Tom Stevenson In the Grey Zone: Proxy Warfare LRB 22 October 2020 – London Review of Books

To fight a war this century you need proxies on the ground. From South America to Central Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, nations have chosen to pursue their objectives through local confederates. The catastrophic Anglo-American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are remembered as conventional wars. But the war in Afghanistan began with the raising of a proxy army. Although the invasion of Iraq was conducted by traditional armed divisions on a grand scale nearly 180,000 troops from the US, UK, Australia and others the occupation that followed devolved into an exercise in proxy management. The temptation to use direct military force to contend with the provocations of another state is ever present; injunctions to arm the rebels from proponents of interventions in civil wars around the world are now almost as common.

Powerful states have used local auxiliaries to pursue their foreign policy aims since ancient times. The Athenians engaged Cretan archers they had better bows. The Roman Empire used Ghassanid tribesmen to combat the Lakhmids, themselves proxies of the Persians. Almost every kingdom in Renaissance Europe enlisted Halberd-waving Swiss Reislufer. Turning regional political factions into proxy armies was a standard tactic of European empires. But war by proxy is a strategy depended on now as never before.

Until his assassination by US drone strike on 3 January this year, it was generally agreed that the modern master of proxy warfare was Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the general in charge of Irans extraterritorial and clandestine military activities. Trump justified turning the US global assassination machine against Soleimani on the grounds that he had been saying bad things about our country, but his reputation as mastermind wasnt without basis. Unlike his equivalents in the CIA and MI6, Soleimani liked to dodge mortar fire near the front lines. He spoke reasonable Arabic and was able to inspire loyalty in ragtag bands of foreign fighters. His activities led to the belief that where Americans and Brits were amateur proxy warriors, Iranians were professionals. Sepah-e Quds, the directorate of the IRGC responsible for running forces abroad, was founded during the Iran-Iraq War; Soleimani took command in 1997 and built on a tradition that had been developing in Iran since the revolution. In Iraq, the Quds Force has influence over the Hashd ash-Shabi, a group of forty or so militias also known as the Popular Mobilisation Committee. In Syria, it works through Afghan and Syrian Shia irregulars. The Zaidi Shia of the Houthi movement in Yemen and Taliban factions in Afghanistan both work with the Quds Force, though like Hizbullah in Lebanon, which has grown to be more of an ally than a proxy they are better described as supported by Iran than as its puppets. Most of the fighters for these groups are drawn from local Shia communities, but the Quds Force doesnt insist on doctrinal purity.

The logic of the strategy is faultless. For four decades Iran has been the declared nemesis of the global superpower. It is encircled by US military bases and hostile Sunni Arab states. Its economy has been strangled by US sanctions. By keeping the Americans occupied with its proxies across the Levant, Iran has protected itself from US interference within its own borders. Acting through proxies has another benefit: by stopping short of direct confrontation, the Iranian government has been able to make periodic overtures to the US, recognising that a degree of accommodation with American power is necessary for long-term survival. Irans proxy strategy is primarily defensive, but it has also allowed the country to have greater influence over its neighbours than it would otherwise have had, reinforcing Bashar al-Assad in Syria and boosting Shia political forces in Iraq.

The IRGC has a term for its approach: effects-based operations, a term it has used in public. Whats interesting is that the concept is derived from American military literature: effects-based operations were defined by the former US air force general David Deptula during the First Gulf War as a means of applying the minimum conventional force to achieve the greatest strategic effect. In US government planning, proxy warfare is the preserve of wily enemies, Iran and Russia in particular. The US National Defence Strategy 2018 notes the threat that competitors may use tactics short of open war to achieve their ends, including information warfare, ambiguous or denied proxy operations and subversion. The most recent report of the US National Defence Strategy Commission describes the growing prevalence of aggression and conflict in the grey zone the space between war and peace. In Western national security circles this is sometimes referred to as the Gerasimov doctrine, a term invented in jest, and later regretted, by the journalist Mark Galeotti after a speech by the Russian general Valery Gerasimov. National security officials in Washington and London including the former UK national security adviser Mark Sedwill have used the term to describe what they see as Russian plans to destabilise Europe and America. The irony is that Gerasimov wasnt talking about Russian strategy at all: he was, quite reasonably, accusing the West of blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Whenever Americas enemies are said to be using asymmetric or unconventional tactics and proxy warfare, its easy to forget not only that America is the worlds most prolific sponsor of armed proxies but that it is the US not Russia or Iran that has done most to develop the proxy war doctrine.

