Proxy warfare has taken a prominent role in the United States national security strategy post-9/11. U.S. Special Operations Forces are now America’s main sponsor of foreign proxies. The SOF’s proxy warfare has been the backbone of counterterrorism operations around the Middle East. Africa, South and Southeast Asia, for close to two decades. Counterterrorism operations were largely responsible for shaping the military’s financial, technological, organizational, and strategic direction. The U.S. is moving toward greater power competition and conventional military superiority, but the military’s commitment to counterterrorism operations continues to grow. As Congress reviews this year’s annual defence authorization bill, both the House (and the Senate) have included measures in their bills that will affect the future for Special Operations Forces and proxy warfare. These proposals allow us to consider the future.
What Does “Proxy Warfare,” Mean for the United States?
“Proxy Warfare” can be a complicated term. The Expert Group, which was chaired by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, examined the international legal framework for proxy warfare. It helped us understand both the confusing connotations and the definitional challenges associated with the term. The relationships we sought to capture included: i. a sponsor providing assistance; ii. an intention to facilitate specific actions of a recipients; and iii. a person who has a variety of motivations, but who commits to taking the actions of the sponsor. Andrew Mumford summarizes what we meant to capture: “proxywars are the logical substitute for states seeking their own strategic goals but refraining from engaging in direct and costly bloody war.” Although the sponsor may not exercise effective power over the receiver, the fundamental nature the relationship establishes the recipient to be a means for the sponsor’s end — even when those ends are not compatible with the recipient’s. Many might limit proxy warfare to the support of non-state militias. But this is a narrow view that misses the dynamic between the rival sponsors that characterize proxy conflict.
The United States uses proxy warfare as a strategy to address a post-9/11 landscape of national security threats. Although they are less serious than existential, there have been increased complexity and geographical scope in the United States’ response. These threats have made direct U.S. military interventions untenable and costly. U.S. leaders considered the threat posed by loosely-affiliated terrorists groups in many countries. But, they realized that it was not possible to do so alone. Instead, leaders decided to work “by/with and through” their partner forces. U.S. Special Operations Forces are now more than twice as large as they were before 9/11. They have also been involved in proxy support as part Foreign Internal Defense activities.
We will be looking at some examples from U.S. assistance to security in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to better understand how the United States engages with proxy warfare. These examples fit a pattern that has been repeated many times across the Middle East and Africa, wherein U.S. attempts to facilitate the actions of local actors – including both state and non-state armed groups – in support of its own interests led to failures to achieve the immediate security objectives of the effort, enhanced risk or harm to civilians, prompted counter-interventions by adversaries or rivals, and ultimately deepened rather than lessened regional instability. Military leaders often consider local proxies a successful strategy. But, they are more complex than in the case of “Sons of Iraq”. More often than not, however, proxy efforts follow a worrying pattern. While proxy efforts tend to follow a worrying pattern, it is more often than not.
Our Proxy Warfare History
The post-9/11 major military operations of Afghanistan and Iraq followed the same pattern. In both contexts, the United States has worked through well-organized non-state militias (Kurdish militias in Iraq; the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan) and through other, less organized armed groups (the Sons of Iraq and various other militias in Iraq; various pro-government militias, SOF-sponsored “village defense forces,” and the quasi-state-sanctioned Afghan Local Police in Afghanistan). Parallel to this, the United States attempted to build the capability of national security troops as stand-ins for U.S. Forces. This was summarized succinctly in the Bush Administration, with the slogan “as their stand up, we stay down”.
U.S. proxy planning is evident in its support of “Sons of Iraq” (SOI), at the height of Iraqi Insurgency. Although some may argue that the SOI could not be proxies as they were fighting alongside U.S forces, their relationship shows all the characteristics of a proxy arrangement. SOI received specific tasks from the United States and were directed to do so by the United States. The fee – for-service relationship can be found at the Congressional Research Service.