April 24, 2022

The Immorality of Proxy Warfare


Afghanistan is a modern victim of proxy warfare between great and not so great powers.

The history of proxy warfare is tied up with the rise and fall of empires. 

The Arab warriors who coalesced to form Islam and overthrow the Byzantine and Sasanian empires in the 7th century were seen as controllable proxies for generations, but over time they developed other ideas. And their successful example is the most extreme, but there are many others throughout history, including more recent ones. 

So the view that proxies are just tools of empire who have no ambitions of their own, or lack the power or long-term strategic thinking to pursue them, is not borne out by history. 

It is the hubris of great powers to think they can manipulate events and peoples far beyond their domain for long stretches of time. Eventually history catches up. The pawn becomes the king. And flipping over the chessboard won't stop the momentum of historical change. 

Some proxy sponsors, being more clever and capable than others, can retain the services of the newly minted kings, but the nature of the relationship is changed permanently. With new powers comes new ambitions. 

Pakistan's army will soon learn that controlling the Taliban was far easier before it was given a state, however poor and dysfunctional it may be. They were better off leaving the local crooks in charge.

And the Europeans will find that nurturing the vipers in Ukraine against Russia at the behest of Washington and London will only bring them pain.


An excerpt from, "The Moral Hazard of Proxy Warfare" By Adam Elkus, War On The Rocks, October 14, 2015:

Proxies also create perverse incentives for U.S. decision-making concerning intervention abroad. They are cheap, flexible, scalable, and above all else expendable. Because a dead foreign proxy will never come home to the United States in a star-spangled coffin, the United States can engage in adventurism of questionable direction and value. A far older mess with proxies, the Bay of Pigs, nearly triggered nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The broadening of the Vietnam War into a struggle that destabilized the whole of Indochina was possible due to the ease with which the United States raised armies of proxies that could act as foot soldiers in the expansion of an ultimately futile war. The White House’s petulant response to criticism of the Syrian train-and-equip program suggests a lot about the problematic incentives that proxies present to American national security policymakers.

In blaming political opponents for supposedly forcing it to train a Syrian opposition army, the White House unintentionally revealed its Syrian decision calculus. The White House claims it invested in the Syrian train-and-equip program, in other words, in large part because it wanted to deflect potential criticism from domestic hawks. There are a lot of valid reasons for supplying weapons, training, and large sums of money to a Middle Eastern group of militants. It should go without saying that getting political opponents off your back is not one of them. If, indeed, this was one of the core drivers of the U.S. effort to back Syrian rebels then we should not be surprised that it has turned out to be a bloody disaster.

An excerpt from, "Proxy War Ethics" By C. Anthony Pfaff, Journal of National Security Law & Policy:

Proxy wars are, of course, nothing new. Neither is wrestling with moral concerns that are unique to them. In its first military excursion beyond the Italian peninsula, Rome struggled with whether to provide support to the Mamertines, mercenary rulers of the town of Messene, in exchange for their opposition to Carthaginian presence in Sicily. Despite their unique position to check Carthaginian encroachment, the Mamertines had taken Messene by force and killed a number of its inhabitants to solidify their control. This fact posed a political, as well as moral, problem for the Roman senate. Part of the problem arose from the fact that a short time before, the Senate had ordered the execution of members of one of their legions who had also taken over the city of Rhegium, much like the Mamertines had done to Messene. Not only did the senate not want to validate Mamertine rule, they did not want to appear as hypocrites to a population that had witnessed the public beheadings of the renegade Roman force. In the end, the threat from Carthage was too great and the senate set aside its concerns and provided the Mamertines the assistance they requested. In doing so, they brought Rome into a wider conflict with Syracuse, which had previously sought to drive the Mamertines out. 

As the example above suggests, proxy relationships are attractive because they permit what Andrew Mumford calls, “war on the cheap.” Given the potential devastation Carthage could inflict from Sicily, the Romans might be forgiven for setting aside principle in the face of an existential threat. In fact, Mumford also observes that the use of proxies grew significantly after 1945 because no major power wanted to risk a direct confrontation and possibly trigger nuclear war. It was easier, and cheaper, to let others do the fighting, especially when important, but non-existential, interests were at stake. Of course, it does not take the threat of nuclear devastation to motivate proxy relationships. Growing assertiveness by regional state actors that threaten the international order; increasingly capable non-state actors that can project power regionally, if not globally; and a war-weary American public that will not likely endorse large-scale military commitments have motivated the U.S. government to rely more on regional partners “to uphold the balance of power in their own neighborhood.”

This reliance, in fact, has involved the United States in proxy relationships in the Middle East, Europe, and to a lesser extent South East Asia, that have entangled it in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and the South China Sea. Moreover, as Andreas Krieg notes, these entanglements have allowed the United States to confront its adversaries in a way that is “off the public radar” as well as “cost-efficient.”

Though there is nothing prima facie wrong with such limits on direct action, the current reliance on proxies has arguably had a negative impact on the United States’ efficacy and moral standing, which in turn affects its attractiveness as a security partner. As Krieg observes, the reliance on proxies can suggest an unwillingness to engage in direct action, which can undermine current and potential partners’ estimation of U.S. credibility. Further, when proxies engage in violations of the Law of Armed Conflict or other human rights abuses, U.S. credibility to champion these causes erodes. Thus, without a clear understanding of the ethics of proxy relationships, any strategy that relies on them risks being self-defeating. Of course, the United States is not the only world power to risk its strategic reputation and moral standing to lower the cost of war. Russia and Iran are also engaged in proxy wars of their own in the Europe and the Middle East, which has contributed to their isolation from much of the international community.

An excerpt from, "The Future of Sino-U.S. Proxy War" By Dominic Tierney, Texas National Security Review, March 25, 2021:

Strategic doctrine in both the United States and China has downplayed the possibility of a clash in a foreign internal conflict and in the U.S. case in particular, focused on the potential for a conventional interstate war. However, the odds that the United States and China will engage in an interstate war are extremely low due to a number of factors, including nuclear deterrence, regime type, trade relations between the two countries, and international institutions. Military competition is much more likely to take the form of a proxy war in which Washington and Beijing aid different actors in an intrastate conflict because of a systemwide shift away from interstate war and toward civil war, continued American hyper-interventionism, and growing Chinese interventionism. In the coming years, internal conflicts in countries like Venezuela, Pakistan, Myanmar, or North Korea could become battlegrounds for great-power rivalry. Such U.S.-Chinese proxy wars will likely be much subtler than the heavy-handed proxy conflicts of the Cold War and involve diplomatic initiatives, economic aid, cyber war, propaganda, and competition within international institutions. Indeed, Washington and Beijing may compartmentalize a particular proxy campaign — sparring in one civil war while steering clear of each other or even cooperating in another internal conflict.

U.S. analysts often characterize the global system in terms of a shift from the counter-terrorism paradigm of the post-9/11 era, which was focused on insecure states and nonstate actors, to the great-power competition paradigm of today’s era, which prioritizes U.S. relations with China and Russia. However, these two paradigms are less distinct than sometimes thought: Future great-power competition, like earlier counter-terrorism efforts, may occur within insecure states and feature alliances with nonstate actors.