Proxy wars: the preferred method of warfare for all major nations since the sun descended upon the Nazi regime. We hear this term all the time: in the news, in academic papers, and even in everyday conversations; however very rarely do we get an explanation as to what exactly this term entails. In this article I’ll explain what proxy wars are, and why they matter.
What are proxy wars?
A proxy war is a form of conflict in which the two (or more) opposing parties are pitted against each other by external forces with ulterior motives. How it generally works is that ideologically opposite nations fund and arm their favoured combatants in order to gain proxy control, or at least ideological dominance, in an already troubled region. Proxy wars are not a new concept, yet have been popularized in recent years due to, among other factors, the large cost of traditional combat, large geographical distances, and the threat of nuclear warfare. Employing proxies gives the funding nations plausible deniability, and helps them dodge sanctions from international watchdogs such as the UN. This deniability is also important to prevent escalation between two already hostile parties; if governments deny involvement, it helps them maintain a façade of amicability with the other nation. What are some examples of proxy wars?
There are two broad ways to partake in a proxy war – either a powerful nation can fund another combatant nation, or an external government can arm and fund local insurgent group. The second type is exceedingly more common, and an example of it can be found right at home. The militant insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir is one of the longest running proxy wars in recent history – with the Indian armed forces on one side, and ISI-backed militants on the other. The implementation of proxy warfare in the region works greatly in Pakistan’s favour. The Pakistani government can firmly deny any allegations of interference while simultaneously funding terrorist activity in the region, resulting in widespread unrest and casualties, while keeping their hands clean of any blood. Former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in Oct 2014 during TV interview even said, "We have source (in Kashmir) besides the (Pakistan) army...People in Kashmir are fighting against (India). We just need to incite them". It’s an easy way to keep Indian troops distracted and cause international
condemnation of India.
Civil wars are often incited by external nations. This scenario has played out in a few of the most famous proxy wars in the past few years: The Yemeni Civil War and The Syrian Civil War.
The Yemeni civil war consists of two factions – the Houthi Rebels, and the Hadi-led government.
Iran’s involvement in this conflict as a proxy is due to a different factors than the ones discussed above. While traditionally those involved in proxy wars are powerful (often nuclear) countries, Iran lacks the resources required to engage in direct conflict in Yemen – with insufficient navy and air force capabilities, it instead funds the Houthi rebels to grant itself influence in the deeply problematic region, and trade blows with it’s ideological rival Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian civil war is more like a hybrid mode of warfare rather than purely proxied. There have been American and Russian on the ground in the region, however most of the fighting is done through foreign funded factions. This again allows for both governments to engage in virtue signalling without getting their own hands dirty. Locals fight, and die, so that those from the powers-to-be don’t have to. Why do proxy wars matter?
We live in an increasingly divided world, where the gap between the powerful and pawns has never been greater. A world in which aggressors are not held accountable for the blood that should be on their hands, is a world that is safe for none of us. If we, the international community, continue to let the powerful persist in this destruction, we are bound to bear the brunt of it one day, no matter where you are. Accountability for one’s actions is the basic spine of justice – how can we have a world in which the rich are allowed to shift their blame onto locals while bleeding them dry, and face no repercussions. In my next article I’ll discuss how exactly we can work on establishing accountability for all parties involved, with case studies on the prominent proxies of today. Stay tuned.