Of Lawrence, Sykes-Picot and al-Baghdadi

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

Keywords: ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, “Intrusive Group”


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

ISIS’s Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a July 2014 speech at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul vowed,”this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

At the start of the First World War a curious informal group took shape in Egypt. It called itself the “Intrusive Group” comprising surveyors and archaeologists; it was headed by the Director of Civilian and Military Intelligence, Cairo. Sensing the rot in the Ottoman Empire, the Group saw in the vitality of the Arab desert tribes a latent power that could upend the Turks in the Hejaz, Syria, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan; if they banded together, were motivated by the belief in a Pan-Arabic State and led by the British. Amongst the adherents was a diminutive British archaeologist Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence-of-Arabia. Patrons of the idea included Kitchener, Wingate and McMahon.

The British foreign office would have none of it as the campaign against the Ottoman Empire was being waged vigorously and very successfully, till the Dardanelles Campaign came along and by end 1915, the British were facing a wretched defeat. Then the idea of raising the Arabs in revolt Northward from the Hejaz became more palatable.

By early 1916 the Arab Bureau was created in Cairo to foster and whip up the revolt. The remarkable guerrilla campaign against the Turks led by Lawrence brought victories to the Arab Army and conquest of Syria and Palestine. At the peace conference, Lawrence pleaded the Arab cause, but unbeknownst to him and the Arab Bureau was the machination of the Foreign Office which had other plans for war termination. This took the form of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, an Anglo-French Pact hatched as early as May 1916 to carve the Middle East into British and French spheres of control and influence (Czarist Russia played an undermined part in the Pact). The rest is history, as the League of Nations awarded the Palestine mandate to the British and French and ratified their spheres of control.

Lawrence was the first to recognise the difficulties of the Arab estate on the one hand while on the other, their readiness to follow to the ends. One could never answer, with any conviction, a fundamental civilizational question: “Who were the Arabs if not ‘manufactured’ people whose names were ever changing in sense year-by-year?” (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence, 1922). He further noted that the harshness of both climate and terrain made the tribes desert wanderers circulating them between the Hejaz, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia with neither attachment to lands nor systems that inspired settlement; According to Lawrence, what established bonds was their character that despised doubts and the disbeliever; found ease in the extremes and pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends carrying their beliefs from “asymptote to asymptote”. He claimed that they were people to whom convictions were by instinct and activities intuitional so they require a prophet to lead and set them forth; and Arabs believed there had been forty thousand of them. To sum their mystique Lawrence notes most prophetically: “they were a people of spasms for whom the abstract was the strongest motive and were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.”

Kobani a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, is today under siege and partial occupation by Baghdadi’s Islamic State (ISIS). Already this lethal spasm which fuses 21st century American technology and equipment with Arab fanaticism has rolled across parts of Syria, Iraq and through dozens of Kurdish villages and towns in the region sending over 200,000 refugees fleeing for their lives across the border.

Predictably, the lightly armed Kurdish militias desperately holding out in Kobani are fighting and losing to ISIS. So why has the American grand coalition not been able to relieve the town or why hasn’t air power been able to destroy the rampaging forces of the Islamic State? And why, the question begs to be asked, has Turkey, not done anything substantial to relieve the hapless Kobani?

In what is a historically awkward irony, the very destruction of Saddam’s Iraq has paved the way for fragmentation of the Sykes-Picot borders and the tri-furcation of Iraq into a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, a Shia enclave in the south and ISIS running riot in the centre. The US delusion that it was building a new Iraq flies in the face of the current situation which tragically is more reminiscent of Lawrence’s Arabia.

In the meantime Turkey’s President Erdogan stated his nations position in unequivocal terms “For us, ISIS and the (Kurdish) PKK are the same” the crisis in Kobani is a case of “terrorist fighting terrorist.” The Kurdish fighters in Kobani are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK which has long been considered Turkey’s top security threat and has been officially classified as a “terrorist” group by the U.S.

