A Global Shift in the Nuclear Weapons Narrative

It’s quite fascinating to observe the global conversation on nuclear weapons. It resembles a simple pendulum oscillation with a time period of ten years.

Back in 2009, the then US president pledged to seek an arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and convene a global summit to discuss the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. It was the first time that a US president spoke of a roadmap for nuclear disarmament.

And yet that goal seems even more distant nine years later. An excellent article titled ‘The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo‘ in The Foreign Affairs describes the situation well:

After decades of arms control agreements, security cooperation, and a growing consensus about the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, the world is now headed in the opposite direction. Geopolitical tensions have heightened. New arms races have started. States have reverted to valorizing nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is weakening. But nothing about this is inevitable; it is a choice our leaders have made. Nuclear disarmament will have to be a long-term project. Today’s decision-makers may not be able to complete the task, but they have an obligation to pursue it.

The taboo is vanishing fast. Apart from the usual suspects, the European states have also changed their tones. This excellent paper gives an idea of the possible scenarios in Europe that seem likely as a result of the ongoing churn. While rejecting the idea of a single European deterrent, the paper argues that the following scenarios appear realistic:

  1. In the current context, Paris can consider extending nuclear deterrence to Europe as a whole including rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) to allied bases across Europe.
  2. If the US-Europe relationship worsens further, France can consider these options:
    • base part of its airborne arsenal (say, in the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (basing) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (sharing).
    • replace the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure with an identical European one, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets.
    • create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron based on it.

The fact that such themes are even being discussed seriously in Europe is just another indication of the fact that the NPT regime is falling apart. Consequently, the terms of the debate now need to shift from the ambitious goal of zero nuclear weapons to the more realistic goal of nuclear restraint by a global commitment towards no first use and by taking weapons off high alert to reduce possibilities of accidental use.

The terms of the nuclear weapons debate are definitely up for a change; it would be interesting to see which nation-state will declare itself as the next nuclear power. Any guesses?

 

 

Of Referenda and Loaded Questions

Reading this excellent review essay by Mohammed Hanif, I realised that when you are a dictator and you want a veneer of legitimacy, you can always conduct a referendum. And to be sure of your victory, you can ask an extremely loaded question with a binary choice.

Sample this question that ‘sought endorsement’ for Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation programme in 1984.

Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?

There’s no way that anyone is going to answer a ‘no’ to that question with such a framing. I’m actually surprised that 1.5 percent answered ‘No” to this question. Maybe it was Zia’s men at work lest anyone accuse the referendum of being unfair.

Then Musharraf also held a referendum in 2002 to seek approval for a five-year extension to his rule. Check out how that question was framed:

For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [Great leader – ie Pakistan’s late founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?

Another loaded masterpiece to say the least.

Further reading: An excellent question on why the Brexit referendum question was unsatisfactory.

The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.

 

Fissures Emerge in the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex

Not all’s well with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC). The anti-blasphemy protestors have blocked arterial roads in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi. Led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), they are opposing the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case.

The current showdown — amongst other things — is different in the sense that it threatens the unity of the Pakistani MJC. In our chapter for the Contemporary Handbook of Pakistan 2017, we had argued that there are five factors that keep the MJC afloat. One of the factors was ‘Islam as the ideological refuge’. And it is here that trouble has been brewing now.

The TLP is outdoing the other elements of the MJC in championing the Islamist cause. Having failed in the last elections, they seem to have decided that mobilised violence is their weapon of choice. And this time around, they are leaving no stone unturned. A cleric, Afzal Qadri, speaking to a group of protestors earlier in the week even called for a revolt against the army chief and the putative government. The Pakistani army soon went on the defensive with DG, ISPR issuing a statement that the army had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision. Last time around when the TLP protested in November 2017, the army managed to get the protesters off the streets by throwing money at them. Thus the stakes are much higher now and a similar move will most likely be rejected by the TLP. This means that a showdown within the MJC is likely to take place in the days to come.

PS: It is almost as if Pakistan is hellbent on writing a playbook called Why and How to not be Pakistan.