In January 2018 the US military introduced the by-with-through approach. It was the work of J-2, the intelligence directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the US military must organise, resource and train local forces and operate by, with and through its partners and nations that share our interests (note that the word proxy is avoided in favour of more anodyne terms). Using proxies has been common practice for the CIA for decades, but the J-2 doctrine describes an increasingly common style of war. The model depends on American air power, often in the form of drones backed by satellite surveillance, deployed to support proxy ground forces of local grunts, supplemented by teams of American or American-allied special forces where more artful work is required. The US used this approach in its interventions on the rebel side in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, and in support of Kurdish and Iraqi militias to defeat Islamic State. In Yemen, the air war itself was farmed out to vassal states Saudi Arabia and the UAE with US and British advisers providing direction, training, tactical advice, munitions and the services of their engineers. Saudi military personnel are trained by the RAF in Shropshire and flown back to fight in Yemen.

The UK military has adopted similarly euphemistic terminology to describe the approach it has agreed with its more powerful ally. In a recent speech for the think tank Policy Exchange, the head of the British armed forces, General Nick Carter, said that Britain faces authoritarian rivals that employ attacks below the threshold which would prompt a war-fighting response in a continuous struggle in which non-military and military instruments are used unconstrained by any distinction between peace and war. In Carters telling, our natural aversion to putting people in harms way is a weakness that is exploited by enemies an amorphous Russo-China that doesnt exist outside Anglophone propaganda. The British solution is an Integrated Operating Concept that envisions the armed forces working permanently in partnered operations against common threats. If official adversaries were doing all this it would be called proxy warfare. But in the parlance of the armed forces the British approach involves a campaign posture that involves continuous operating on our terms and in places of our choosing.

There is every sign that the US plans to prosecute future conflicts along these lines, and other powers have sought to emulate American practices as far as they can. The Arab monarchies of the Gulf enlisted their own proxies in Syria, and Russia used proxy militias in eastern Ukraine. More recently, Turkey has repurposed its failed Syrian proxy army and put it to work in Libya. Military analysts are forever declaring the onset of new ages in warfare. Perhaps this really is one.

The United States emerged from the Second World War in possession of by far the most powerful conventional military forces ever assembled. It controlled the worlds oceans and had an air force that would soon become so far superior to the air forces of other states that it could have come from the distant future. The USAFs early large-scale deployments were dedicated to the burning of East Asian cities. It wasnt just the apocalyptic demonstrations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that announced America as the pre-eminent superpower, but the even more destructive aerial firebombings of Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama, Osaka, Hamamatsu and Kobe each a Dresden in its own right. In Korea, General George E. Stratemeyer commanded the air force to destroy all buildings capable of affording shelter, with the expressed intention of turning the entire peninsula into a desert. Kanggye, Pyongyang, Sakju, Huichon, Chosan, Hoeryong and even Seoul were almost completely destroyed between 1950 and 1953. The head of Strategic Air Command, Curtis LeMay, said the US had burned down just about every city in North and South Korea, and in the process killed one million civilians. There were generals, LeMay among them, who favoured doing the same to the Soviet Union.

The Cold War that followed the age of firebombing is the source of common conceptions of proxy war, limited engagement and clandestine operations. The US military, possessed of more garrisons around the world than any state before it, turned to covert action and war by surrogate. The two superpowers really one superpower and one recalcitrant launched outright attacks on small states in the global periphery. The US attacked Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Grenada, and waged a war of total destruction on Indochina. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. But there were relatively few interstate conflicts between peers. Those that did occur either had little to do with US-Soviet competition (Iran-Iraq, the Arab-Israeli war, Israels many invasions of Lebanon) or used it as cover for struggles over the rubble of the old empires or for the projection of national power. But there was a proliferation of civil wars, and in a world of pseudo-bipolarity they served as a battleground for global competition by proxy.

