Small Wars Journal

‘Proxy Actors, Psyops & Irregular Forces: The Future of Modern Warfare?’ Workshop

Wed, 07/08/2015 - 3:04pm

‘Proxy Actors, Psyops & Irregular Forces:

The Future of Modern Warfare?’ Workshop

Robert J. Bunker and Pamela Ligouri Bunker

A workshop on ‘Proxy Actors, Psyops & Irregular Forces: The Future of Modern Warfare?’ was held by The Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow, Scotland 22-23 June 2015. The thematic synopsis provided for the workshop was as follows:

Since 1991 questions have grown both around the West’s ‘New Wars’ (Mϋnkler, 2002/05) and over the future of warfare in general, given both the revolution in technology (RMA) increasingly facilitating the undermining of the traditional parameters of national sovereignty (drones, intelligence gathering), and also an increased focus upon the perceived threat of trans-national terrorism and organized crime. Since the Anbar Uprising and American troop withdrawal from Iraq however, conflicts around the globe have also come to be strikingly marked by the increasingly pivotal role played by proxy actors and irregular forces, whether it be Russian mercenaries and Hezbollah volunteers in Syria, the formalization of informal militias in Afghanistan through the structure of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), or the mobilization of armed gangs by both pro- and anti-Russian groups in the Ukraine. This two day workshop and conference seeks to interrogate whether such trends represent the future of warfare in general in a ‘post-heroic’ age, and asks whether statebuilding and stabilization operations in an era of globalization may also be entering a post-Westphalian age, one in which proxy actors, irregular forces, and private security companies play a larger role than the regular traditional forces of the state.

The event, with sixteen attendees primarily from academic and policy institutions, was divided into a thematic keynote presentation, five major panel sessions, Q&A and general discussions, and a closing overview.  Workshop presenters and their presentations were as follows:  Dr. Alex Marshall, University of Glasgow, ‘Small Wars or New Wars? Proxy Actors and Irregular Warfare in Historical Perspective’; Dr. Mathilde von Bulow, University of Glasgow, ‘Rebel Sanctuaries and Late Colonial Conflicts: The Case of Federal Germany During Algeria’s War of Independence, 1954-1962’; Dr. Geraint Hughes, UK Defence Academy (KCL), ‘Militias in Internal Warfare, from the Colonial Era to the Contemporary Middle East’; Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), ‘The EU’s Extraterritorial Fight Against Drug Trafficking and “Narco-Terrorism”: “Small Wars” with Proxy Actors?’; Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), US Army War College, ‘Epochal Warfare: VNSAs/Mercenaries, State Deconstruction, and the Rise of New Warmaking Entities’; Dr. Mark Galeotti, New York University, ‘Hybrid, Ambiguous, and Non-Linear? How New is Russia’s “New Way of War”?’; Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brookings Institution, ‘Hurrah for Militias and Other Joys of Building Partner Capacity: Lessons from Afghanistan and Mexico for Prosecuting Security Policy Through Proxies’; Dr. Seyom Brown, American Security Project, ‘The Evolution of US Counter-Terrorism Policy’; Dr. Carsten Rønnfeldt, Norwegian Military Academy, ‘Conducting Counterinsurgency with Productive Power’; and Dr. Paul B. Rich, TRENDS Research & Advisory, ‘Proxy Militias and the Challenge to Westphalian Concepts of Sovereignty.”

Workshop Participants at the University of Glasgow, Scotland

Workshop themes and insights invoked by the various presentations included:

• A number of conceptualizations exist regarding what constitutes a break between ‘new’ and ‘old’ forms of war. The general sense is that, while the use of proxy actors in specific circumstances is by no means historically ‘new’, the ‘state-ised’ warfare of the modern period is no longer economically feasible and, among other factors, has led to a wide-ranging employment by states of militias and other proxy actors.

• Non-state and mercenary based conflicts can be divided into four approaches derived, respectively, from state building paradigms centering on concentration of power and cycles of global capital accumulation, from concepts of interacting geopolitical zones of stability and plunder, from ideology, and/or from a break with Clausewitzian notions of Trinitarian Warfare. At a minimum, research is needed in order to integrate the focus on illicit capital flows of criminology at a global level with strategic studies focusing on failed states within a broader context of previous historical case studies in order to generate a policy framework on ‘new wars’ that moves the field forward in terms of understanding and managing the 21st century international system.   

• Differing views on the relationship of proxies to the state have existed over time. Viewed though the lens of the Cold War, proxies were clients of the US and the USSR engaging in peripheral conflicts outside of the European area of operations. Since the 1990s, militias—as proxies for opposing forces in internal conflicts—have emerged in many states over the globe. Additionally, they have been linked to failed state environments and new concepts of warfare. In the last decade, these groups have become a central challenge to Westphalian states as increased levels of state failure have taken place. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as a ‘Caliphate’ would appear to directly challenges the state system. It was proposed, however, that if it survives, it has the potential to be captured by that system in the same way the USSR—which also initially wanted to also destroy that system—was integrated into it by the mid-1930s.

