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.

The Islamic State Caliphate: A Mirage of Resurrection

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: ISIS, ISIS funding, Ummayad Caliphate, Toynbee, South Asia Nuclear Stability

The Universal State: The Last-Gasp Opportunism of Power
Belief in the immortality of a ‘Universal State’ has in history periodically evoked those very ghosts that had established the State’s mortality causing their decay and expiry. The fall of the Ummayad Caliphate in Damascus at the hands of the Abbasids, only for the former to supplant itself on the Iberian peninsula and draw roots in Cordoba; the Abbasid Caliphates shock overthrow when Baghdad fell to the Mongols was resuscitated in the Fatamids Caliphs of Tunisia and the rise of the Ottoman Empire under whose suzerainty the Caliphate survived till its death at the hands of westernization are illustrative of the degeneration, reinvention and last-gasp opportunism of power.

The Flawed Revelation
While this selection has been uncovered from Islamic history, the truth is equally appropriate to other civilizations. To our study it is the causes of this rhythmic phenomenon that is of greater significance, even as our focus remains on the idea of the Caliphate. The first manifest reason is the ideological imprint that the founders of the Islamic Universal State cast on its adherents as contemporary historical truth was imposed on an overwhelming religious legend. The second branch of the root lay in the genius and impressiveness of its leaders. Lastly, the fact that the inspiration of the Universal State was built around past glories captivates the heart and minds as it embodies a rally from the rout of a ‘time of troubles’ (Toynbee, A Study of History). The universality of the state was therefore not just a geographical idea or a final impulse to brazen out decay of a civilisation but more a flawed revelation in the minds of the faithful.
The current turmoil in West Asia may be traced to the aberrant imposition of a Western order in the aftermath of the defeat and collapse of the Ottomans and the eventual denial of the idea of a Caliphate by its leadership. The Caliphate, which had lost its religious and civilizational magnetism, was substituted by a mosaic of states that was mandated more by the promise of colonial influence and economic profit. This led to a situation when the underlying antagonism and economic dispossession have erupted in aggression and a yearning for a return to the Universal State.

Disruptive Nature of the Islamic State
The Islamic State (IS, varyingly called the ISIS or the ISIL) has swept from Syria into Iraq in a maelstrom of destruction and has in a short but bloody campaign laid waste to the northern third of Iraq. No political Islam or civilizational impulse here, just rabid intolerance. In its wake it has disrupted the correlation of political forces in the region as the US seek a quick blocking entente with Iran; Syria sees in the situation an opportunity to settle scores with the insurgency raging within; Shia organisations find common cause to offset the IS; Sunni States carry a cloaked bias towards the IS to the extent that a recent New York Times report suggests funding by Turkey, Saudi and Qatar; terrorist organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan welcome the new leadership that has displaced al-Qaeda and Kurdistan has been catapulted to the forefront of opposition to the IS.

Distressing Probability of Nuclear Reach
As the fanatical outburst of xenophobia stretches south and eastward the IS’ influence will in due course manifest in the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan today, as many perceptive analysts have noted, represents a very dangerous condition as its establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the IS into the sub-continent underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. The impending withdrawal of US forces from the region will only serve to catalyse such a calamitous scenario.

Sustaining the Richest Terrorist Group
Ideologically the IS is driven by little other than a deep rooted malevolence (towards the US in particular) for the near quarter century of armed turmoil and sectarian carnage that has visited the region without near term hopes for restoration. The fallout has been a demonizing of plurality and a fierce rejection of modernity. Resurgence of the banished Iraqi Republican Guard has provided muscle to the movement and the revival of the Baathist faction infused a much needed organisational framework to the IS. The feeble capitulation of the 350,000 US trained Iraqi security forces stands testimony to the vigour of the enterprise. The seizure of over 400,000 pieces of small arms, artillery munitions, the pillaging of USD $430 million from the Central Bank of Mosul and the creation of a self sustaining financial flow to fuel the movement would suggest the work of trained minds and the organisational precision of professionals; besides it also makes the IS the richest militant group in West Asia.
Timing of the fierce advent of the IS and its leadership of the movement to establish a new Caliphate is distinctly ominous. The West in a state of economic exhaustion, militarily fatigued, geo-politically starved of ideas and facing the prospects of a world order being put in disarray by a revisionist China; neither has the stomach nor the resolve to block the onslaught. The only check on the abuse of unconventional and maleficent power has always consisted in opposition by an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming a league of defence; unfortunately such an alliance has not been formed.

Conclusion: Development of a Strategy
When Toynbee suggested the emergence of a Universal State he saw in it disintegration of a civilization as it encountered disastrous ‘time of troubles’, such as wars within and without followed by the establishment of a universal state-an empire in the throes of decay. Ultimately the universal state collapses. The menacing feature of the Islamic State is that the end of a ruinous historical rhythm is synchronised today with the draw down of an external enforcing dynamic and the intolerable availability of weapons of mass destruction.
In such circumstances the prognosis can only be a universal catastrophe unless a three pronged strategy is put in place:
• Firstly arrest the rampage of the IS by a coalition of regional forces under UN aegis.
• Secondly, choke the money flow both from patron States and the IS’ financial dealings by targeting beneficiaries.
• Thirdly, deny access to weapons of mass destruction through rigorous guardianship of known sources.