The study of proxy warfare is still the domain of military historians and tacticians. Most of the histories of it are shaped by the procession of Cold War interventions. They also tend to degenerate into studies of imperial administration. Eli Berman and David A. Lakes edited collection Proxy Wars: Suppressing Violence through Local Agents purports to take an academic approach (the title is a bad start, since in most cases a state involved in a proxy war has no interest in suppressing violence). The editors make clear that the central question is how to counter threats or disturbances to US interests around the world. They argue that the incentive to turn to proxy war is for the most part budgetary. For the US, naval and air superiority is a given, but a ground force large enough to intervene anywhere in the world is expensive to maintain. Proxy wars are cheap, but are they effective?

Good examples are hard to find. In a chapter on the war on drugs in Colombia thats been going on since the early 1990s, Abigail Vaughn praises the use of proxies for achieving the grand goal of a slight reduction in cocaine production at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. The inept vigilante criminals with whom the US worked arent mentioned. Nor are the feral Colombian paramilitares, many of whom were themselves engaged in the drug trade. The war necessitated an extensive propaganda campaign inside the US to persuade Americans of its worth, and its main achievement was to drive production into neighbouring Peru. To the extent that overall cocaine production was reduced it shifted American consumption to other stimulants, methamphetamines chief among them.

The proxy war in El Salvador is presented by Ryan Baker as the archetypical small footprint intervention. Beginning in 1979, the CIA provided enormous sums to increase the security services of the Salvadoran dictatorship to six times their original size. New paramilitary units were set up by US military advisers to serve as direct proxies of Washington. But even after a couple of years it was clear that the strategy wasnt working. Rather than pacifying the rural Salvadoran opposition the programme had created a more skilled guerrilla movement. The government paramilitaries came to be seen as death squads and the conflict grew into an all out-war on the peasantry, crowned by such atrocities as the assassination of the archbishop scar Romero and the massacres on the Sumpul river. In 1981 a US proxy known as the Atlacatl Battalion executed the entire population of the village of El Mozote just one episode in a conflict that caused perhaps sixty thousand civilian deaths.

Searching the history of US intervention in Latin America for models of successful proxy wars means making some questionable decisions. The Nicaraguan Contras arent mentioned at all in Berman and Lakes book, perhaps because the CIA provided them with torture manuals and instructions on the selective use of violence for propagandistic effects. These manuals have since been discovered and can now be read in their entirety. The Contra affair is often remembered today for its farcical elements arms sales to Iran but by 1987 the ten thousand or so US-backed Contras had left at least thirty thousand dead. And by any measure the war failed. The Sandinista government survived and instituted social reform programmes that still determine the politics of Nicaragua today. There are glimpses of insight in Berman and Lakes collection, but they are for the most part unintentional. In noting that the US relies on proxy ground forces in politically unstable places, one contributor remarks in passing that proxies are often chosen because they are unrepresentative. Savage reprisals are not a byproduct but a feature.

If the Cold War was the ideal environment for proxy war stratagems, it would be reasonable to expect fewer of them after it ended. But recent Western-led wars in the Middle East have raged alongside civil wars of terrible brutality in Algeria, Somalia, Liberia, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Many of these conflicts have been intensified by proxy interventions either by local or great powers to the point of becoming international conflicts. At the peripheries of the global economy the US has been able to intervene at will. More and more of these interventions are carried out using a sophisticated combination of proxies, drones and special forces. Though the J-2 doctrine is rarely mentioned, scholars and analysts have sought to frame the tactical question of how best to wage a modern proxy war.

Tyrone Grohs Proxy Wars: The Least Bad Option contains advice of this kind. The first step is to establish intentions. The aim of a traditional invasion is victory, but that isnt the case with proxy wars. Groh defines four types of proxy war and argues that planners should know which kind theyre getting into. The first, in it to win it, is self-explanatory: the proxy is used to defeat an enemys forces. The second, holding action, involves the idea that the aim of an intervention by proxy may be to prolong a civil war in order to to maintain the status quo. The third type, perhaps the most common, is meddling. Here, the ideal outcome is for a proxy to change the course of a conflict, perhaps by overthrowing a government, although this is considered unlikely given the present balance of power. Even so, a proxy force can still be useful in interfering with the designs of others. The last type, feeding the chaos, is in most cases a matter for covert operations and occurs when a state has no achievable strategic aim but sees an advantage in prolonging the violence indefinitely.

