‘Jihadi Aggression’ and Nuclear Deterrence


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies Website in September 2015

Pakistan’s use of terror organizations as a tool of state policy to wage unconventional war against India [1] has perverse consequences that link sub-conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces to a terror strike puppeteered by their “Deep State.”[2]

Notwithstanding the reality of interstate relations that finds expression in a byzantine system of the larger un-codified international relations, common ground exists in the challenges that threaten the very existence of the State. Military power, economics, politics, religion and the dynamics of change provide very convincing provinces within which to fix challenges, yet it is the hazard of mass destruction that, without debate, presents itself as the “emperor-of-challenges.” Willingness of the Deep State in Pakistan to catalyze such a scenario, keeping that country always “on the brink” in order to preserve the position of the army, the ISI and the jihadis as upholders of the State, is the peril of our times. And yet if this be the substance then it must equally be true that willfully enabling a nuclear exchange carries the immanence that will finish the Deep State. Keeping the nation persistently on the edge has left Pakistan’s internals in a state of violent turmoil, as several interest networks such as the elites that drive military autonomy, the security apparatus, enfeebled political groups and the fractured jihadis battle for supremacy. The circumstances are fraught since the fallout is demise of (already impoverished) democratic institutions and the wasted idea of a unified Pakistan. In this milieu the cracks in control of nuclear weapons are apparent. After all, the internals may, in the extreme, catalyze the use of nuclear weapons in a plot that begins with a terror strike on India.

The question of motivating Pakistan to demobilize anti-India terrorist groups and thus defuse the reason for escalation of conflict is the most pressing strategic imperative. China, in this frame of reference, though cognate, is a more distant strategic intimidation. Relations between India and China have been stable and improving, save for occasional flares on account of a border that has denied definition. There have not been sustained hostilities since 1962 nor has there been a predilection to reach, even in rhetoric, for nuclear weapons. Deterrence between the two large states has also been relatively stable, since the Chinese nuclear doctrine founded on NFU and minimality finds accord with India’s doctrine and neither country is seeking to change the status quo by exploring space below the nuclear threshold. India’s nuclear deterrent is not country specific; its credibility will remain an abstraction in the mind of the potential adversary, while minimality is magnitude in the mind of the Deterrer (India in this case). On the other hand, Pakistan and India have experienced four wars, two of which were initiated and waged in concert with non-state actors. The two states have also confronted two major crises initiated by terror attacks in India. To strategic planners in India, Pakistani use of jihadi groups as an instrument of state policy is a factor that is always considered when mapping a conventional riposte. Despite successes in recent history, it is equally clear that that sub-conventional warfare can only be beaten by state policy on both sides coupled with conventional forces. The clamping down on terror activities from Pakistan post operation “Parakram” (the military standoff between India and Pakistan between December 2001 and October 2002 following jihadi assault on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001) that resulted in the massing of troops on either side of the border and along the Line of Control in Kashmir. One of the positive outcomes of the mobilization and coercive threat of military action was President Musharraf’s policy statement of 12 January 2002 not to permit Pakistan soil to be used for launch of terror activities. Significantly, on ground, the declaration held till 2008. This aftermath stands in testimony as to what works.

Evolving Nuclear Context

The link between sub-conventional warfare and nuclear war fighting is at best a tenuous one. Conceptually, no amount of tinkering or reconstitution of nuclear policy can deter terror attacks. Such a notion would appear far fetched because of the very nature of the weapon involved. Clearly it is the policy that harbours terror groups as instruments of state policy that has to be targeted. Pakistan has today inducted tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into its arsenal with the stated purpose of countering an Indian response to a terror strike. Almost as if to suggest that they control the levers of nuclear escalation. This an odd proposition since India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, (this is not only stated by most scholars in the know, but is also the bed rock of a nuclear deterrent relationship). Also, TNWs involve decentralization and dispersal, both of which dilute command and control and multiply the risk of the weapon falling into wrong hands. In the end analysis, the use of nuclear weapons introduces a new and uncontrollable dimension. Logically, if a Pak sponsored terror attack is the triggering event of a sequence of reactions, then it must equally be clear that their nuclear red lines give space for a conventional response. After all, the premise that a terror attack is seamlessly backed by nuclear weapons is not only ludicrous but is not even the Pak case. For, when dealing with the threat of use of nuclear weapons, to suggest that ambiguity and first use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting almost in conventional terms is an option. This, by most, is denial of the nature of nuclear weapons, characterized by mass destruction and uncontrollability.