Further South, the Saudi’s want to destroy the Assad regime in Syria because it is allied with their Shiite enemy, Iran. Consequently, they see the fight against ISIS as essentially a pretext for escalating their war against Syria and show little interest in militarily engaging the Islamic State. The Emirates appear content to show token participation in the ‘Grand Coalition’ while at the same time seeking economic opportunities that the Islamic State may offer.

Indeed it would appear that neither does the US have the resolve to confront and neutralize ISIS, which is having a free run in the Levant, Syria and Iraq; nor does the coalition share common purpose. The situation in the region is evocative of the appreciation made by the “Intrusive Group”, a fading Imperial power waging a strategically irrelevant war amidst the rise of ISIS led by one more prophet driven by a fanatic belief. Lawrence, in the circumstance, would have suggested demolish the belief, dry up the water and attack that prophet (Abu-bakr Al Baghdadi).

All the while the esoteric call for Jehad and the establishment of an Pan Islamic Caliphate under Abu-bakr Al Baghdadi that ISIS has put out, has not fallen on deaf ears particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Strategic Stability: Grappling the Enigma of Sub-Continental Nuclear Politics


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Strategic Stability, Nuclear Security in South Asia, Indo-Pak Diplomacy, China Nuclear Policy, Pakistan Nuclear Policy

Download full article here

This article is forthcoming in the “South Asia Defense and Strategic Year Book 2015” 


It can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and
therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability

Cold War Mantra-Catastrophic Force as the Basis of Stability

In September 1950, responding to a directive from the President of the USA to reexamine objectives in peace and war with the emergence of nuclear weapons capability of the Soviet Union; the Secretaries of Defense and State tabled a report titled National Security Council – 68 (NSC-68).[i] This report was, in general terms, to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War and in particular formed the source that defined and drove doctrines for use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a founding policy document of contemporary world order the memorandum contrasted the fundamental design of the Authoritarian State with that of the Free State. Briefly put the coming clash was seen in almost Biblical terms as a life and death struggle between the powers of ‘evil’ with that of ‘perfection’.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed some of the most cataclysmic events that history was subjected to; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked the global status quo, collapse of 5 empires and the decline and degeneration of two imperial powers. The dynamics that brought about these changes also wrought drastic transformation in power distribution. Key determinants of power were seen as a function of ideological influence, military prowess, economic muscle and the means of mass nuclear destruction. Comprehensive Power had decisively gravitated to the USA and the USSR. The belief that the USSR was motivated by a fanatic communist faith antithetical to that of the West and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence would become endemic. And thus was presented to the world a choice to either watch helplessly the incarceration of civilization or take sides in a “just cause” to confront the possibility. World order rested upon a division along ideological lines, and more importantly to our study, the formulation of a self fulfilling logic for the use of nuclear weapons. The 1950s naissance of a nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry; its nature was characterized by friction and thwarting the spread of influence. The scheme that carved the world was Containment versus burgeoning Communism. In turn rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

The Quest for a New Paradigm

Crumbling of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the twentieth century and the end of the Cold War brought down the curtains on the distinctive basis of global stability that NSC 68 had spawned. In its wake scholarly works suggested the emergence of one world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilizations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilizational similitude.

However, these illusions were dispelled within a decade and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization in a state of continuous technology agitation. An uncertain geo-political brew, as the world had never seen before, has come to pass under the looming shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Problem

The problem with nuclear weapons in an uncertain world is the complexity of convincing decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange. For, as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, indeterminate fears creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction which in turn provokes and raises the degree of calamitous risk.

Military planners are familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance between political objectives and resources, but also to ensure that probability of success of a strategy and benefits that accrue outweigh the hazards of failure. In the nuclear arena we note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the relationship. From start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that when nuclear resources are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the political objectives that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to leadership. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty rejects the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability.

A nuclear deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided . The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in relationship.

