On the eve

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 October 2001

In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, the focus of concern is Afghanistan, and the challenge to its Taleban regime. But it seems certain that the ‘war on terrorism’ will have implications for the wider region, where a number of strategic tensions are unresolved: among them, conflict over Iraq, the Israel-Palestine struggle, the uncertain stability of the post-Soviet central Asian republics, and the competing India-Pakistan claims over Kashmir. The militancy of radical Islamic groups and ideas is a factor in several of these developing conflicts.

As events in Afghanistan develop and reverberate, Paul Rogers will analyse them with a combination of immediacy and broader overview. Here, in his first article, he views the current crisis in relation to the messy aftermath of the 1990-1 war with Iraq, and the continual threat of the escalation of weaponry in the region.

The current crisis and Iraq

The attacks of 11 September represented the worst loss of life in any military or paramilitary incident since Nagasaki. The US military response is likely to result in the destruction of the current regime in Kabul and may extend into Iraq.

Since the withdrawal of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) more than three years ago, Iraq has not been subject to the inspection of its chemical and biological weapon (CBW) and missile programmes. It should be assumed that there has been considerable activity by the Baghdad regime in this regard. There are some significant aspects of the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war, many of which only entered the public domain some years later, which need to be taken into account.

Iraqi capability

Following the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear research reactor in 1981, the Iraqi regime engaged in a multifaceted and dispersed programme of producing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (1). Particular emphasis was placed on biological agent developments in the late 1980s, and weaponisation of several alongside nerve agents, was under way towards the end of the decade.

Between August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the onset of Desert Storm in January 1991, the regime instigated the emergency completion of a limited capability for medium range offensive action with chemical and biological warfare agents. This resulted in the deployment of a force of missiles and bombs to four remote locations in Iraq. One hundred and sixty-six bombs were completed: one hundred filled with botulinum toxin, fifty with anthrax and sixteen with aflatoxin. Twenty-five Al Hussein missiles were deployed, thirteen armed with warheads containing botulinum, ten with anthrax and two with aflatoxin (see the 1995 report from the UN Special Commissioner on Iraq).

These, together with a number of chemical warheads, were intended for use in the event of the destruction of the regime, possibly through the destruction of Baghdad by nuclear weapons during the Gulf War. This could have resulted from an unforeseen escalation of the war, possibly involving Israeli action in response to Scud missile attacks.

Authority to launch the missiles was pre-delegated from Baghdad to regional commanders, an extraordinarily risky decision, giving rise to the possibility of unauthorised use of weapons of mass destruction during a fast-moving and, for the Iraqis, chaotic and increasingly disastrous military confrontation.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this deployment is that the US intelligence community was aware of the major features of the Iraqi biological weapons programme, including the assessment that the Iraqis were likely to use weapons of mass destruction if the survival of the regime was threatened. This was the subject of a National Intelligence Estimate prepared in November 1990, three months after the invasion of Kuwait and two months before the onset of Desert Storm (which was mistakenly put into the public domain by the CIA in 1996).

It is relevant that coalition forces did not seek to destroy the Iraqi regime in March 1991. While motives for this restraint included risk of coalition casualties and concern over the political dismemberment of Iraq, there are unofficial indications that the fear of an escalation to weapons of mass destruction use was also of concern.

UNSCOM investigations, especially during the period 1995 to 1998, established the extent of the remarkably large Iraqi biological weapons programme, and it would be foolish to exclude an analysis that concludes that chemical and biological weapons production has been significant since the cessation of UN inspections three years ago. Given that regime survival is the ultimate motivation of Iraqi regime policy, it should be anticipated that chemical and biological weapons systems would be used if there was an attempt to destroy the regime.

The problem, in the current context, is not such an action; the United States is not putting into the region the massive ground forces to accomplish such an act, and the Saudi authorities would be opposed to any such attempt. The problem comes from the risk of unforeseen escalation giving rise to a conflict that cannot be controlled.

War games and military options

The unexpected outcome of the Global 95 Wargame at the US Naval War College in July 1995, which was designed to explore the development of a major crisis, is relevant here. These large theoretical exercises use personnel from all the armed forces, intelligence agencies and civilian departments to create a detailed assessment of possible conflicts, and Global 95 was based on two simultaneous crises in Korea and the Persian Gulf.

In the exercise, the Korean crisis was terminated with difficulty. But the Gulf conflict, involving a resurgent Iraq, escalated to the point where Iraq used biological weapons to devastating effect against military forces and civilians in the region. The United States responded with a nuclear attack on Baghdad, ending the war.

The development and outcome of Global 95 was reported in some detail at the time in Defense News, in a Washington-based defence journal:

The United States has virtually no response to the use of such potentially devastating weapons other than threatening to use nuclear weapons, a Joint Staff official said on 22 August. But it is unclear whether even nuclear weapons would provide a deterrent, unless the US was willing to take the difficult moral step of destroying a city, he said. On the other hand, if the United States did launch a nuclear attack in response, “no country would use those weapons for the next 100 years,” the official said.

Such a view is wrong – a more likely outcome would be paramilitary attacks on United States cities that would be far more devastating than 11 September. But the point of the Global 95 experience is that the escalation was unexpected and apparently not subject to control.

At the time of writing, US military options appear directed against forces in Afghanistan. While there remains a possibility that action will be taken against Iraq, it is more likely that any conflict with the Saddam Hussein regime will develop from incitements from that regime. The problem for the United States and its allies is that the 11 September attacks stem from a region of extraordinarily complex politics in which escalation to a regional conflict must be considered possible.

Given that at least four states in the region have weapons of mass destruction (Israel, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan), great caution should be exercised in attempting to resolve the crisis. Instability, unforeseen consequences and potential escalation are more probable with higher levels of military activity.

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