There is a suggestion in some scholarly quarters, that there was little or no Pakistan sponsored terror activity before nuclear umbrellas were raised in the sub-continent. This is repudiation of history (whether at partition in 1947-48, in 1965 or in the 1980s to 90s). Unfortunately this mistaken assumption has led the narrative on a quest to seek answers to sub-conventional warfare in nuclear weapons and their deterrent effect, increasing in turn the dangers of early use. This does not serve the interest of deterrent stability. Yet, as with the conventional military options, some experts and former military officials in India, echoed by western analysts, have begun to question whether India should alter its approach to nuclear deterrence in ways that would affect Pakistan’s calculus. The relationship between nuclear deterrence and sub conventional aggression—what has been colorfully described as “jihad under the nuclear umbrella”—is not a new phenomenon in South Asia. But since 2008, and especially after Pakistan tested a new short-range missile in 2011 and declared it part of a policy of “full spectrum” deterrence, Indian strategists have begun to question more vocally whether New Delhi’s approach to nuclear deterrence should more directly confront this challenge through the induction of TNWs. Nuclear weapons in any nuclear weapon state, barring Pakistan, are today a political tool. So why there is a contrary belief is, least to say, inexplicable. To advocate that deterrence success has been achieved by Pakistan because it was able to indulge in terror activities since 2008 is also to suggest that India’s nuclear weapons were made to deter jihadist-this is quaint! Analogous would be that Pakistan achieved deterrence success over the US since it harboured Osama bin Laden till 2011 or Mullah Omar till 2013!

Pakistan has suggested that the induction of TNWs into its nuclear arsenal is in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine. It must be noted that the Cold Start is a conventional war fighting strategy that aims at overcoming the ponderous mobilization process. Remember, it is a reactive conventional artifice that clutches in, should the need arise to take rapid military action across the border. Its pre-emption does not lie in a nuclear response but in reining in terror activities. For Pakistan to turn to TNWs and varyingly call them “Full spectrum deterrence” or “shoot and scoot” options, one wonders if the lessons of the cold war have sunk home or, where they intend to scoot.

Some scholars question India’s nuclear doctrine as an emerging contest between “policy and strategy”, presumably that is to imply military control over a slice of the nuclear arsenal limited by yield, vector and purpose; that is, provide the military with a limited nuclear war fighting alternative (LNWA). This option, for reasons that have been laboured upon earlier is characterised by the absence of escalatory control, a denial of political oversight and ambiguity between Controller and Custodian of the nuclear arsenal. To the Indian strategic planner there is no such thing as LNWA since the absence of escalatory control negates any notional gains that it may bestow. Retaliation that is either punitive or proportional implies a nuclear war fighting strategy; this is anathema to Indian strategic thought. As far as the correlation of Policy and Strategy is concerned, it remains the influence of policy on military strategy with a clear demarcation between conventional military resources and control over all nuclear forces.

The Perverse Nuclear Chain of Events and Capabilities

The nuclear scenario and the chain of events that currently finds articulation may in essence be outlined as follows: Pakistan promotes a militant strike and in order to counter conventional retaliation uses TNWs and then in order to degrade a massive retaliatory second strike launches a full blown counter force/counter value strike. This is perverse for by this logic even a bolt from the blue strike is in the realm of possibilities and for Pakistan to launch a nuclear strike it does not even need a nuclear adversary at all! The use of nuclear weapons releases restraints on retaliation. It is compelling to note that the Kargil conflict of 1999 was brought to closure because both military and economic pressures were becoming intolerable for Pakistan. Of equal significance is that it did not reach for the nuclear trigger but capitulated.

