State of Play: Non-Proliferation, Fissile Material Cut-offs and Nuclear Transparency

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 Tools that promote a stable nuclear relationship between nations are characterized by a congruence of views on non-proliferation of weapon and vector technologies, fissile material control and strategic transparency; the last makes clear the strategic underpinnings that motivate weapon programmes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was negotiated in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, is the cornerstone of all international efforts to provide stability within the bounds of a globally ‘iniquitous’ nuclear regulatory system by limiting access to nuclear weapons. The impetus behind the NPT was a stated concern for the safety of a world with many nuclear weapon states. It was recognized that the cold war deterrent relationship between just the United States and Soviet Union was fragile. Having more nuclear-weapon states would reduce security for all, multiplying the risks of miscalculation, accidents, unauthorized use of weapons and the hazards of regional tensions escalating to nuclear conflict. The concept of the NPT process was formulated by Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for External Affairs, in 1958. A total of 190 states have joined the Treaty, though North Korea, which acceded to the NPT in 1985 but never came into compliance, announced its withdrawal in 2003. States that have never joined the NPT are India, Israel and Pakistan.

The NPT is, unfortunately a flawed treaty, while its origins pre-dates the Cuban crisis, it was the fragility of the existing fraught relationship between the two super powers that pushed leadership towards a pact that restricted possession of nuclear weapons. Based on a ‘bargain’ that traded denial of nuclear weapons for peaceful use technologies, it distinguishes between three categories of states: nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China), non-nuclear weapons states and thirdly states that are not signatories of the Treaty in possession of nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan). Many of the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to forego nuclear armament because the nuclear-armed states made a promise that in return they would work towards nuclear reductions with the ultimate aim of abandoning all nuclear weapons and because the nuclear have-nots had been promised support in making strictly peaceful use of nuclear energy. The system has not evolved to find a status for the last category of players whose security needs was neither addressed nor any remission given.

Western thinking (by which is implied the nuclear Haves) on the matter is, regrettably, dominated by only two issues: how best to retain the power exclusivity of the ‘Nuclear Club’ and the situation in the Middle East. Questions related to nuclear proliferation, hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons and stability of nuclear relations; on the other hand, have taken a back seat. The US and Russia, as the states with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, have neither shown the imagination nor the will to formulate a new dispensation that holds nuclear stability as a function of enforceable transparency and an acceptance of No First Use as an inviolable first step towards disarmament.

On the ground, the US accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that commits both sides to abolishing their intermediate-range nuclear arms; there is no progress in matters of multilateral nuclear disarmament; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a distant illusion as the US has still failed to ratify the treaty; there are no negotiations or an agreed agenda over stopping the production of fissile material for military purposes; the Geneva Conference on Disarmament that is intended for this purpose cannot agree on the principles that will govern the Treaty. While transparency in arsenals and doctrines has been rendered opaque as nuclear weapon states have found new reason to enlarge and modernise. In this mileu ‘Global Zero’ remains a Utopian ideal.

The ‘cardiac’ arrest in the nuclear disarmament agenda is more symptomatic of the growing perception that in an uncertain world, nuclear weapons provide a persuasive argument for strategic stability. During the Cold War, strategic doctrines relied heavily on nuclear weapons for their deterrent effect; it resulted in a veritable freeze in the probability of war in Europe. Today, while the picture may have changed due to tensions of the multi polar and the competitive tyranny of economics, the need to underscore the boundaries of interstate behaviour remains an imperative. In the absence of globally accepted regulatory regimes not only are conflictual situations likely to arise and have indeed arisen, but there is also a necessity that these conflicts remain restrained; this is where the deterrent value of nuclear weapons play a role till such time that an alternate disincentive can be devised. It is also for this reason that nations are increasingly demanding reliable extended nuclear deterrence. The escalating friction in the South and East China Sea; the war in Ukraine where a nuclear-armed Moscow has arrogated Crimea (and parts of eastern Ukraine) in defiance of the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum; the seemingly irrational nature of North Korea’s nuclear threats; the continued existence of nuclear black market networks of AQ Khan notoriety; the appearance of non-state actors into the equation and China’s programme of nuclear proliferation which has nurtured and continues to sustain and enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, are all demonstrative of the current apocalyptical state of play. For many nations, this has reinforced the impression that possession of nuclear weapons adds-up-to strength, protection, and inviolability; while foregoing nuclear weapons can threaten the very existence of the State. As the importance of nuclear weapons increases in a geopolitical environment of uncertainty, the prospects of stability becomes bleaker.