Managing a proxy force is easier when a proxy and its backer have the same goals. But even then its crucial to establish a system of punishment and reward. If the goal is to take control of a countrys seat of power, and hold it, then the political legitimacy of the proxy force is relevant but not if the aim is to create chaos. Its wise for those waging a proxy war to keep their vassals entirely dependent on them, so there must be appropriate incentives. But care must be taken not to overcommit to a proxy, at least in public, and in covert proxy wars lower-level intelligence officers must not be given the sort of autonomy that might lead to the collaboration being revealed. Above all, the backer must retain the power to abandon the proxy when its usefulness has ended.

Groh presents the US proxy war in Laos as a successful example of proxy management. From 1959, Washington sought to prop up the right-wing government in Vientiane. Faced with a largely pacific, Buddhist population, the CIA exploited Laotian geography and trained mountain-dwelling Hmong soldiers in camps in Thailand to supplement intensive bombing by the USAF. Isolated and dependent, the Hmong remained firmly under US control. Although the strategy escalated the war, the operation remained an official secret for ten years. In Grohs judgment the CIA achieved significant benefits from the arrangement with comparatively small costs. Thailand was insulated from the left-wing nationalist movements that troubled its eastern neighbours. The damage done to Laos is well known. The Hmong themselves saw no benefit and paid a great cost in lives.

From the perspective of a proxy, the risks of accepting patronage are clear. Proxy warfare involves exploitation. A local militia, almost always comprised of willing volunteers, is motivated by grievances that it might not otherwise have the opportunity to act on. The training, weapons and other enticements offered will serve to recruit more volunteers. But outside interventions have a tendency to extend conflicts rather than resolve them. In the context of a civil war this can be disastrous for a group accused of being a puppet of a foreign power. If it fails to subdue its enemies, a proxy force is likely to suffer for its vassalage.

Battlefields are messy places even for regular armies. Proxy forces only increase the confusion. Undisciplined troops may not try as hard as one would want, or they may act to further their own interests. Flashy weapons have a way of going missing and turning up on black markets rather than being used for the purposes for which they were intended. Mercenaries and auxiliaries are at once useless and dangerous, Machiavelli wrote, disunited, ambitious, insubordinate, treacherous, insolent among friends, cowardly before foes. There is a common tendency to conflate proxies with mercenaries since you have to pay both. The difference is that mercenaries have no programme of their own and so are easier to control. Around half the US troops in Afghanistan are technically mercenaries: they are deployed for private profit, but they are still American soldiers. The use of contractors derives from the ideology of privatisation, not proxy war.

Americas recent use of proxies in the Middle East is part of a history that began with its sponsorship of paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. To impede the 1979 Soviet invasion the CIA provided finance often rucksacks filled with cash and more than two thousand Stinger missiles to Afghan and Arab mujahidin. For the most part the job of controlling them was left to Pakistans intelligence services. In 2001 the militias of the Northern Alliance acted as direct US proxies to overthrow the Taliban. They were well suited to the work of insurgency but proved a hindrance when it came to forming a new governing authority. The US was forced to commit large numbers of its own troops, with consequences that still resonate two decades later.

In post-invasion Iraq, the collapse of the state compelled the occupation forces to arm and train the reformed Iraqi army, in the hope of turning it into an institutionalised proxy force. At the same time, the US army and intelligence services recruited local armed groups from outside the official military. In Anbar, they organised Sunni tribes to counter al-Qaida and enforce order. By the time of the siege of Mosul in 2016, the US was co-ordinating a multi-proxy assault involving Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Irans Shia paramilitaries, backed by US air strikes, to seize the city from Islamic State.

