Small Wars Journal

Why Engage in Proxy War? A State’s Perspective

Why Engage in Proxy War? A State’s Perspective by Daniel Byman - Lawfare

A proxy war occurs when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself.

Proxy war stands in contrast not only to a traditional war—when a state shoulders the burden of its own defense (or offense)—but also an alliance, when major and minor powers work together with each making significant contributions according to their means. So the United States working with the Afghan government against what’s left of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is more of a traditional alliance because of the major U.S. role, with thousands of American troops and hundreds of airstrikes, while Iran working with Houthi rebels in Yemen is a proxy war because Iran primarily provides weapons and funding, not its own troops. How much direct military support is too much to count as a proxy war, of course, lies mostly in the eye of the beholder, but in general, think the lower end of the involvement-spectrum. Iran’s support for the Syrian regime, for example, involves relatively few Iranian forces but a lot of foreign Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Lebanon as well as helping direct the Syrian regime—so more proxy than alliance.

Syria is no exception for Iran, which uses proxies in many of its conflicts: the Lebanese Hezbollah, an array of Shiite militias in Iraq, and the aforementioned Houthis in Yemen, among others. Russia uses proxies in Ukraine, and the United States often does so in its operations in the Middle East and Africa, supporting the Kurdish “People’s Protection Unit” against the Islamic State in Syria and working with armed groups in Libya to fight terrorists there. Indeed, much of the U.S. struggle against terrorism in parts of Africa and the Middle East involves working with local forces or governments to get them to more aggressively go after groups linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. By design, it is the proxy, not the United States, that is doing much of the lifting, with the United States providing intelligence, using special-operations forces, and deploying drones to maintain a light footprint…

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