An appraisal of the contemporary universal state of nuclear affairs will suggest that the three pillars of global nuclear stability, namely, non proliferation, control of fissile material production and transparency of nuclear arsenals are wobbly for lack of foundational support. And in the truancy of global foundational support the answer may well lie in establishing a regional framework of détente.

Swabbing the Bleakness of Sub-Continental Nuclear Instability

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website)

Nuclear Stability: Where does it Begin?

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, it dawned upon President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev how catastrophically close to nuclear war they had blundered due to a misshapen military-led nuclear policy and a ludicrous nuclear doctrine that believed that a nuclear war could be fought, controlled and won. Both leaders sought a change to the nuclear status-quo. As Khrushchev described it, “The two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button.” Kennedy shared this distress, remarking at a White House meeting, “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” He called for an end to the Cold War. “If we cannot end our differences,” he said, “at least we can help make the world a safe place for diversity.” In a series of private letters, Khrushchev and Kennedy opened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing. Thus began a progression of political moves and agreements that sought to dampen the risk of a nuclear war, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, do away with tactical nuclear weapons, limit strategic arms, cut arsenal size and indeed, bring stability to nuclear relations. If at all there is a historical lesson to be learned then it is that nuclear risk reduction and stability begins with serious dialogue between leadership.

The Sub-Continental Nightmare

If one were to hypothesise what form a nuclear nightmare may take, then it is a hair-trigger, opaque, nuclear arsenal that has embraced tactical use under decentralised military control, steered by a doctrine seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non-state actors. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare that this nightmare is upon the Sub-Continent. The need to bring about an awakening to the dangers of a nuclear conflagration is therefore pressing. The effect of an enfeebled civilian leadership in Pakistan that is incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active attendance and involvement of jihadists in swaying strategy; technology intrusions brought in by covert means; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that make Pakistan’s nuclear posture indecipherable, and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’, all, in aggregate, make the status-quo untenable. The need for change in the manner in which we transact nuclear business is urgent.

Strategic restraint predicated on failsafe controls, verification in a transparent environment, providing logic to size and nature of the arsenal, and putting the brakes on the slide to nuclear capriciousness become imperatives to stabilizing deterrent relationship on the Sub-Continent. But the catch is, how does one begin a meaningful nuclear dialogue with a weakened Pakistan civilian establishment that does not control a military which, in turn, finds no reason to come to terms with a subordinate role? And as Cohen so succinctly put it “Pakistan will continue to be a state in possession of a uniformed bureaucracy even when civilian governments are perched on the seat of power. Regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan.” [1]

The Tri-Polar Tangle

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which created and sustains its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No-First-Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First-Use capability, as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. No scrutiny, of any consequence, of the regional nuclear situation can avoid looking at the internals of Pakistan. The country today represents a condition that has been brought about by the precarious recipe that the establishment has brewed in nurturing fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their military strategy. The extent to which their security establishment has been infiltrated is suggested by the attacks on PNS Mehran, Kamra air base, Karachi naval harbour and the assassination of the Punjab Governor; while the recent murderous assault on the Army School in Peshawar and the every day terror killings are more symptomatic of the free run that these elements enjoy across the length and breadth of the country. Such a state of affairs does not inspire any confidence in the likelihood of the nuclear nightmare fading away or the robustness of their nuclear command and control structures to keep it in check.

