Editor’s Note: Both the United States and its adversaries back proxies around the world to advance their interests. Often the goal is to achieve important policy objectives yet avoid the costs, human and political, of outright war. Tyrone Groh, a professor at Embry-Riddle and a retired Air Force officer, argues that the supposed costlessness of proxy wars is deceptive. Too often proxies ignore their sponsors, and sponsors must invest heavily in maintaining control.
As a tool of statecraft, proxy wars provide the means for all states, not just the great powers, to engage in foreign interventions. Proxies provide means and access as well as secrecy or plausible deniability. Proxy wars are interventions in which a foreign state supports an indigenous actor to influence political outcomes in a country or region. Support for proxies can be either material (weapons, intelligence, supplies) or immaterial (training, advising, politically advocating for the cause). Violence is an important part of the policy.
Supporting proxies serves at least four different categories of interests. Proxy wars may serve as a means to win, such as the U.S. effort to unseat the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua—Washington maintained its primacy in the Western Hemisphere by backing the Contras. Sometimes, proxy wars are just about maintaining the status quo. Iran’s support of Hezbollah has not been about gaining control of Lebanon but, instead, continues to contest Israel’s dominance in the region. Proxy wars could also provide the means to meddle—to probe weaknesses in an unfriendly state with the hopes of sparking a desired change. The United States and NATO provided air power (gathering intelligence as well as bombing regime forces) to assist anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya in 2011 based on their stated “responsibility to protect” rather than a policy of regime change. Finally, Pakistan’s support of Pashtun and Tajik militias in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation was not about winning but, instead, was about maintaining sufficient chaos to prevent the consolidation of power and central authority in Pakistan’s western neighbor. Islamabad continues this practice in the hopes of denying India the anvil needed to hammer Pakistan into submission.
Proxy war involves significant trade-offs and risks. One trade-off is between control and deniability. The more overtly the intervening state is involved, the greater the control over the proxy and the more coherent the policy. However, overt support increases both scrutiny and the odds of counterintervention. South Africa’s proxy intervention in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s struggled against the violent and effective counterintervention of Cuba. Support that is deniable or covert means less control and coherence. The intervening state’s policy becomes shackled to the behavior of its proxy, and the policy risks losing its way. Israel’s proxy intervention in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s created a domestic outcry when its proxy massacred 400 Palestinians in refugee camps. Israel’s government, suffering domestic and international blowback, immediately terminated its relationship with the proxy and lost a significant means to affect the political situation in Lebanon.
Proxy wars become particularly alluring when national security threats fail to warrant the costs associated with direct intervention yet still demand some type of response. In such cases, both direct intervention and nonintervention become bad options. If an indigenous group appears willing to cooperate with the foreign policy objectives of a would-be intervener, proxy war may become the least bad option—a policy between direct intervention and nonintervention that appears to mitigate many of the undesired costs. The Houthis in Yemen have given Iran a cheap way to exert influence on the Arabian peninsula without triggering an all-out retaliation from Saudi Arabia or the United States.
Finding a proxy that can fight is important, but the utility of supporting a proxy does not come solely from the proxy’s prowess in combat. Surprisingly, the usefulness of proxy war comes more from the intervening state’s ability to control its proxy and keep it focused on accomplishing the desired policy objectives. Proxies do not wish to be subservient; they accept foreign support out of necessity. Typically, objectives align only in the short term and the choices made early in the conflict create points of tension later.
When the United States needed a ready-made ground force to unseat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after 9/11, Washington paired the Northern Alliance with U.S. air power and special operations forces. The Northern Alliance provided a capability that allowed the United States to avoid the expense and exposure of deploying a sizable U.S. force, conserved its equipment and manpower, and prevented Washington from having to expend an enormous amount of political capital to carve out a staging area for its forces. Although the fighting got off to a slow start, the Taliban quickly fell to the combined forces of the United States, its NATO allies and the Northern Alliance. As a result, the American people and the international community remained overwhelmingly supportive of Washington’s policy.