The test of a durable deterrent relationship is its ability to withstand three dynamics that are common to contemporary politics, significantly so in the sub-continent. First: the deterrent itself must be stable; by which is implied its command, control and doctrinaire underpinnings must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Second: in a crisis, either conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be restrained. Third: the predicament that intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus causes, for it invites covertness but its impact demands transparency.

The Tri-Polar Tangle

Unique to the deterrent relationship in the region is the tri-polar nature of the playing field, with China and Pakistan at ‘the collusive base’ and India on the vertex. Ever since the 1960’s it was amply clear and comprehensively demonstrated that China would use all means at its disposal to not just embarrass India in the international arena but also to ensure that it never posed a challenge of any nature to its larger designs. Continued nuclear and missile technology proliferation in-region remains an abiding symptom. What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level, security establishments in China, India and Pakistan have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear stability barring endorsing the idea. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by balance power logic but in today’s geo political circumstance it only serves to diminish its global standing and in time may rebound on its ambitions. With Pakistan the only meaningful measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests. On the perilous side is induction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by way of Chinese collaboration with the consequences of devolution of control and ever increasing ambiguities.

The Blight of Ambiguity

The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Eshkol in 1966 stated that ‘Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’. Three red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by weapons of mass destruction. It served as Israel’s ultimate guarantor of security.

The worth of ambiguity and its corollary, opacity of policy only serves to accentuate hazards of the unintended. Indistinctness in policy, when TNWs are in the arsenal, immediately suggests that conventional principles of war apply. This provides the incentive for use of nuclear weapons and a reactionary development of a first strike capability on the one hand, while the adversary strives to generate a counter force potential.

Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent. Covert technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard geometrically, making the demand for transparency more urgent.

Paradox of Indo-Pak Diplomacy

Bi lateral diplomacy between India and Pakistan is a paradox particularly when considered against the framework of conservative diplomacy. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the two parties sit across the table and deliberate with political leadership views, power balance and national perspectives forming the basis. The rub when dealing with Pakistan is that political leadership is a charade that masks the real manipulators of power. The unfeigned decision makers are those represented by the military establishment who as a rule do not expose themselves to diplomatic parleys and appear to thrive in an ambience of imprecision. While this policy has served the military well, it makes for an awkward situation when diplomatic deliberations invariably end in a void. Diplomacy in the classical sense implies the practice and art of conducting international parleys between states with the purpose of (in addition to others) defusing starkly competitive behavior. This orthodox structure comes a cropper when dealing with a situation where the real national leadership absents itself from the tedium of negotiations.

When dealing with Indo Pak parleys there is a certain Chamberlainesque tragedy to its progress that is squarely on account of the refusal to recognize the reality of who tenants the seat of power in Pakistan. On the Indian side a rejection of this reality ironically leads to an untiring conciliatory policy that is marked by appeasement. Such policy as characterized by the inability to fully exploit the 1971 liberation of East Pakistan, The “Gujral Doctrine” of appeasement, the stalemate during ‘Operation Parakram’ (the one year military stand-off after the failed terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001), the self imposed restraints during Kargil and lastly the reliance on means that had little relevance to the nature of the 26/11 assault on Mumbai; all these are more symptomatic of India’s unreal appraisal of the adversary. Chamberlain, between 1938 and 1939, it will be recalled pursued a peacemaking course, which had a contradictory and inadvertent effect of revealing true Nazi policy. Despite the breakdown of the Versailles treaty and the brazen Czech invasion he refused to reconcile to the dangerous face of Nazi power.[ii]

The fundamental dilemma that States must master in peace and diplomacy and more so to in developing a nuclear strategy is an appraisal of the other’s intentions. In an environment of control ambiguity, a military strategy that embraces Jihadists compounded by nuclear opacity (as is the case in Pakistan) the complexity of this estimation shows up often in the skewed and poor quality of strategic decision making. The current implosive situation in Pakistan and its strategic links with China has not made matters any simpler for planners to generate responsive counter strategies.

