pakistan’s political strategic depth in China.
Similarly, Russia, who historically had great strategic depth acquisition ambitions in Europe and Central Asia, has now restricted herself at the regional level by focusing her efforts in the Eastern Europe whereby these countries provide her required strategic depth from the west. In the case of Israel, her political strategic depth lies thousands of miles away in USA. Indian active involvement in Afghanistan despite non-existence of any Indo-Afghan border has also to be attributed to a preemptive strategy aimed at denying the strategic depth to Pakistan.
Although the concept of strategic depth has historically been factored into the strategies of several nations of which a few examples have been quoted above, and still continues, the concept / strategy is invariably restricted to the military strategic plans of these nations and guarded as top secret information. Due to the fact that it may involve hegemonic attributes, this concept is not usually discussed openly.
The recent book published by the foreign minister of Turkey, Ahmet Devatoglu, is a milestone in geopolitical studies which deals with the strategic depth doctrine of Turkey.
The strategic depth concept of Pakistan has been criticized by a number of strategic analysts from within the country as well as abroad. The main reason for this criticism has to be attributed to their belief that it manifests a hegemonic posture. Alarmingly however, another factor for its criticism from a particular section of press/electronic media could be ascribed to vested interests related to the outcome of Indian interests to deny strategic depth to Pakistan as mentioned above… a common practice of yellow journalism in Pakistan.
Strategic depth is a sound concept. Every country, in order to secure its sovereignty strives to gain and retain it. Pakistan’s strategic depth doctrine is purely political in nature and is based on having congenial relationships with her neighbours. The statement of the ex COAS of Pakistan Army that they don’t want to control Afghanistan, rather want to have good relations with them, clearly manifest this policy.
Pakistan has historical, cultural and demographic ties with Afghanistan and the geopolitical locations of both countries demand common national interests for both the countries. This lays emphasis on intimate mutual cooperation between two countries to face the challenges of the menace of Taliban together. Afghanistan has to realize that due to its geographical location and historical ties, finally it is Pakistan who would be a natural ally to them in the future rather than India which does not even share any border with them. They have to co-exist with Pakistan and not India. Thus, given the interest of all the great nations in central Asia, Afghanistan has to be mindful of the fact that where Afghanistan provides strategic depth to Pakistan, the later also provides strategic depth to Afghanistan from the south against two emerging powers of Asia, China and India.