 

 

CAATSA Implementation Makes US Strategy in Afghanistan Even More Unsustainable

The next chapter in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) saga will unfold on November 5, 2018. On this day, the provisions reimposing sanctions on entities trading with Iran in certain sectors will come into effect.

In India, the primary discussion point has been whether India will receive a significant reduction exemption on November 5. Such an exemption will allow Indian companies to continue importing Iranian oil without coming under ‘menu-based’ sanctions. It is quite likely that India might receive an exemption for both oil imports and for development of the Chabahar port. However that is not the only point of contention for India and the region.

Regardless of the decision on November 5, CAATSA is already closing the door on new solutions for the war in Afghanistan.

First, it increases the costs for Iran and India to collaborate on Afghanistan. We had written last year that not only will the Chabahar port help Afghanistan, the US will have much to gain from a connectivity project for Central Asia which does not have China at its core. But with the threat of secondary sanctions looming, companies at the margin will not invest in any project that involves Iran — why assume the risk of a volatile geopolitical environment which comes at a prospective cost of making business in the US market difficult?

Second, it also closes the door on a Russia – US understanding in Afghanistan. What we often forget is that ouster of the Taliban after 9/11 was made easier by an alignment of interests between US and Russia albeit for a brief period of time. Russia at that time provided critical logistical support from Afghanistan’s north and shared crucial intelligence for US-led coalition forces. CAATSA makes any such arrangement in the future even more unlikely.

Combine these two effects with the fact that the US attempt at talks with the Taliban are making no headways, and what you get is that there are zero new possibilities to end the war in Afghanistan. Only two scenarios remain. One involves the US withdrawing out of Afghanistan completely. The second involves the US returning to its dependence on Pakistan. Both scenarios will leave Afghanistan worse-off.

 

 

A Major Setback in Kandahar

Things just got worse in South Afghanistan. The screenshot below taken from Long War Journal’s Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan project illustrates the significance. The areas marked in dark grey are under Taliban control. Those in red are contested districts. The uncoloured ones are controlled by the Government of Afghanistan. Kandahar city and surrounding districts immediately pop out as islands of government control in Southern Afghanistan. May be not for long anymore.

Image source: Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan, Long War Journal by Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski

The reason is that Lt Gen Abdul Raziq, who was the police chief and the governor of the province was killed on 18 Oct 2018 supposedly by Taliban fighters who had infiltrated his inner circle. Gen Raziq was a major anti-Taliban leader in the South and his death makes Taliban’s complete control of the South imminent.

In many of our previous articles covering Afghanistan, we had mentioned how important Raziq’s role was. This is from 2015:

An unstated tenet of Afghan history is that the march for control of Kabul and the country is predicated on wresting control of Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional base. In recent times though, ever since General Abdul Raziq was appointed police chief of the province, the Taliban have not tasted much success in Kandahar. Raziq has singularly been responsible for the relative peace in the province.

Raziq was no stranger to suicide attacks on his life. Various estimates say that there have been 30-40 attempts on his life before the fatal one. Only in May this year, there was an suicide bombing in front of his house. In his previous speeches, he had singled out the Haqqani Network and ISI for trying to wipe out the military leadership of the province.

It seems unlikely that such an attack could have been arranged without Pakistan’s support. It is also strange that this attack happened while the Taliban leadership is in talks with the US envoy. Moreover, the attack took place in the presence of the US Commander in Afghanistan. Some reports even claim that the main target of this attack were these US military leaders and not Lt Gen Raziq.

This is a big moment for Afghanistan. Even as elections take place on Saturday, the focus will be on what the US decides to do in response.

 

 

 

India’s Defence Production Optimisation Problem

The Caravan has an excellent in-depth story on the Rafale controversy. Beyond the specifics of the current controversy, the investigation throws light on the problems in defence production that continue to haunt India’s strategic ambitions.

On the face of it, defence production suffers from an acute case of what I had referred to earlier as hyper multi-objective optimisation. My argument was that the reason some government policies in India fail is because they try to optimise several objectives simultaneously, ultimately creating a solution that meets none of the objectives.