China’s Janus Faced Nuclear Policy

When dealing with nuclear issues uncertainties rise from the multilateral nature of nuclear relationships, discriminatory regimes that exist and importantly the competing strategic groups that the multipolar has precipitated. It has blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons at the same time it provides a warped incentive in asymmetric situations for the lesser State to habitually provoke incidents and then threaten to reach for the nuclear trigger.

The current situation has not left the Indian strategic dilemma unimpaired. The two faced nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship has put pressure on the No First Use (NFU) doctrine that has shaped India’s policy and indeed its arsenal. China’s stated NFU policy hides the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured from development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons programme to the supply of TNWs. China would appear to have forgotten the actuality of an enfeebled Pakistan civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use. Indeed the Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility, it unfortunately also makes the severance of the Nuclear from the Conventional a thorny proposition that even China must know can boomerang on its aspirations.


The Nuclear Nightmare

We have thus far noted the effect of the external environment introducing nuclear multilateralism; 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 non state actors in military strategy; internal environment that without rationale finds solace in TNWs, larger and more varied arsenals; security anxieties shoving arsenals down the slippery slope of developing nuclear war fighting capabilities; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that mould nuclear posture and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’. The larger consequence of the considerations discussed so far makes the status quo untenable.

The nuclear nightmare, when articulated, is a hair trigger, opaque deterrent leaning towards conventionalizing under single 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 exertions to declare that this nightmare is upon us.

Strategic Non Nuclear Forces

Given the state of relations with Pakistan and their persistence of employing terror organizations as a part of military strategy, there is every probability that conventional forces will have to be employed on both sides of the border by the Indian state. This naturally runs the risk of escalation. Theoretically, under these circumstances it is important that both sides do not reach for the nuclear trigger. Obviously the best way of averting such a situation is to ensure that such a conflictual possibility does not arise at all, through transparency and unrelenting diplomacy.

In practice, history has shown, this is often not workable and therefore conventional forces should have the mobility and firepower to achieve limited aims rapidly without allowing escalation beyond the conventional threshold, the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine is an expression of just such intent. This would mean maintaining nuclear forces that inhibit the adversary from even contemplating a nuclear exchange in addition its strategic forces must also equip itself with select non nuclear conventional hardware that tracks and targets nuclear forces (all under political control). This would provide the pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship that leans so heavily on NFU.

Bringing about strategic stability is therefore the key to manage Pakistan’s nuclear forces and holding it in a state in which deterrence does not break down. Against the reality of a conventional war with its limited goals and moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future; the first step is separation of the conventional from the nuclear. Where this severance is not articulated the No First Use arsenal must be of a nature that credibly deters. As mentioned earlier given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy is a reality that demands a high level of preparedness.


The challenge before us is clear. To put the nuclear genie back into the bottle is neither realistic nor a proposition that merits consideration. The key lies in bringing about an ambience conducive to strategic stability. Areas that could be addressed begin with weakening the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion (as discussed earlier); mutually dispelling the veil of opacity that surrounds the nuclear deterrent; technology intrusions that have put the arsenal on a hair trigger must be subjected to a safety catch through the instruments of transparency and the removal of ambiguities in strategic underpinnings; Institutional verification measures must evaluate and exchange risks and alert status. It is only such devices that will enable strategic restraint and in turn a stable deterrent relationship to be realized on the sub continent.

Download full article here


End Notes

[i] US Department of State Office of The Historian. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/NSC68&gt;

[ii] Murray Williamson. The Change in the European Balance of Power 1938-1939.Princeton University Press 1984 pp. 193-215

Strategic Estrangement an Odd Bedfellow to Economic Engagement


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.)

Keywords: Chinese economic growth, India-China bilateral relations, Johnson Line, McMahon Line, Aksai Chin

The inextricable interdependence of survival of China’s despotic leadership, its economic growth and stability of State controlled Capitalism poses a curious dilemma when large democratic economies choose to expand and boost economic engagement. This is particularly so when there exists unresolved geo-strategic fissures. And yet, the overriding importance of political stability and economic growth (in that order) to China’s Communist Party leadership presents an opportunity to best influence China.