• State military forces in the Middle East, and in other demographically factionalized environments, are often purposefully kept weakened so that they will not have the ability to launch a coup against ruling governments. This is known as ‘coup-proofing’ the military. The exception is military units composed of loyalist troops that are being economically enriched by the ruling government as part of a policy of favoring select ethnic and tribal elements at the expense of other indigenous population groupings. 

• In states with demographically factionalized environments, weak military forces are typically unable to defend the state against serious challenges by armed non-state insurgents. As a result, ethnic militias are drawn upon for state security needs. The overall challenge is that, when activated, such militias will ultimately destroy the state in order to save it. It becomes a vicious cycle of de-legitimization of state authority as the populace seeks other security providers than that of the state.

• Russia’s operations in Ukraine have roots in the Soviet system yet are ‘new’ in the context in which they are applied.  Russia is utilizing ‘little green men’ (special forces troops denied to exist) along with local self-defense volunteers, auxiliaries such as Cossacks and Chechens, and organized crime groups for military and political muscle. Along with these various forces, ‘new war’ operations taking place include a synthesis of conventional actions with terrorism, information war, economic pressure on Ukraine and those states willing to support it, and cyberwar. While such war may appear ‘new,’ from the Russian perspective a tradition of such hybrid, non-linear conflict can be traced irregularly from the Mongols through the Bolsheviks to the present. While internally viewed as having lost their way in the 1980s regarding the waging of war, the Russians believe they have now righted themselves with this form of warfighting as their way of the future.

•  The EU has undergone a changing global security role—specifically moving to address external transnational threats—that has resulted in an ‘internal-external security nexus’ focus.  Per the EU Commission (28 April 2015), “Preventive engagement with third countries is needed to address root causes of security issues.” One major issue has been drug trafficking to Europe.  This has entailed, over time, alternative development assistance for source countries in Latin America along with militarized drug interdiction efforts through to later extension of these efforts into West Africa as a major conduit of Latin American cocaine into Europe.  It is believed there may be insights into the use of proxy actors from their engagement as agents in this ongoing battle against organized crime.

• The diffusion of academic and cultural knowledge to peacekeepers is important for success in stability and support operations. It yields a different and non-kinetic conception of power that focus on political effects. Such thinking ties into FM 3-24 Insurgencies and Counter Insurgencies principles that seek to mobilize local populations against insurgent forces. An important component of this approach is to go along with the normative discourses of society.  In the case given of Afghanistan, this would mean staying on the right side of the political/discursive battlespace and not being viewed as infidels, foreigners, and central government agents, although it was pointed out that the basis for these concepts may change with place and time.  This becomes especially important when peacekeeping forces and indigenous proxy actors are working side by side.

• Epochal warfare analysis projects that a shift from a Westphalian to Post-Westphalian global system is underway. In such a period of transition, the dominant state form undergoes a deinstitutionalization process and war is less about issues of state sovereignty and, instead, increasingly over what the new form of social and political organization will be. During this era of change, non-state soldiers and mercenaries become dominant actors on the new battlefield that is emerging—in the present instance, one derived from the 5th dimensional battlespace attributes of humanspace and cyberspace.

• One of the major discussions that took place during the workshop focused on the role of proxy actors—specifically militias—vis-à-vis the Westphalian state. Debates arose over how these actors can be, or alternately if they even should be, utilized by states to fulfill their internal security needs or the needs of other states. Concerns were raised related to auditing and accountability and how repeatedly these actors create more internal instability than public security good. One such issue with proxy actors highlighted was that they present uncertainty as to where groups are operating at the behest of others and where they act under their own agency.  Regarding stability and support operations into failed state environments, it was argued by some that state/coalition military forces alone should be deployed and then solely when core national interests are at stake, with proxy actors employed only in the most extenuating circumstances.

For more on the above topics, select papers from this workshop are to be published in a future edition of Small Wars & Insurgencies (Routledge). For additional information on the workshop, contact Dr. Alex Marshall. For information on The Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow, see its website.

The above workshop report reflects the authors’ interpretation of events and none of the information presented above necessarily represents the official policy or position of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Army War College, or the U.S. Government.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   

Pamela Ligouri Bunker is Managing Partner, C/O Futures, LLC, and is a researcher and analyst specializing in international security and terrorism related narratives. She holds undergraduate degrees in anthropology-geography and social sciences from California State Polytechnic University Pomona, an M.A. in public policy from the Claremont Graduate University, and an M.Litt. in terrorism studies from the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland. She is co-editor of Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance (Routledge, 2015) and has published many referred and professional works including additional books.