Now defence procurement is essentially an oligopsony i.e. it is a market where only a few buyers exists — only a few nation-states in the world have the financial muscle to buy 10 submarines or 100 multirole aircraft for example. My argument is that this oligopsony makes the optimisation problem even worse. The government believes that because it has more weight in the market, it has the luxury of optimising many more objectives in the process.

Let us look at what the government is optimising when it sets out to purchase defence equipment today.

  1. defence preparedness: primarily determined by the end users i.e. the armed forces
  2. costs: both explicit and opportunity costs
  3. strategic value: every defence purchase from foreign players raises the question that should we buy from existing trade partners or not
  4. creating an indigenous defence-industrial complex: this is further divided into two sub-goals. One is sustaining the ailing government-owned public sector companies. The second one is spurring investment from private Indian entities.

Now, even without any prior background, optimising all these objectives appears to be a herculean task. But even while India’s procurement processes were notoriously lethargic, new objectives were being added. The fourth objective was explicitly added  through an offset policy in 2005 and more recently through a strategic partnership model in 2016. And quite naturally, it is this fourth objective that has become the main sticking point in the Rafale controversy.

So with the government’s flagship reform failing, we are back to the starting point: what should be the mechanism to address India’s defence requirements? What principles should govern procurement and purchase?

One of the ways to resolve hyper multi-objective dilemmas is withdrawal. The government could let go of the aim to indigenise when it is looking to make a specific defence purchase. Get rid of the offsets policy altogether for a few years. The indigenisation problem should then be targeted at a later point of time. This is just one method. There could be other variations of choosing objectives that can work better but what is clear is that the current method needs a complete and urgent shakeup.

 

 

The Opportunity Cost of Counter-terrorism

Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.

India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.

The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?

To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?

I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.

One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:

The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.

Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal.  On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?

This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.

PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.

 

 

Ambedkar on Equality

These lines from BR Ambedkar from Annihilation of Caste on the concept of Equality, are an absolute must-read.

First, he classifies equality along three dimensions:

Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as the governing principle. A man’s power is dependent upon (1) physical heredity, (2) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything which enables him to be more efficient than the savage, and finally, (3) on his own efforts. In all these three respects men are undoubtedly unequal. But the question is, shall we treat them as unequal because they are unequal ? This is a question which the opponents of equality must answer. From the standpoint of the individualist it may be just to treat men unequally so far as their efforts are unequal. It may be desirable to give as much incentive as possible to the full development of every one’s powers. But what would happen if men were treated unequally as they are, in the first two respects ? It is obvious that those individuals also in whose favour there is birth, education, family name, business connections and inherited wealth would be selected in the race. But selection under such circumstances would not be a selection of the able. It would be the selection of the privileged. The reason therefore, which forces that in the third respect we should treat men unequally demands that in the first two respects we should treat men as equally as possible.

Assuming this three-fold classification of (in)equality, one can deduce what Ambedkar would have said about the contemporary demands for reservation. He would have opposed them as the groups seeking affirmative action are not disadvantaged in the first two respects. If anything, some of these groups have been the most dominant political communities in the states.

Ambedkar then gives a utilitarian reason for why we need to uphold the principle of equality.

On the other hand it can be urged that if it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members, it can get most out of them only by making them equal as far as possible at the very start of the race. That is one reason why we cannot escape equality. But there is another reason why we must accept equality. A Statesman is concerned with vast numbers of people. He has neither the time nor the knowledge to draw fine distinctions and to treat each equitably i.e. according to need or according to capacity. However desirable or reasonable an equitable treatment of men may be, humanity is not capable of assortment and classification. The statesman, therefore, must follow some rough and ready rule and that rough and ready rule is to treat all men alike not because they are alike but because classification and assortment is impossible. The doctrine of equality is glaringly fallacious but taking all in all it is the only way a statesman can proceed in politics which is a severely practical affair and which demands a severely practical test.

Australia and the Logic of Strategy

Edward Luttwak wrote presciently in 2012 that:

Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power.

Perhaps, this logic of strategy is most apparent in Australia’s recent foreign policy conduct. The setting up of a highly classified inquiry on Beijing’s clandestine influence over Australian politics by PM Malcom Turnbull in 2016 was the first sign that Australia is realigning its forces against China. This eventually resulted in a legislation in June 2018 that raises the costs for Australians found to be guilty of batting for foreign powers.