Of the ten bloodiest massacres in history five of them occurred in China (Qing conquest of the Ming Dynasty, 1618-83 casualties 25 million; Taiping rebellion, 1850-64 casualties 20m; An Lushan rebellion, 755-63 casualties 13m; Dungan Revolt 1862-77, casualties 10m; Chinese Civil War 1927-50 casualties 7.5m). It can hardly be accidental that all five were internal to China. Neither is it coincidental that this part of their grisly past is an important determinant of their resolve to suppress uprisings whether in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square or indeed in the current more-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The so called “Umbrella Revolution” has thus far resisted strong arm tactics, the State buying off local tycoons and veiled threats of the use of disproportionate force. The underlying fear of encroachment of the Party’s authoritarian values on Hong Kong’s way of life is at the core of dissent. Nonetheless a vacillating leadership runs the risk of being perceived as weak when withholding the impulse to action. All the while an edgy mainland China watches uneasily. The Party knows full well that to loosen grip is the first step down the slippery slope to political instability.

On the growth front China is at that stage in development when expectations and standards of living of its citizens can no longer be nourished by the diminishing sheen of the “China Price”. The IMF World Economic Outlook for 2014-15 marks a downward GDP growth forecast for China to under 7% by 2015 as the economy attempts to make the transition to a more sustainable path along the service and technology sectors. This relative slow down puts a poser before Beijing: the only guarantee of the passivity of the masses is a satisfied populace; dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry animated by the urge to more democracy provides the recipe for mass upheavals; so how best can the current politico-economic situation be bridled?

In the meanwhile India finds itself fortuitously positioned. Politically, the Modi-dispensation’s resounding mandate and economically an avowed emphasis on development prodding an upward growth trend (indicated by the same IMF report), reaching 7% by 2015, a combination of both factors provides the vehicle to not just influence Sino-Indian relations but also to resolve our prickly border predicament. According to a study by the PHD Chamber of Commerce, an industry trade group in New Delhi, China has become India’s largest trading partner and in the wake of Premier Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India, targeting bi-lateral trade of over $100 billion is not only achievable but also would take India amongst China’s top five trading partners.

Economic intertwining comes with its own set of tilting levers which may be actuated to mutually settle the tricky border situation. It must be kept in perspective that the 3,225 kilometres border (un-demarcated in the main) has been influenced historically by considerable cartographic jugglery. Significant to the boundary situation are the Johnson Line of 1865 which placed the Aksai Chin in Kashmir (which the British never took seriously); and the McCartney-MacDonald Line of 1899 which showed Aksai Chin as Chinese. China was not a signatory to either of these frontier delineations. However, by the second decade of the 20th century as both China and Russia lapsed into turmoil the Raj sensed a closure to the ‘Great Game’ and the border was redrawn to the original territorially favourable Johnson Line.

At the time of India’s independence in 1947, the Johnson Line in the North and the McMahon Line in the East, also not ratified by China, were inheritances of the partition award. Both independent India and China harboured no apparent conflicting territorial claims. But the annexation of Tibet in 1950 and the consequent moves aimed at strategic consolidation of the Aksai Chin to conform to the McCartney-MacDonald Line presaged the coming armed clash of 1962. It is of some consequence to note that in 1960; Premier Zhou Enlai had ‘unofficially’ offered a quid pro quo in Aksai Chin and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), that India accepts the McCartney Line while China would abandon its claims across the McMahon Line. The time for this ‘grand bargain’ has perhaps arrived.

Geo-politics and international relations are often greatly influenced by timing events to capitalize on circumstances. For India to consider on the one hand strategic estrangement of China while on the other intensify economic engagement, at a time when Beijing faces the prospects of a slow down in growth coupled with restiveness amongst its citizens is to miss the opportunity to bring about stability on our borders and indeed in relations. In turn this can only spur growth, which for both nations is currently most desirable. The time to resurrect Zhou’s ‘grand bargain’ is at hand and as Mark Twain put it “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.