Western sources have in recent times has been quick to point out that India has either fallen behind in quality, technology or quantity of nuclear weapons. It need hardly be underscored that the 4th and 5th of the 1998 tests were low-yield warheads. India’s nuclear doctrine, NFU policy, minimalistic approach to its arsenal size and the current quest for strategic nuclear stability is more swayed by China than Pakistan. Doubts that have also been cast on the technical capabilities and yields of the nuclear weapon programme based on the words of one disengaged member of the Indian scientific community, these are misplaced.Yields that have been operationalised are far in excess of 25kt, they include thermonuclear devices. Numbers are adequate. The ability to reconstitute to low yield weapons also exists.[3]

Seeking Escalation Dominance

For India to emulate Pakistan’s nuclear policies i.e. FU and TNWs, runs counter to every logic that has so far been propounded. To promote that the solution to nuclear deterrence asymmetry is escalation dominance is not to state the entire theorem, which is, that the corollary is nuclear war fighting, which most scholars agree is a rather flaky concept. LNWA and proportionality of nuclear response are all sub-texts to the same. To transpose conventional strategy on nuclear policy can prove disastrous more so when dealing with a state controlled by its military and intelligence apparatus. Once again the logic of orderly nuclear escalation is fallacious. Deterrence in essence is a mind game that does not brook any logic other than total escalation when confronted by a nuclear strike. The three options before India in response to a TNW strike are LNWA, punitive nuclear strike or doctrinal massive retaliation. The former two may sound reasonable on paper but notions of counter force strikes, flexible response, LNWA etc. do not make sense in the face of total escalation.

A Conclusion: One Answer to Jihadist Aggression

Conventional forces are different by nature from nuclear forces. The former is susceptible to control, escalation, geographic spread, and indeed to economic pressures. The latter is not. Tolerance to conventional forces is the rub; where their limits lie is the question that planners must answer. India’s incentive to keep below the nuclear threshold is as pressing as it is for Pakistan. This is deterrence at play. The conclusion that nuclear weapons do not deter sub-conventional warfare is appropriate. At the same time conventional forces can and do suppress the use of jihadists and if this policy is brought to bear in concert with anti terror polity answers may be found to jihadist violence.



[1] Fair Christine, Fighting to the End, pg 226

[2] Tariq Khosa’s admission of the complicity of organs of the state in launching acts of terrorism in neighbouring countries. It is said that there was an entire rogue ISI and that Gen. Gul, hardliner among hardliners — he said 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy — was its head. For many people he continued being a spymaster. If the regular ISI is a “state within the state”, then the rogue ISI was/is a state within that “state within the state”; a “deeper” state. Nonetheless, after Gen. Gul died on 15 August 2015, there was a spontaneous outpour of praise for him in Pakistan. The Urdu press was unanimous in praising him as a nationalist and patriot; even liberals in the Urdu media, like Nazir Naji of Roznama Dunya, who is unapologetically anti-Taliban, called Gen. Gul a patriot. His funeral was attended by former Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as well as current Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif — who is supposedly against terrorism. It would appear they were mourning the passing of the man who was, more than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ideologue of modern Pakistan, led by its Deep State.

[3] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/1998-nuclear-tests-were-perfect-says-kakodkar/article64687.ece

A Faltering Return to Reason: ‘Global Zero’ Less of an Illusion


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

            Since August of 1945 when two nuclear weapons destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and unimaginable horrors visited over 199,000 of its inhabitants, the world has lived with the implicit fear of widespread annihilation. The Cold War that rapidly shadowed the mass killings of World War II was marked by a persistent threat of a nuclear holocaust, placing in jeopardy the very existence of mankind. The two power blocs, in ‘Strangelovesque’ logic, amassed over 70,000 nuclear warheads, with the fatal knowledge that the use of a nuclear weapon would set into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction. Their arsenals contained enough to destroy the world many, many times over and then again. All the while irrational and often outlandish doctrines of intent-to-use were hatched in the opaque corridors of power in Washington and Kremlin. ‘Nuclear mysticism’ of the period embraced Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), hair trigger arsenals, Launch on Warning (LoW), war-fighting with nuclear weapons, and the idea of flexible response encompassing the prolific use of tactical nuclear weapons, almost as if the resultant escalation could be controlled. Influenced by these very dangerously opposing concepts, the idea was that deterrence would prevail and strategic stability would be the outcome.