The second visible sign was Australia’s changed perception over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, Australia had withdrawn from discussions in 2008. In 2017, they were strongly back.

Signs three and four are specific to Australia’s engagement with India. Over the past couple of years, Australian federal and state governments have infused new vigour in their India connections. This multi-pronged approach has meant that Australia has even managed to create favourable stakeholders outside the Old New Delhi region. The frequency of visits by Australian state government legislators and policy experts to other cities in India has certainly increased. For example, Bengaluru alone is home to trade offices of Victoria and Queensland. New South Wales and Western Australia have trade offices in Mumbai. And the federal government’s Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has its presence in 10 Indian cities.

The fourth and the latest sign is an India Economic Strategy 2035 document that was released by the Australian government earlier this month. Commissioned by the Turnbull government, the document identifies 90 specific recommendations for increasing Australian presence in India. Not only does it identify the priority sectors, it also identifies the ten states in India that Australian federal and state governments must focus on. The document illustrates both:  foresight of the Australian foreign policy establishment and Luttwak’s logic of strategy.

 

Why Bangladesh Matters: Yet Another Illustration

I have argued earlier that the vacillating nature of India’s neighbours need not overly worry Indian foreign policy makers.

beyond the security domain, there is very little that small states in India’s neighbourhood can do in India’s pursuit of prosperity for its citizens in the immediate future. As we enter a world economy that is getting increasingly protectionist in nature, international trade will become increasingly difficult. Fortunately, India’s big, relatively young, and diverse population means that greater domestic consumption alone can help us maintain high economic growth for the next 10 years or so. Barring Bangladesh, no other Indian neighbour has economic prowess that India cannot substitute domestically. So, in the short run, the economic benefits accruing from small states in the neighbourhood will continue to be marginal. [INI, April 7 2017]

A news report in Business Standard today gives an example for why Bangladesh is an exception.

The value of two-wheeler exports from India to Bangladesh jumped 50 per cent in FY18 to $277 million (Rs 19 billion), making it India’s biggest export market, ahead of Sri Lanka. The value of shipments to Bangladesh has more than doubled since FY16, when it was just $128 million…

Bangladesh is estimated to have exported readymade garments worth $29 billion in the calendar year of 2017. Riding on robust economic growth, the nation’s demand for motorcycles soared 50 per cent in 2017 to an estimated 360,000 units. The high double-digit growth continues in 2018 as well. [Business Standard, 20 Jul 2018]

In essence, India’s relationship with Bangladesh is strategic for multiple reasons. It can directly impact the peace and prosperity of a large number of Indians. The opportunity costs of not having Bangladesh on your side are far higher compared to our other neighbours.

Anticipating the Unintended Consequences of Regulating Cinema Halls

Movie-watching in Indian cinema halls has become a highly politicised commodity. First, a few state governments capped movie price tickets. An unintended yet easily anticipated consequence followed. The prices of complementary goods —  popcorns, soft-drinks, and snacks — rose.

And now, the Maharashtra government has gone one-step ahead. IT also wants to tackle the rise in prices of these complementary goods. The Food and Civil Supplies Minister said this on the floor of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly:

There is no ban on patrons carrying outside food to multiplexes and if the multiplex authorities prohibit it, they could face action.

Not to be outdone, the Karnataka government has said that it will soon follow suit.

I’ll leave the discussion on entitlement and endowment effects for another post. For now, let’s anticipate the unintended consequence of this latest move.

  1. The movie-watching experience can be expected to be less than satisfactory. Movie halls will be littered with homemade food. There will be fights over dietary habits. If the governments go further and cap food and beverages prices as well, theatres will have even lesser avenues to run profitably.
  2. Demand for substitute goods will increase. At the margin, people will decide to choose something else over watching movies at cinema halls. This works well for the likes of Netflix, video pirates, and theatre plays.
  3. Prices of other complementary goods will rise. One can expect an increase in the parking charges at movie theatres or a charge (instead of a refundable return) for the 3D glasses.

In short, I’m not going near a cinema hall anytime soon.