Failure of the US Af-Pak Policy

As early as 2003, the USA set out two major policy goals towards Pakistan, firstly holding it as an indispensable ally in its war in Afghanistan and secondly ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons in and from the region. However, over a decade later, both goals have failed dismally. There are confirmed reports that the Pakistan military has persistently deceived the US forces while elements within the former either lack the will to combat the insurgency or are actively involved with the jihadists. On the nuclear front, the rapid setting up of the unsafeguarded Khushab series (II, III an IV) nuclear reactors with Chinese collaboration, having no other purpose than production of weapon grade Plutonium, development of tactical nuclear weapons, and the uninhibited growth of their arsenal, do not in anyway enthuse belief in US ability to exercise any stewardship over Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. The inexplicable disappearance of key nuclear scientists who had recorded liaisons with the Al Qaeda remain alarming episodes that must cause anxieties. With US involvement in the Af-Pak greatly diminished and their focus on nuclear proliferation much sharper, the time is ripe for the US to clamp down on the maverick Pak nuclear posture.

Orientation of Sino-Pak Nuclear Collusion

The key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of nuclear behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction, in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan, presents a frightening possibility which is not in China’s interest to promote, more so, since Islamic terrorist elements have sworn to obtain nuclear weapons and the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile. This in turn provides an opportunity to Indian leadership to bring about change in the current ‘tri-polar tangle’.

A Blue Print for Regional Nuclear Stability

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malefeseance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing assured retaliation to nuclear violence, but at the same time for India to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize with foundational rules of nuclear conduct. India’s current strategic relations with USA and Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to China provide a timely opportunity to bring an end to the nightmare by swabbing the bleakness of subcontinental nuclear instability.

Endnotes

[1] Stephen Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, The Brookings Institution: Washington DC, 2004, p. 97

The Af-Pak Entity: Seduction to Armageddon?

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)

Keywords: Af-Pak region, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran-Afghanistan relations, Russia-Afghanistan relations, Central Asian Republics-Afghanistan relations, India and post-2014 Afghanistan, Russian Domain 2.0, New Great Game, Continental Silk Route

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Armageddon is the mythical site of gathering of armies for battle that will end all. Its geographical location is shrouded in biblical lore and considerable controversy exists of its mercatorial coordinates; but its implications of the eventual catastrophic destiny of mankind (as revealed) are becoming less indistinct. Our study is far removed from eschatology, it is however, keenly concerned with the settings and geography of an impending geo-political upheaval caused by the withdrawal of American forces from the Af-Pak region. Inconclusive American abdication leaves in its wake a weak, nuclearised and failing Pakistan unable to reconcile a will to modernity with Jihadi aspirations; an Afghanistan whose writ does not prevail beyond the edgings of Kabul; a resurgent Iran that seeks domination over west and northern Afghanistan; Central Asian Republics whose civilisational, ethnic and cultural roots in northern Afghanistan exert fissiparous pressures; and an incensed and isolated Russia that sees in the region an opportunity to impel its own influence as a limiting factor to that of the US and the Saudis. Such competing external dynamics and interferences will work against central control from Kabul rather than in support of it, leaving bare a ‘gathering of armies’ driven by motivators in persistent friction with each other.

Warring Worlds

When states involve themselves for years on end in irregular, decentralized warfare such as the Afghan-Pakistan situation which has been in a state of violent chaos since 1979, the idea of central control is anaemic. The breakdown of the region into several ‘Tolkienesque’ warring worlds for causes that can only be termed antediluvian, has opened the geography of the expanse to historical fractures that the politics of the last century failed to reconcile. Today, a simmering Baluchistan finds little mutuality in a Punjab-dominated Pakistan; Pakthunwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) ferociously cling to religio-ethnic links with eastern Afghanistan that refute the modern idea of statehood within Pakistan; inside the rest of Pakistan is a smouldering Jihadist sentiment against India and the West; and finally, Afghan resistance to US occupation in the post-al Qaeda defeat has left an insurgency engorged with modern weapons and enabling technologies.

Iran’s Intriguing Inclination

In understanding Iran’s contemporary posture towards Afghanistan, it is long forgotten that it was an early supporter of the 2001 invasion, played a key role in the ‘Bonn’ process that gave a constitution to the latter and has been historically wary of the radical militant ways of the Taliban and the manner in which it has been sponsored, fuelled and given sanctuary by Pakistan. While the seemingly endless supply of narcotics across the porous Baluchistan border and through the Nimruz and Herat sectors, along with linked violence, remains an abiding source of societal distress, illegal finances and arms trade, all of which has generated a strong impulse in Iran to control and affect stability in the Western region of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Iran have been tied by culture and geography over centuries. Approximately one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population is Shia—a focal point for strife, for Iran views itself as the guardian of Shiites. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Khomeini dispensation created a sphere of influence by organizing and materially supporting the Shia community there. Soviet inabilities permitted Iran to form a network of Afghan Shia organizations in the Hazarajat region.

