Proxy Wars – the Role of External Elements

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Proxy Wars – Role of External Elements

Introduction: Proxy war or proxy warfare is a war that results when opposing powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly. While powers have sometimes used governments as proxies, violent non-state actors, mercenaries, or other third parties are more often employed. It is hoped that these groups can strike an opponent without leading to full-scale war. Opposing powers are usually core countries that have conflicting ideologies and interests with each other. However, a direct large-scale war between them would cause enormous damage to all belligerent powers. Therefore, they rather conduct proxy wars in developing countries in order to avoid loss and achieve some certain interests at the same time.

Why do states engage in proxy wars?

  1. The main reason behind the proxy wars has been the threat of nuclear holocaust resulting in mutually assured destruction. Drastic disaster that resulted from drop of nuclear bombs on Heroshima and Nagasaki terrified the whole world.

  2. Proxy war is comparatively less expensive than the direct engagement in war. A country may supply training, funds, weapons, intelligence, personnel, or shelter or some or all of them. In direct engagement, everything comes at stake.

  3. Independent conflicts may turn into proxy wars due to the intervention of external powers. For example, Spanish Civil War between Nationalists and Republicans turned into a proxy war when Nazi German and its allies started supporting Nationalists while USSR, Maxico and others started supporting Republicans.

  4. Proxy war is also preferred when there is a difference in military strength of two countries. For example, in Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel is far superior in military strength than the Arabs; therefore, Arabs are blamed that they resort to funding terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.

  5. Proxy war is also preferred when public is not in support of direct war. For example, in Soviet-Afghan war, American public had no interest in fighting a direct war. Therefore, USA supported Afghan Mujahideen against the USSR.

  6. Saudi Arabia and Iran have very tense relations. They may be punished economically by the imposition of trade sanctions if they go against each other in direct war. Therefore, they are fighting each other through proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

Proxy wars during Cold War Era: Although the first recorded proxy war happened as early as in 1529, it was not common until the Cold War set off by the ideological and political differences between the two victors of the World War II. During the Cold War, the two nuclear-armed superpowers did not wish to exchange blows directly since that would have led to a devastating nuclear war. Instead, both the U.S. and particularly the Soviet Union sought to spread their own spheres of influence all over the world, leading to many proxy wars such as one in Greek, Korea, Afghanistan and notably Vietnam. The first proxy war was a civil war in Greece between communists and non-communist. The Korean War was a proxy war. In the Korean War, the United States aided the South Koreans against the communist North Koreans who were aided by the Soviets and the Chinese. The Vietnam War was fought between the American backed South Vietnamese government and the Soviet and Chinese backed North Vietnamese government. In the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US was trying to carry out a small proxy war. It wanted to get Cuban exiles to fight so that it would not have to invade Cuba itself. In 1979 the United States was still reeling from its’ war in Vietnam, and the public in general were not in favor of another war the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. United States aided and trained Mujahideen for fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan

States use proxies for many reasons. For the United States, the issue is often cost: locals fight, and die, so that Americans do not have to. In addition, because they are local, they are often (though not always) more accepted by the affected communities, can better gain intelligence from them by drawing on community ties, cultural knowledge and a common language, and are less likely to promote a nationalistic backlash that so often accompanies foreign interventions. If the proxy is a guerrilla force, they often know the terrain better and can blend in with the population in a way that foreigners never could. For states like Iran, proxies are often the only option. Most states lack the power projection capacity of the United States and turn to proxies as a way to influence events far from their borders. Iran lacks a navy or massive airlift capacity necessary to sustain large forces in Yemen: supporting the Houthis gives Tehran influence there nonetheless. Even major powers like Russia lack sufficient air- and sea-lift capabilities, limiting Moscow’s ability to use its own forces far from Russia’s borders.

Proxy Wars: Post-Cold War Policy

Policy on proxy wars has essentially remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War. States utilize proxies as informal tools to influence situations in a manner that would benefit their state. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been numerous proxies in the Middle East and across Africa.

  1. Syrian Civil War 2011-Present: The civil uprising in Syria followed in the footsteps of other uprisings in the Arab world.However unlike in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Syrian uprising has resulted in aseemingly endless civil war. Like the causes of the other uprisings, Syrians are malcontent with their government. Syria has been backed by Russia since 2015, while the United States and Gulf States has provided logistical and military support to various groups fighting Assad’s regime since 2013. Proxy warfare in Syria has led to endless cycle of violence and bloodshed.

  2. Yemen 2004 – Present: Yemen is a state that is seldom mentioned in US media, but since 2004 there has been isa minor proxy war involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the US. Thesituation in Yemen is grounded in a civil dispute between the Sunni led government and the Houthis (Shiite rebels). The current incarnation of Yemen’s woes dates to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Gulf Arab states brokered a deal to remove longstanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh and replace him with President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  Saleh refused to fade away, instead lending his support to a rebellion by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. By March 2015, Mr. Hadi had fled into exile in Saudi Arabia and the Houthis had overrun the whole of western Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. Fearing an Iranian takeover, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a hurricane of airstrikes, targeting the Houthis and units loyal to Saleh.

  3. Lebanon War – 2006: For decades Lebanon has unfortunately operated as a staging ground for proxy wars between regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria as each nation vies for greater authority in the region. The Lebanon war began with an attack by Hezbollah against Israel. The Iranians supported Hezbollah and the United States supported Israel.

  4. Proxy war in Afghanistan: Pakistan’s supported Afghan Taliban in the past. Iran and India’s support for Northern Alliance. Amid the US pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains, Iran has formed a new Shia militia Hashd Al-Shi’i (Shiite Mobilisation) in the country by rebranding the Fatemiyoun Unit. The move is part of Iran’s “forward defence policy” to strategise its Afghan policy after the US pullout by August 31, 2021.

  5. Proxy war between India and Pakistan: Role of India in supporting the militant and separatist elements in Baluchistan. India’s support to TTP for wreaking havocs in PakistaPresence of India-focused militant groups in Pakistan and their activities in India. For long, Islamabad has complained about Baloch insurgents taking sanctuary across the border in Afghanistan and being actively supported by India’s intelligence agency, RAW.

Possible Effects of Proxy Wars

  1. Proxy wars result in tens of thousands of deaths, injuries and disabilities because they last longer than direct wars.

  2. Proxy wars also result in tens of thousands of displacements and refugees because of long lasting military actions which often target civilians.

  3. In proxy wars, attacks are often made to destroy the infrastructure like bridges, grid stations, universities, hospitals, houses etc of the opponent. Proxy wars are more dangerous than the direct wars.

  4. Sponsoring countries spend huge amount of money to support their clients. Billions of dollars are spent annually in proxy wars—a non-value added activity.

  5. Proxy wars destabilize the countries and the region. For example, proxy wars between Saudi Arab and Iran, between Israel and Palestine, between Pakistan and India, between USA and USSR and China have resulted in destabilization of their respective regions.

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