The past tempts us, the present confuses us and the future frightens us

The title of this blog came from a quote from beloved Science Fiction series, Babylon 5 (Ep. 1, Disk 3, Season 2, the line spoken by an ailing Centauri Emperor) and was deemed appropriate to the subject matter at hand.

“President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he is sending 450 more military advisers to Iraq highlights the central dilemma of his faltering strategy there: how to shore up the country’s fragile government without being pulled into a war he never wanted” (G Jaffe & M. Ryan, Washington Post, June 10, 2015)

America’s reaction to 9/11 was swift and for Afghanistan and Iraq – catastrophic. Both countries were invaded and occupied by US-led international coalitions. Their invasion put neighbouring countries on notice. The message was clear. In the case of Afghanistan – let no country harbour or in any way give support to terrorist organisations; in the case of Iraq – let no country think it can outfox or be continuously provocative to American interests. For the United States, these messages came at a huge cost. Thousands of dead and injured service personnel. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on nation building projects that did not have the anticipated positive impact. The result? International criticism of American motives for these wars. Afghanistan did not stabilise and coalesce to become a safe and progressive country. The Taliban still holds sway over a significant part of Afghanistan (the Pashtu south/southeast), while Kabul’s political leadership struggles with ethnic, tribal and clan factionalism. In Iraq, the end of the Hussein regime brought about sectarian war, the rise of ISIL due to Sunni Iraqi disenfranchisement and the political and social rise of the long oppressed Iraqi Shia majority under-class, supported by the imperial ambitions of Iran. America’s reaction to 9/11 unleashed horror and confusion on local Afghanis and Iraqis. In Afghanistan, the enemy, the Taliban, were pushed out of Kabul and cornered in the Pashtu lands, but not defeated. If the measure of war is to ensure a decisive peace – Afghanistan was a failure. Similarly in Iraq, no peace was won. Indeed in Iraq new enemies were created, adding to that country’s volatile mix of ethnic and sectarian conflict. Minus a strong Baghdad, only Tehran has the will to step in and fight ISIL and consolidate its hold over Iraq’s Shia political elite. The US is war weary for now. It is also going through the ritual of finding a new President. Assuming a hawk were to enter the Oval Office (unlike the current political leadership), how would a new hawkish president react to another event like 9/11, especially one where a non-state actor were to successfully detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ or a significant chemical weapon? It is likely that the public mood for vengeance would be high. But would it be high enough to tempt the Pentagon into another war, occupation and counterinsurgency? Unlikely. Surgical ‘conventional’ cruise missile and stealth bomber strikes? Unsatisfactory. A series of Special Force raids to capture the head of the guilty non-state actor? Considering the long search for Bin Laden, not an attractive option. As none of the traditional methods for dealing with America’s enemies would be considered timely, decisive or effective enough, we are left to contemplate the unthinkable, that is, using the long ignored and feared tactical nuclear weapon. The destruction of Raqqah, a city of some 220,000 people by a low-yield W-80-1 armed cruise missile or a B-2 delivered B61/83 free fall gravity bomb would certainly shock the world. But if taken as a pure statistical analysis – the cost in terms of lives lost, property destruction, other casualties sustained and munitions expended, this type of military action would be far more effective and affordable than a conventional military intervention, forcible regime change, and protracted ‘training’ programs for identified and unreliable local proxy forces. The destruction would be highly concentrated in one area (e.g. Raqqah). ISIL headquarters would cease to exist. Of course, such a scenario is presently unthinkable, but in a world of disorder where populations are becoming apathetic to organised violence by state and non-state actors, where forces at the non-state actor level are becoming more emboldened and enabled owing to the proliferation of miniaturised, easily accessible dual-use technologies, there will come a time when one of the world’s nuclear powers will consider its options.

While such a radical strategic re-thinking is no where near reality, the fact that the US, still the most powerful country on Earth, has gone from wrecker of nations to meek, vacillating and passive-aggressive, shows that the Washington beltway is bereft of ideas on how to restore American power. Just like the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki punctuated US dominance of the post World War II order, the destruction of an out of the way ‘terrorist capital’ might well serve as a reminder to the international community – state and non-state actors alike – that the days of US dominance are not at an end. But it would take a set of extraordinary circumstances and an extremely hawkish and brave president to contemplate the use of ‘limited tactical nuclear war’ as an instrument of American strategic policy. And how would the key powers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – the Russian Federation and China view such a development? Would this set a precedent for the Israeli use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Middle East? To paraphrase Isaac Newton’s oft quoted phrase: “to every action there is always an equal and opposite or contrary, reaction”. Nonetheless in a more complex international setting, all cards must be placed on the table and all possibilities discussed so as not to continually repeat the mistakes of the past.

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