Monthly Archives: November 2018

Unwrapping Armageddon: The Erosion of Nuclear Arms Control

Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 6, 2018

 

The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Agreement (INF) appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at unwinding over 50 years of agreements to control and limit nuclear weapons, returning to an era characterized by the unbridled development weapons of mass destruction.

 

Terminating the INF treaty—which bans land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of between 300 and 3400 miles— is not, in and of itself, a fatal blow to the network of treaties and agreements dating back to the 1963 treaty that ended atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. But coupled with other actions—George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and the Obama administration’s program to upgrade the nuclear weapons infrastructure— the tapestry of agreements that has, at least in part, limited these terrifying creations, is looking increasingly frayed.

 

“Leaving the INF,” says Sergey Rogov of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies, “could bring the whole structure of arms control crashing down.”

 

Lynn Rusten, the former senior director for arms control in the National Security Agency Council warns, “This is opening the door to an all-out arms race.”

 

Washington’s rationale for exiting the INF Treaty is that the Russians deployed the 9M729 cruise missile that the US claims violates the agreement, although Moscow denies it and the evidence has not been made public. Russia countercharges that the US ABM system—Aegis Ashore—deployed in Romania and planned for Poland could be used to launch similar medium range missiles.

 

If this were a disagreement over weapon capability, inspections would settle the matter. But the White House—in particular National Security Advisor John Bolton—is less concerned with inspections than extracting the US from agreements that in any way restrain the use of American power, be it military or economic. Thus, Trump dumped the Iran nuclear agreement, not because Iran is building nuclear weapons or violating the agreement, but because the administration wants to use economic sanctions to pursue regime change in Teheran.

 

In some ways, the INF agreement is low hanging fruit. The 1987 treaty banned only land-based medium range missiles, not those launched by sea or air —where the Americans hold a strong edge—and it only covered the U.S. and Russia. Other nuclear-armed countries, particularly China, India, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have deployed a number of medium range nuclear-armed missiles. One of the arguments Bolton makes for exiting the INF is that it would allow the US to counter China’s medium range missiles.

 

But if the concern was controlling intermediate range missiles, the obvious path would be to expand the treaty to other nations and include air and sea launched weapons. Not that that would be easy. China has lots of intermediate range missiles, because most its potential antagonists, like Japan or US bases in Asia, are within the range of such missiles. The same goes for Pakistan, India, and Israel.

 

Intermediate range weapons—sometimes called “theater” missiles—do not threaten the US mainland the way that similar US missiles threaten China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow can be destroyed by long-range intercontinental missiles, but also by theater missiles launched from ships or aircraft. One of the reasons that Europeans are so opposed to withdrawing from the INF is that, in the advent of nuclear war, medium-range missiles on their soil will make them a target.

 

But supposed violations of the treaty is not why Bolton and the people around him oppose the agreement. Bolton called for withdrawing from the INF Treaty three years before the Obama administration charged the Russians with cheating. Indeed, Bolton has opposed every effort to constrain nuclear weapons and has already announced that the Trump administration will not extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) when it expires in 2021.

 

START caps the number of US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons at 1550, no small number.

 

The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty in 2002 was the first major blow to the treaty framework. Anti-ballistic missiles are inherently destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat such systems is to overwhelm them by expanding the number of launchers and warheads. Bolton—a longtime foe of the ABM agreement—recently bragged that dumping the treaty had no effect on arms control.

 

But the treaty’s demise has shelved START talks, and it was the ABM’s deployment in Eastern Europe—along with NATO’s expansion up to the Russian borders—that led to Moscow deploying the cruise missile now in dispute.

 

While Bolton and Trump are more aggressive about terminating agreements, it was the Obama administration’s decision to spend $1.6 trillion to upgrade and modernize US nuclear weapons that now endangers one of the central pillars of the nuclear treaty framework, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

 

That agreement ended the testing of nuclear weapons, slowing the development of new weapons, particularly miniaturization and warheads with minimal yields. The former would allow more warheads on each missile, the latter could increase the possibility of using nuclear weapons without setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange.