When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the country became a battleground for a proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Saudi’s sought spread of their brand of Islam throughout Central Asia and Pakistan connived to install a Sunni dominated government and gain “strategic depth” against India. Iran, having ended its eight-year war with Iraq, sought to establish a friendly government in Kabul encouraging non-Sunni groups to form a united front. These contrary interests spurred a civil war, frustrating Iran’s policies in the region. This time of confusion saw the rise of the Sunni Taliban. In 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and overthrew President Rabbani, arousing the creation of a military front comprising Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Pashtuns, called the Northern Alliance, that sought to counter the Taliban. Iran, India, Russia, Tajikistan, and the USA supported the Northern Alliance with material, training and sanctuaries.

It was only after 9/11 that support of the Northern Alliance extended to military intervention by the United States to defeat the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) and establish a new Afghan government. Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are in conflict with Pakistan’s single track preference of an Islamist regime in Kabul (the purpose being to foster its misshapen policy of “Strategic Depth” both geographically and ideologically to confront a rising India). Pakistan also believes a weak and fundamental Islamist government in Kabul may be the best way to keep ethnic, irredentist claims at bay, while at the same time expanding its own influence. Such a policy only paves the way for increased military involvement by all parties including Iran.

Russia’s Part in the ‘Novaya Great Game’

There is a veiled attempt by Russia to fill the current void in Afghanistan despite the probability that destabilization of the region may be the outcome. Greater competition between neighbouring powers, in Russian perceptions, may set the stage for a new “great game” for the so-called heart of Asia. Russia has need to enter this contest and vie for influence in Afghanistan against other, more motivated external players, not only to reawaken and accentuate its great power status (as it has done in Ukraine and in Syria) but also, understanding the positions these countries hold and taking their conflicting postures into consideration, the unfolding situation in Afghanistan will affect Russia’s security indirectly by way of Moscow’s allies in Central Asia. Central Asian nations fear the possible consequences of destabilization in Afghanistan, which may include an influx of refugees or an upsurge in Islamic extremism, drug trafficking, and transborder crime, and they may well turn to Moscow for help. It is also difficult to portray a Russia of the immediate future, blind to the emerging Chinese influence in the region by way of their grand scheme of the ‘Continental Silk Route’ and their efforts to corner strategic mineral resources (1400 mineral fields including rare earth elements and over three trillion USD in untapped deposits) that Afghanistan abounds in. The probability of competing politico-socio-economic interests morphing into security concerns is real.

The Central Asian Republics

The Central Asian Republics (CARs) worry about how instability in Afghanistan affects the survival of their own political regimes. These concerns are also symptomatic of their existential weaknesses. But reality would suggest that Central Asia’s economic prospects depend more on China, Russia and India rather than on Western military presence in Afghanistan, if only internal stability could be assured. And here lies the rub, CARs have historically depended upon centrally administered authoritarian rule such that even today they are unable to view a globalised world through any prism other than that provided by a distant Moscow, advancing a possible return of a ‘Russian Domain 2.0.’ Recent moves by Putin to build greater security cooperation among the CARs particularly with Kazakhstan (key regional player), consolidating military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, would underscore the prospects of revisiting privileged partnerships and the return of the Super (Capitalist) Commissar. More worryingly, the stage will be set for enhanced friction in the region.

The Thing about Gathering Armies

         The thing about ‘gathering armies’ is that it puts in stark relief the dangers that a policy drift can inflict upon a designated region. India cannot treat the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan as a potential Armageddon for its security in South Asia. An Islamist takeover of Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent turn into a hotbed of international terrorism is not a certainty. India will have to take more responsibility for regional security. This heightened responsibility must first close out the possibility of armed intervention and put in place a dispensation that promotes cooperative engagement in economic development and institution building. Under all conditions the use of geography to further strategic security interests by any of the stakeholders must be abhorred. This approach is consistent with idea of placing strategic stability above strategic competition.