The Cold War, in a debilitating conclusion, saw the break up of the Soviet bloc, emergence of a multi-polar world, proliferation of nuclear weapons, emergence of a clandestine nuclear black market and the rise of Islamic radicalism; the aggregate of it all was strategic uncertainty. In this wobbly milieu an international movement was launched in 2008 with the improbable purpose of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Central to the concept is to check the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technologies, account for and secure all fissile material, eradicate the threat of nuclear terrorism and abolish nuclear weapons. Most world leaders including those of the USA, Russia, China, Europe and India have endorsed Global Zero.

The plan envisages achieving a global zero accord by 2023 and complete nuclear disarmament by 2030. Implementation visualizes a four-phased action plan. Phase1 proposed a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia to reduce arsenals to 1000 warheads each. Phase 2 conceives a further reduction of arsenals by the USA and Russia to 500 warheads each, while a multilateral framework called for all other nuclear weapon nations to freeze their stockpiles until 2018 and enjoins them to put in place verifiable safeguards and enforcement systems to prevent diversion of fissile material towards weapon production. Phase 3 requires these nations to negotiate a global zero accord by 2023 for the proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to the zero level. The final Phase is reduction to zero and the continuation of the verification, safeguard and enforcement systems.

Till recently, the problem with the entire scheme was lack of clarity of what measures would need to be put in place, in order to establish a multilateral structure that addresses immediate nuclear risks. These immediate nuclear risks are presented by nations adopting a posture of intent to use nuclear weapons first; absence of transparency in strategic underpinnings; development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and its corollary of decentralizing control; and lastly the hazards of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. During a meeting of the Global Zero Commission in Athens on 30-31 March 2015 a draft report was presented, its aim was to reduce the risks of deliberate or unintended use of nuclear weapons through the instrument of establishing a multilateral norm that de-alerts nuclear forces. Refreshingly encouraging was a suggested paradigm shift from intention-to-use to that of intent-to-avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the Commission, as one of the Indian participants, the author underscored that the nation’s nuclear posture was founded on its declared policy of No First Use (NFU), which formed the basis of operationalizing the arsenal. Intrinsic to its nuclear orientation was the separation of the custodian of nuclear weapons from controller, achieved not just in word, but by robust technological systems supported by stringent procedures and redundancies at every stage. Central to control was supremacy of polity. In this framework there was no room for conflict between operational goals and strategic policy. On matters of hair-trigger state of alert of nuclear forces with intent-to-use, the author suggested that de-alerting of nuclear forces without a commitment to NFU did not in any way assuage the situation since there were no apparent restraints to reverse transition from the de-alerted to the alert stage. The Indian and Chinese NFU posture provided a first step towards stability and the final goal of disarmament. On tactical nuclear weapons, the author was unequivocal on India’s stand of being unwilling to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on grounds that control of escalation was not possible once the weapon was used. The hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons as a real danger, was highlighted, primarily because jihadists are an integral part of Pakistan’s military strategy, making subversion of their nuclear establishment an existential threat. The narrative was rounded off by re-emphasizing that de-alerting of nuclear forces was a natural hand-maiden of a policy of No First Use of these weapons.

Despite the doubts expressed by the Russian participants over the credibility of NFU, what was surprising was the traction that the twin ideas of de-alerting and NFU generated amongst the Commission. Equally surprising was the Japanese reservations of how such a policy would affect extended deterrence, perhaps this was more on account of the inability to see a time when the need for nuclear deterrent forces would be a thing of the past.

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.