Outlaw 09

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 3:55am

Actually well stated---as I have often pointed out in a number of comments here at SWJ--biases are part and parcel of any decision making process and how to recognize and control our own biases is a true beginning in one's own thinking as well as understanding the other side's biases.

It all goes to "seeing and understanding".

BUT Americans as a society have the inherent ability to not "see" their own biases to begin with and that starts the problem.

Actually the saying "you cannot understand someone until you have walked in his shoes" is valid today as it was years ago.


Fri, 07/31/2015 - 9:32pm

The problem with counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies is clearly individual and organizational biases. I can prove it in the next three minutes, if you continue reading. First allow me to introduce myself.

I’m not a US Marine, I’m not Special Forces, I’m not even a military officer (or a USMC officer), and hell…I’m not even affiliated with John Hopkins University. With this information in mind, Small Wars Journal may just delete this comment, but if they post it you may decide to stop reading right here. See how internal and external biases work?

Curious? Then keep reading. I’m sixty years old, enlisted in 1974 (Vietnam era), was assigned to a Ranger BN (over 7-yrs.), travelled to Central and South American extensively during the late 70s and early 80s (was wounded there), retired after the first Gulf War (1995), finished a BA and MA in psychology, and then acted as a member of a multidisciplinary psychiatric treatment team on secure inpatient psych-wards (5-yrs). Next, I developed training and taught US and coalition forces COIN tactics on the border of Iraq and Kuwait (5-yrs.). During that time I published a book about asymmetric tactical training. The book was eventually reviewed by GEN Mattis, LTG Caslen, and COL Clark who was the director at the COIN Training Center in Kabul (CTC-A). I was told GEN Petraeus asked COL Clark to review the book. A month after that I was working at CTC-A and four months later was the curriculum developer. Since 2006 I have called the Philippines my home, so I have somewhat witnessed the end or near-end of one of the longest insurgencies in history. I am also front row center to over half of the longest conflicts in history since those conflicts are in Asia. I’m still not a US Marine, Special Forces, military officer, or affiliated with a prestigious university. But I try not to be biased and try very hard not to talk out-a-my ass.

Individual biases are internal to a person. They are self-imposed beliefs, self-educed prejudices, and individually reinforced preconceived notions. Individual biases can stop a person in his tracks when the evidence says keep going. Organizational biases are external to the individual, but have much adverse effect on individuals. The best example I can find is the abstract term motivation. The Department of Defense (DoD), in particular the U.S. Army (USA), explains motivation as a purely external phenomena; one that is outside the individual and exclusively applied and controlled by leaders. This is absolutely wrong. Motivation is both internal and external. People can motivate themselves without any help and someone can motivate others. Motivation is both internal and external. US Military organizational knowledge about motivation is biased, and as such incorrect. Now back to COIN and the evidence.

Insurgencies more often than not occur along with terrorism, instability, threat financing, criminal activity, and transnational organized crime. Fact; irregular threats like an insurgency have comorbid characteristics. Typically irregular threats occur simultaneously, but independently of each other. Irregular threats run in a pack and act like carnivorous self-serving wild animals. Irregular threats do not act in a pro-social manner and their activities are not based on rational choices, as hypnotized.

Mitigation and counter efforts therefore have to address the pack, not just one irregular threat at a time, like the insurgency, but all of the adversarial irregular threats simultaneously. Plans and operations; stability and development; safety and security; government and governance; information and operations; and financial management and monitoring are the “big six” areas of concern. Several of these “big six” areas are still lacking. Iraq and Afghanistan are blatant examples of what can go wrong if the “big six” are not addressed correctly and simultaneously. For example, stability and development still do not have a valid theoretical construct, or even a workable operational theory. As a result, an enormous amount of money was wasted by Dept. of State on stability operations (USAID is under the purview of state). To confirm this waste, review the reports from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Safety and security efforts are still not linked. The armed forces do a good job when it comes to security, but law enforcement entities, tangentially, do their own thing since their efforts are based on a law-enforcement-justice approach. This approach does not recognize irregular threats as being irregular and does not take-into-account the irregular environment. This is another Dept. of State area of responsibility. Government & governance and financial management & monitoring are two more Dept. of State areas of responsibility. Both of these areas of concern do not recognize irregular threats as being hybrid, or asymmetric. Both of these “big six” areas have decided not to embrace, absorb, or even consider the irregular threats operating concept. Biases against the irregular threats concept or biases against the military? Who knows?

While the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were being dealt with head-on, the rest of the pack were busy chewing on the carcass.

Ok, so there you go. But what do I know…I’m not even an NCO now since I’m retired.

Take care.

Joe C.