The Syrian civil war typifies the age of proxy war like no other conflict. At least nine countries raised proxy militias to attempt to influence the course of the war. On the loyalist side, Irans Badr Organisation and Russias V Corps sought to reinforce the Syrian governments forces with volunteer fighters attracted by monthly salaries of a couple of hundred dollars. The Gulf states and Turkey funded conservative religious militias. The US and UK funnelled support to rebel brigades through operations rooms in Amman and Gaziantep. The complexity of the conflict made control of the factions, and control of their media messaging, a constant problem: one CIA-supplied militia recorded a video of its fighters beheading a 12-year-old boy. In Afghanistan and Iraq local proxies had the overwhelming benefit of US air support. That wasnt usually the case in Syria a difference that proved crucial when the Russian air force entered the war. Most Syrian proxies were expendable, in the sense that their cause had little strategic significance to their American backers. By contrast the Syrian Kurdish forces supported by the US in its campaign to relieve Islamic State of its caliphate werent just pliant proxies but worked seamlessly with US intelligence to co-ordinate air strikes. The distinction between these two cases the failure of the loose coalition known as the Free Syrian Army; the success of the Syrian Kurds has probably contributed more to the current proxy doctrine than any other recent experience. The Syrian Kurds were nonetheless discarded once their usefulness was at its end, along with the promises the US had made to champion their interests.

The usual way of explaining the onset of a new age of proxy war is that the US-dominated international order has fractured. Startled by electorates raising brash showmen Trump, Johnson to the highest offices in Washington and London, patrician analysts of the status quo have been quick to declare the imminent end of the American epoch. Executive competence has never been a strength of Anglo-American societies, but present chaos combined with the growing power of Chinese trade is said to portend a new anarchy of international competition. There is general consensus that the world is descending from a state of unipolarity towards a more equitable balance of power: a Concert of Eurasia resembling the European order of the 19th century. In this order war by proxy occupies a different place.

But while there has been some erosion of American power, the US still has reason to see the world as being under its control. Trump is derided as an isolationist by Democrats who claim a commitment to free trade, but US withdrawal from international organisations and agreements has looked more like an assertion of strength than a retreat. The US has not dismantled Nato, or left the Middle East (despite fantasy talk in the American press). The global architecture of American power is still in place. At international level, the US operates a near feudal model of diplomacy (hence the existence of a Lake Trump in the Balkans). There are more than a dozen US naval facilities around East Asia alone. There is no Iranian, Russian or even Chinese sphere of influence that can stop America from exercising its will by force anywhere on earth. In the US and UK, the preference for proxy warfare has been driven by the experience of the disastrous domestic political consequences of full-scale military intervention the invasion of Iraq, the war in Vietnam rather than by any actual military rationale. Over the past decade or more, internal politics, rather than the increasing size of the Chinese economy, have deterred Western states from direct military intervention abroad. Minor powers have a different motive: proxy warfare offers an outlet for pursuing national interests while avoiding the wrath of the powerful. But that has always been the case. During the Cold War, apartheid South Africa waged proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique. At the height of American unipolarity one of the bloodiest civil and proxy wars in history was waged over Congo. Laments for the rules-based international order rest on pious myth-making. The Pax Americana was never peaceful.

In Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the 21st Century, Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli subscribe to a version of the thesis of hegemonic decline, in which a West riven by identity crises has seen proxy warfare as a way to minimise the cost of war to its citizenry. What they refer to as stand-off postmodern warfare has served as a substitution of the burden of warfare for governments which in public must now scrimp. To this they try to add an explanation for the evolution of proxy warfare based on technology. They argue for an expanded concept of surrogate war that includes forms of technological surrogacy such as cyber warfare and autonomous weapons. War, they argue, has moved into the cyber and media domains. The development of precision-guided munitions, unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence, they say, is replacing armed divisions.

It should by now be a truism that wars begin with talk of high technology and end with the drudgery of infantry pushes. Advances in military technology are often exaggerated, in part to justify budgets. Wild claims for the accuracy of precision munitions have been a standard feature of new adventures for half a century and more. Even so, the invention of armed drones was an important development. In conjunction with the greater innovation of mass electronic surveillance it has enabled the current capabilities of Americas global assassination programme. But drones are still planes. (In Arabic they are known more prosaically as tayerat bidoun tayar, planes without pilots.) A great deal of funding has gone towards the development of weapons systems that can operate with near autonomy, but only one working model has been deployed: the Harpy, designed by Israel Aerospace Industries, a loitering munition that seeks out and attacks enemy radar systems without humans pointing them out. The American military didnt bother to buy it. It may one day be possible to field armies of killer robots assuming a human points them in the right direction but for now surrogates have to be of the human kind.