The quick victory over the Taliban, however, also brought some unexpected costs that stem directly from using a proxy instead of U.S. forces. First, the United States overestimated the loyalty and ability of Northern Alliance soldiers. Al-Qaeda leaders slipped through Northern Alliance positions, spoiling U.S. hopes of capturing Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. Second, factional leaders of the Northern Alliance reestablished their fiefdoms shortly after the Taliban had been removed from power. U.S. desire for a strong central government that could deny sanctuary to transnational terrorist networks remains an elusive goal because the United States gave these leaders the material resources necessary to resist Kabul’s authority. Third, the United States faced a significant challenge in bringing an ethnically fragmented Afghanistan under the control of a predominantly non-Pashtun government because the Northern Alliance itself was dominated by non-Pashtun communities. Although the Taliban proved remarkably easy to remove from power, the United States found itself drawn deeper into the conflict.
Direct intervention provides a much higher level of control over the violence used. Obviously, training makes a state’s forces more capable. Controlling the use of violence, however, comes from discipline and doctrine. Discipline allows a state the ability to implement rules of engagement (ROEs) that temper the use of violence in ways that sustain operational and strategic coherence in the policy, even at the expense of tactical expedience. Military doctrine is a combination of best practices, lessons learned, and prescribed processes for planning and executing operations, both violent and nonviolent. Although any armed conflict brings complications from both fog and friction, doctrine provides a higher level of transparency and predictability—two things that aid in maintaining control over military operations. Direct interventions with more disciplined troops carry the exorbitant costs associated with force protection measures such as bases with secure perimeters and expensive logistical tails that require steady airlift support. In addition, direct interventions require negotiations to acquire forward operating locations and status of forces agreements—both of which are potentially cost prohibitive in terms of political expense. Covert or clandestine action offers potential solutions to mitigate associated costs, but the blowback that accompanies complications during those types of operations often brings unwanted press and scrutiny—as happened when the deaths of four special operators in Niger in 2017 raised red flags to the American public and Congress regarding U.S. counterterrorism efforts abroad.
Proxy intervention does offer a “something in between” policy, but it always comes with baggage. On the surface, a capable proxy that can fight well and requires little support seems to provide the most benefit; the more capable the proxy, the lower the cost and the more insulated the intervening state remains from domestic or international scrutiny. In this respect, a proxy’s independence is desirable but only in a limited way. Any support that involves arming, training and advising proxy forces struggles with control (making sure that the proxy does what has been asked). Control is so important that intervening states must seek to cultivate it. Intervening states are more effective when they strive to make a proxy completely dependent on their support. Any source of external support, outside the connection between the intervening state and its proxy, provides an opportunity to pursue objectives that may run counter to the patron’s policy objectives. Control is also important because a state’s ability to intervene depends on the proxy’s ability to endure. The intervener must manage the proxy’s attrition and mitigate its ability to overreach. Ambitious oversteps by a proxy can hamper political gains and reduce the possibility for successful negotiations, especially when the proxy does not want a bargain but the intervening state does. Lastly, an intervening state can lose control because it fails to truly understand its proxy. Proxies, like states, have good reasons to hide information or intentions from would-be benefactors. A more granular understanding of the proxy can help states focus efforts to control the proxy more efficiently and effectively.
Despite perceptions, proxy war is not a cheap means of intervention. Yes, the price tag may be lower than with direct intervention, but states are not private businesses. Profits and bottom lines do not always determine policy options. States must make choices, and national security concerns below the threshold of direct intervention are more like a balancing act—making gains in security weighed against sustaining reputation and support from domestic and international audiences. The steps required to ensure control over a proxy do not reflect a partnership; they require states to limit their proxies’ choices to only those objectives that align with the intervening state’s objectives.
Proxies, when available, do offer foreign states an in-between option, and under the right conditions states can use them to their advantage. This is true of U.S. policy in Syria. Supporting Kurdish militias in Syria continues to thwart Bashar Assad’s efforts to consolidate power and has the added benefit of forcing Russia to sustain its support of the despotic regime in order to keep its strategic port in Tartus. U.S. support of the Kurds, however, further strains relations between Washington and Ankara. Like most proxy wars, the United States will have to temper its assistance, in this case its political support, as the Kurds will likely continue to push for an independent Kurdish state and greater rights in the region. Proxy wars may fit the bill when there are no good options, but they are never uncomplicated or cheap.