 

Nukes are tricky to design, so you don’t want to deploy one without testing it. The Americans have bypassed some of the obstacles created by the CTBT by using computers like the National Ignition Facility. The B-61 Mod 11 warhead, soon-to-be-deployed in Europe, was originally a city killer, but labs at Livermore, CA and Los Alamos and Sandia, NM turned it into a bunker buster, capable of taking out command and control centers buried deep in the ground.

 

Nevertheless, the military and the nuclear establishment—ranging from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Honeywell International to university research centers—have long felt hindered by the CTBT. Add the Trump administration’s hostility to anything that constrains US power and the CTBT may be next on the list.

 

Restarting nuclear testing will end any controls on weapons of mass destruction. And since Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear-armed powers to eventually disarm their weapons of mass destruction, that agreement may go as well. In a very short time countries like South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia will join the nuclear club, with South Africa and Brazil in the wings. The latter two countries researched producing nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and South Africa actually tested one.

 

The demise of the INF agreement will edge the world closer to nuclear war. Since medium range missiles shorten the warning time for a nuclear attack from 30 minutes to 10 minutes or less, countries will keep their weapons on a hair trigger. “Use them or lose them” is the philosophy that impels the tactics of nuclear war.

 

In the past year, Russia and NATO held very large military exercises on one another’s borders. Russian, US and Chinese fighter planes routinely play games of chicken. What happens when one of those “games” goes wrong?

The US and the Soviet Union came within minutes of an accidental war on at least two occasions, and, with so many actors and so many weapons, it will be only a matter of time before some country interprets a radar image incorrectly and goes to DEFCON 1—imminent nuclear war.

 

The INF Treaty came about because of strong opposition and huge demonstrations in Europe and the United States. That kind of pressure, coupled with a pledge by countries not to deploy such weapons, will be required again, lest the entire tapestry of agreements that kept the horror of nuclear war at bay vanish.

 

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Afghanistan: Peace at hand?

Afghanistan: Is Peace At Hand?

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 26, 2028

 

 

The news that the Americans recently held face-to-face talks with the Taliban suggests that longest war in US history may have reached a turning point, although the road to such a peace is long, rocky and plagued with as many improvised explosive devices as the highway from Kandahar to Kabul.

 

That the 17-year old war has reached a tipping point seems clear. The Taliban now controls more territory than they have since the American invasion in 2001. Causalities among Afghan forces are at an all time high, while recruitment is rapidly drying up. In spite of last year’s mini-surge of US troops and airpower by the Trump administration, the situation on the ground is worse now than in was in 2017. If any one statement sums up the hopelessness—and cluelessness—of the whole endeavor, it was former Secretary of State’s challenge to the Taliban: “You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”

 

Of course, like any successful insurgency, the Taliban never intended to “win a battlefield victory,” only not to lose, thus forcing a stalemate that would eventually exhaust their opponents. Clearly the lessons of the Vietnam War are not part of the standard curriculum at Foggy Bottom.

 

Why things have gone from bad to worse for the US/NATO occupation and the Kabul government has less to do with the war itself than a sea change in strategy by the Taliban, a course shift that Washington has either missed or ignored. According to Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, the Taliban shifted gears in 2015, instituting a program of winning hearts and minds.

 

The author of the new strategy was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who took over the organization following the death of founder Mullah Omar in 2013. Instead of burning schools, they staff them. Instead of attacking government soldiers and police, they strike up informal cease-fires, even taking turns manning checkpoints. They set up courts that are not tainted by corruption, collect taxes and provide health services.

 

Mansour also made efforts to expand the Taliban from its Pashtun base to include Tajiks and Uzbeks. According to Jackson, both ethnic groups—generally based in northern Afghanistan—have been appointed to the Taliban’s leadership council, the Rahbari Shura.

 

Afghanistan’s main ethnic divisions consists of 40 percent Pashtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 10 percent Hazara and 10 Uzbeks.

 

It is not clear how much of the country the Taliban controls. NATO claims the group dominates only 14 percent of the country, while the Kabul government controls 56 percent. But other analysts say the figure for Taliban control is closer to 50 percent, and a BBC study found that the insurgents were active in 70 percent of the country.

 

Jackson says the “Taliban strategy defies zero-sum notions of control” in any case, with cities and district centers under government authority, surrounded by the Taliban. “An hour’s drive in any direction from Kabul will put you in Taliban territory.”