The notion of cyberwar is a different problem. It has become common to refer to the work of hackers as a form of war. Even propaganda campaigns on social media are classed as warfare. What are called cyber weapons involve attacks on electronic security systems linked to important infrastructure. Introducing a virus into the computers of a nuclear facility is a dramatic act of sabotage. But sabotage, while useful in war, is a tool of espionage rather than of warfare per se. The same goes for stealing the schematics for a fighter jet. All states conduct cyber espionage, just as they do traditional espionage, but as with proxy warfare it is often described as an activity unique to official adversaries. Since 2011, when the White House published its International Strategy for Cyberspace, the US has asserted the right to respond to hacking with military force.

Krieg and Rickli are on firmer ground in describing the near constant state of conflict that has existed across large parts of the world since 2001. War, or more precisely the absence of peace, has become a permanent state of affairs that requires a simmering commitment by some states to maintain their strategic, sometimes peripheral interests. Despite all the talk of the soldier disappearing from the battlefield, for decades American and British troops have been shepherded without respite from one conflict to another. It is only logical that these states would supplement their own forces by acting through proxies. Though Krieg and Rickli dont mention it, the older technology of nuclear weapons is more relevant to the current state of affairs than any recent advance. Nuclear weapons, more than anything else, removed the option of the US air force destroying Soviet cities by fire. Nuclear weapons judged, for now at least, to be too powerful to be used seem to preclude wars of destruction between major powers today. But the constraining effect of nuclear weapons on direct confrontation between great powers has only encouraged the spread of constant but limited violence. The soldiers of nuclear-armed India and China fight with sticks and clubs in the Himalayas. Proxy wars are conducted outside the territories of the nuclear states.

Mentioned only obliquely in the academic literature is the fact that proxy wars are attractive in part because they insulate military action from domestic scrutiny. National leaders are given to believe that strength lies in the ability to take decisions without the interference of the public, which too often fails to divine the wisdom of military expeditions. In societies where the higher echelons of the state are accountable to the opinions of the general citizenry, proxy warfare offers a form of violence less inhibited by pacific tendencies. A proxy war need not be clandestine to subvert public accountability. Its usually easy to find out who is backing whom, and even when support for a proxy force is an official secret the information is likely to be uncovered at some point. But a proxy force allows rulers to circumvent scrutiny of costs and casualties. Intervention within the borders of another state is usually illegal under international law, but the use of local auxiliary offers protection against legal challenges. Krieg and Rickli write that the need to remove military action from societys checks and balances is the single most important driver and aspect of postmodern surrogate warfare.

That proxy wars are essentially anti-democratic goes some way to explaining the adoption of a proxy doctrine, traditionally the preserve of the intelligence services, by the conventional US military. Proxy warfare is officially condemned in Washington and London as a device of undemocratic enemies, but it is precisely for its anti-democratic possibilities that the West embraces it. For US allies, rejection of proxy warfare would be a contradiction. At the strategic level, the British armed forces and the armed forces of Australia and Canada have no discernible vision beyond serving as adjuncts to US power. Which in a sense makes them proxy forces too. The armies of many small states are available to the US as proxies under the justification of fighting terrorism, controlling ungoverned spaces and other phantoms. The new model of local proxy ground troops backed by air power, global surveillance and special operations forces has become a fixture of the times. For political leaders, its tempting to see this type of military action as the Goldilocks option: neither the heat of full-scale war nor the cool of unmanly indifference. But all violence tends to escalate, and its hard not to imagine that this developing doctrine will in future lead to more damaging and more criminal foreign interventions that avoid the limited checks of public scrutiny.

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Tom Stevenson In the Grey Zone: Proxy Warfare LRB 22 October 2020 - London Review of Books

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