Last week I received a call from a journalist doing background research for an article. The journalist wanted to know whether I thought a nuclear weapon could be used against ISIS. I was admittedly surprised at this question. But apparently the journalist queried me about this issue because others are asking about it as well.
So why not nuke ISIS?
First we must consider why this “alternative” is being considered at all.
Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS controls a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, including two large cities, Raqqa and Mosul. Previously it was thought that nuclear threats would have little or no deterrent effect on terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, as they were itinerant, with no populations under their governance.
But with ISIS the equation has changed; they hold territory and exercise administrative functions within these areas. For instance, Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, has a population of over two hundred thousand; greater Mosul has a population of approximately two million.
They also have the pretention of representing not only a political cause (establishment of an Islamic caliphate), but also a people, namely the Sunnis of Syria/Iraq, many of whom feel disaffected by adverse developments in the region.
Under the assumption that ISIS will only bend to the language of force (attempts at rational persuasion would undoubtedly fail) it could be thought that threatening a nuclear attack – the ultimate force – on ISIS-controlled areas might have a salutary effect.
The prospect of eradication – both of their fighters and the people under their “care” – could motivate the leadership of ISIS to refrain from its more extreme aggressions, such as the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, and the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai. So the argument goes.
It is unlikely, however, that a nuclear deterrent threat would have any credibility in the eyes of ISIS.
Such a threat would be patently immoral. In essence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would die or face unspeakable suffering. ISIS recognizes that Western governments would never openly embrace such immorality. Hence ISIS would judge it an empty threat.
And let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that a nuclear threat could be issued (say by Russia) with an aura of credibility. Issuing such a threat would in all likelihood backfire, because of what Barbara F. Walter has termed ISIS’s “provocation strategy”. “Such a strategy is designed to goad France, Turkey, Russia, and the West into a disproportionate military response that kills innocent Muslims, radicalizing them, and increasing the pool of recruits for ISIS”.
But could a “tactical” nuclear weapon be used against ISIS troop formations in Iraq and Syria? Under this scenario the nuclear weapon would not be employed for its threat value; rather, by one or just a few swift blows the military capability of ISIS would be eradicated.
Indeed, from the time of their invention and first use (at the end of the Second World War) nuclear weapons have held out the promise of a silver bullet. Instead of deploying ground troops in risky battlefield conditions against a nefarious and tenacious adversary – one willing to fight to the death, as testified by the utilization of suicide attacks – the problem can be dealt with from the air, incurring few or no casualties to one’s own troops.
This solution does, however, hinge on a good dose of wishful thinking. ISIS generally avoids massing its troops in concentrated areas. And when they do they take care to place them in urban settings where bombing raids would entail disproportionately high civilian causality rates – especially if nuclear munitions were dropped.
ISIS has devised a fluid leadership structure that facilitates the quick replacement of members killed in action. And they have processes of delegation that permit commanders to operate with considerable autonomy, enabling them to sustain their activities when superiors are eliminated. Consequently even a massive nuclear attack (the largest nuclear bombs can destroy much of human life in a city the size of Los Angeles) would still not “decapitate” the organization’s leadership, which would remain able to direct far-flung attacks by indigenous local commandoes in places such as Paris.
All that massive destruction would be in vain. And the local populations of for instance Raqqa or Falluja would be decimated – hardly qualifying as a humanitarian liberation from their cruel occupiers. Already, reports indicate that French and Russia bombing of Raqqa by conventional means has had little adverse impact on ISIS’s military capability. It is unlikely that increased bombing would have a significantly greater impact, and the civilian casualty rates would rise dramatically. Bombing by non-conventional (nuclear) means would enhance this disproportion (between military gain and harm to civilians) exponentially.
Let us hypothetically suppose that ISIS did concentrate its military personnel in targetable areas, say in the desert, far from population centers or even villages. Could a nuclear weapon be justifiably used under such conditions?
Hardly. The deployment of even a relatively small-sized nuclear warhead, composed mainly of low radiation content (so-called “low yield” munitions) would still result in considerable environmental damage. The spread of radiation by wind currents would be amplified under desert conditions; the radiation would attach to fine-grain sand particles, which would then drift far afield to populated areas, in Mesopotamia and beyond.
Given the devastating environmental impact of any nuclear explosion, it is hard to see what could militate in favor of using such a weapon, especially when other, less environmentally harmful munitions (e.g., a “daisy cutter bomb”), would likely destroy troop formations to very much the same degree.
Proportionality in attack requires that when a selection is made between different weapon types, that weapon should be used which would cause less side-effect harm than the alternatives. Again, under the scenario being considered, it is hard if not impossible to see how a nuclear munition could provide any tactical benefit that would justify its use.
Finally, two additional arguments are relevant here.
First, ISIS has come to be despised – and rightly so – because of its utter disregard for human life. It has visited the worst sort of cruelties on its enemies.
In fighting ISIS we must beware of our own excesses, including those carried out in the name of justice and deserved punishment.
In this connection, it must be acknowledged that nuclear weapons do not only kill; they also cause the worst sort of injury on those who manage to survive the initial blast: horrible burns, slow death by radiation sickness and eventually cancer.
Voices have increasingly called for a ban on these weapons, inter alia because of the unnecessary and cruel harm they bring down on enemy combatants. Use of a nuclear weapon would be akin to poisonous gas which, by international convention, has been prohibited in all battlefield settings.
Second, there has been no wartime use of a nuclear weapon since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For seventy years, and despite the many armed conflicts that have occurred during this period, no country has detonated a nuclear device in any such conflict, even when to do so might have been perceived as advantageous (the US seriously considered using a nuclear weapon during the Korean war, for instance).
A longstanding taboo has arisen, a taboo that has been tacitly observed by all nuclear possessing states. To override this taboo now – even under the allegedly exceptional circumstances of the fight against ISIS – would lower the threshold for any future use. In other words, this would set a dangerous precedent that could prove disastrous in a world like ours where tactical nuclear arsenals are growing in some of the world’s most conflict ridden zones (South Asia most notably).
To nuke ISIS would be utter folly. Let us not go there.
- See my recent report “The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence: A Reassessment,” for more detailed elaboration on the principles discussed above.