 

Taliban leaders tell Jackson that the group is looking for a peace deal not a battlefield victory, and the new approach of governance seems to reflect that. That is not to suggest that the group has somehow gone pacifist, as a quick glance at newspaper headlines for October makes clear: “Taliban assassinate Afghan police chief,” Taliban attack kills 17 soldiers,” “On 17th anniversary of U.S. invasion 54 are killed across Afghanistan.”

 

The Taliban are not the centralized organization that they were during the 2001 U.S./NATO invasion. The US targeted Taliban primary and secondary leaders—Mansour was killed by an American drone strike in 2016—and the group’s policies may vary from place to place depending who is in charge.

 

In Helmand in the south, where the Taliban control 85 percent of the province, the group cut a deal with the local government to open schools and protect the staff. Some 33 schools have been re-opened.

 

In many ways there is an alignment of stars right now, because most of the major players inside and outside of Afghanistan have some common interests. The problem is that the Trump administration sees some of those players as competitors, if not outright opponents.

 

The Afghans are exhausted, and one sign of that is how easy it has been for Taliban and local government officials to work together. While the Taliban can still overrun checkpoints and small bases, US firepower makes taking cities prohibitively expensive. At the same time the US has dialed down its counterinsurgency strategy, and, along with government forces, redeployed to defend urban areas.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government also have a common enemy, the Islamic State (IS), which, while not a major player yet, is expanding. The growth of the IS and other Islamic insurgent groups is a major concern for other countries in the region, in particular those that share a border with Afghanistan: Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan.

 

But this is where things get tricky and where no alignment of stars may be able to bring all these countries into convergence.

 

Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia are already conferring on joint strategies to bring the Afghan war to a conclusion and deepen regional cooperation around confronting terrorism. China is concerned with separatists and Islamic insurgents in its western provinces. Russia is worried about the spread of the IS into the Caucuses region. Iran is fighting separatists on its southern border, and Pakistan is warring with the IS and its home-grown Taliban. And none of these countries are comfortable with the US on their borders,

 

Russia, China and Pakistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Iran has applied to join. The SCO consults on issues around trade and energy, but also security. While India is also a member, its relationship to Afghanistan is colored by its competition with Pakistan and China. New Delhi has border issues with China and has fought three wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, but it, too, is worried about terrorism.

 

All of these countries have been discussing what to do about ending the war and getting a handle on regional terrorism.

 

A path to end the war might look like this:

 

First, a ceasefire in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Kabul government and a pull back of American troops. The argument that if the US withdrew, the Kabul government would collapse and the Taliban take over as they did during the civil war in 1998 is really no longer valid. Things are very different locally, regionally and internationally than they were two decades ago.

 

The Taliban and the Kabul government know neither can defeat the other, and the regional players want an end to a war that fuels the kind of terrorism that keeps them all up at night.

 

The SCO could agree to guarantee the ceasefire, and, under the auspices of the United Nations, arrange for peace talks. In part this is already underway since the Americans are talking to the Taliban, although Washington raised some hackles in Kabul by doing so in secret. Transparency in these negotiations is essential.

 

One incentive would be a hefty aid and reconstruction package.

 

There are a number of thorny issues. What about the constitution? The Taliban had no say in drawing it up and are unlikely to accept it as it is. What about women’s right to education and employment? The Taliban say they now support these, but that hasn’t always been the case in areas where the group dominates.

 

All this will require the cooperation of the Trump administration, and there’s the rub.

 

If one can believe Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” Trump wants out and the US military and the CIA are trying to cut their losses. As one CIA official told Woodward, Afghanistan is not just the grave of empires, it’s the grave of careers.

 

However, Washington has all but declared war on Iran, is in hostile standoffs with Russia and China, and recently cut military aid to Pakistan for being “soft of terrorism.” In short, landmines and ambushes riddle the political landscape.

 

But the stars are in alignment if each player acts in its own self-interest to bring an end to the bloodshed and horrors this war has visited on the Afghan people.

 

If all this falls apart, however, next year will have a grim marker: some young Marine will step on a pressure plate in a tiny rural hamlet, or get ambushed in a rocky pass, and come home in an aluminum casket from a war that began before he or she was born.

 

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