Why No One Ever Really Wins a Proxy War

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series addressing the challenges associated with proxy warfare, in particular as it plays out in the Middle East and North Africa, and ways to address these issues at the national and international levels. See also Part 2 on civilian casualties and Part 3 on the U.N.’s role.)

As the world struggles to marshal the resources needed to contain the coronavirus, the need to resolve long-simmering conflicts around the world has become all the more pressing, if for no other reason than the need to re-direct resources to the health crisis and to rebuilding devastated economies. It was therefore somewhat surprising that in the midst of the epidemic, the U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intent to continue to advance multi-billion dollar arms deals with India. These deals have been in the works for some time, but they include the sale of Stinger missiles and other small arms and light weapons that may be of particular interest to the Indian government now, considering the flare-up in the conflict with Pakistan in Kashmir over the past year. The irony is that such missiles might one day be used to shoot down American-made F-16s that were sold to Pakistan on the condition that they would not be used in Kashmir, but nonetheless were deployed there last year. While the direct conflict between India and Pakistan has subsided for the moment, both sides continue to support proxies aimed at containing the other side.

A study by an expert working group convened by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, where we work (one of us was on the working group), examined the dynamics of such proxy conflicts — and the role of arms sales. It concluded that such conflicts are particularly likely to become protracted and deadly for civilians. Yet, despite those risks, governments continue to engage in proxy warfare, because they believe the perceived positives — ability to influence events far afield, lower risk to their own personnel, lower cost, less political blowback — outweigh the negatives.

But empirical research suggests that providing military assistance — including weapons, funds, and logistical support — increases the duration of conflict and the impact of fighting on the civilian population. In some cases, providing security assistance may actually increase the financial and political costs, as sponsor states hemorrhage resources to the conflict, often to the dissatisfaction of the domestic population. Moreover, potential misconduct by the proxy may expose the sponsor state to an increased risk of legal liability.

For example, over the last 16 years, the United States has poured tens of billions of dollars into building security forces in Iraq in the hopes that they would independently prevent the emergence of terrorist or insurgent groups that could threaten U.S. interests. Iraqi security forces, however, failed to prevent the emergence of the Islamic State — which the Pentagon now reports is regrouping — and failed to curb the emergence of Iranian-backed militias, the same ones that attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy shortly before the U.S. killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.

The failure of these security forces to achieve U.S. objectives, whether through lack of capacity or will, is not a new concern. For example, in 2007, just four years after the U.S. invasion, the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq — a panel appointed by Congress to conduct an assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces — concluded that the Iraqi National Police (now known as the Federal Police) had engaged in sectarian abuses and illegal activities since their formation in late 2003.

The commission recommended the force be disbanded. For reasons that remain unclear, it was not. Rather, it was reorganized in a manner aimed at preventing, among other issues, sectarian abuses and infiltration by Iranian-backed militias. Despite these reform attempts, the Federal Police reportedly participated in — or at least acquiesced to — the killing of protesters by Iranian-backed militias during recent protests in Iraq calling for government reform and an end to corruption.

The failure to reform the Iraqi National Police in a manner that achieved U.S. interests demonstrates the challenges of controlling proxies in far-off countries, even when the sponsor state heavily invests in the proxy’s success. Indeed, the Expert Working Group found that interest divergence is typical in such conflicts, as proxies utilize the influx of resources for their own agendas, such as the sectarian agenda of the Iraqi National Police. Similar dynamics have plagued efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Syria.

Broader Global Implications

These challenges have broader global implications in light of the fact that post-9/11, the United States doubled down on its strategy of supporting local proxies to deal with terrorist threats. Research indicates that U.S. security assistance increased by over 229 percent from 2001 to 2019. By 2006, the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review — the primary strategic planning document for the U.S. military — began listing “train and equip” authorities as a key tool in the fight against terrorism.

The United States’ increased reliance on indirect warfare as a means to combat terrorism has profound human rights implications. One study found that, while security assistance to foreign security forces may help democratic regimes become more professional, it might actually contribute to abuses by authoritarian regimes. Even if security assistance does not directly contribute to human rights violations in oppressive regimes, there are grounds for concern that such assistance may help such regimes stay in power, thereby prolonging their repressive tactics.

The U.S. also supports non-state armed groups. A key study found that foreign support of these groups increased the risk of atrocities, as armed groups with foreign backing are less likely to be dependent on the local population for support. As a result, proxy forces are more likely to prey on the population for resources or to use violence to intimidate civilians. Such acts are often unlawful and may in turn increase the risk of liability of the sponsor for providing assistance to groups engaged in illegal activity.

In addition to being more likely to commit atrocities, proxy forces also are prone to engage in criminal conduct. Non-state armed groups that receive foreign support often devolve into criminal enterprises to maintain diverse funding sources, and thus independence from the sponsor’s demands. Such criminal conduct can include the sale of weapons provided by sponsors on the black market. For example, weapons provided by the United States to militias in Syria quickly ended up in the hands of the Islamic State.

Long-Term Effects

Once they begin to form criminal networks, armed proxies are even more difficult to control. These challenges often continue for decades after the outbreak of conflict, making it extremely difficult to re-establish the rule of law in post-conflict settings. That has been the case in the wake of many internal armed conflicts throughout Latin America.

Moreover, competition between rival sponsors can contribute to frozen conflicts — that is, protracted conflict caused by cycles of intervention, as competition between rival sponsor states spurs more and more assistance. A study (“Selling to Both Sides: The Effects of Major Conventional Weapons Transfers on Civil War Severity and Duration”) published in 2012 by Matthew Moore in the International Interactions journal found that “in the 114 civil wars between 1946 and 2002 where at least 900 people were killed, no rebel group was transferred major conventional weapons without the government also receiving arms from another source.”

Many of the longest-running and deadliest armed conflicts in the world involve internal conflicts that were exacerbated by foreign intervention. Ironically, support of proxies may also lead sponsors to become entangled in conflicts they were seeking to avoid, because their proxies are unable to prevail without direct intervention by the sponsor.

To reverse these dynamics, states need to increase their ability to realistically assess the likelihood that proxies will lawfully achieve their aims while also implementing more effective oversight mechanisms to deal with proxies who deviate from their sponsors’ goals or break the law. While disputes continue over interpretations of the law, the existing international legal framework generally provides clear parameters for the provision of assistance to proxy forces, whether state or non-state actors.

Why then have efforts to curtail these dynamics failed? The primary reason appears to be a failure of enforcement, not a gap in the law. In the case of arms sales to India, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently recommended that the State Department designate India a country of particular concern due to credible reports of widespread mistreatment of religious minorities. If the department does so, by law, arms sales could only continue if India is issued a waiver. Unfortunately, past practice suggests that the State Department may be more likely to disregard the commission’s findings in order to avoid the tension in the bilateral relationship that may ensue from issuing such a waiver or suspending arms sales.

In part 2 of this series, we look at how the State Department has historically dealt with such situations and what lessons can be drawn from this past practice when other countries develop domestic-oversight mechanism.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. These statements have not been approved by the ABA House of Delegates or Board of Governors and should not be construed as representing ABA policy.)

IMAGE: A handout picture received from the US embassy in Iraq on December 31, 2019, shows smoke billowing from a sentry box at an entrance of the embassy in the capital Baghdad, after supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi military network breached the outer wall of the diplomatic mission during a rally to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. It was the first time in years that protesters had been able to reach the building, sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone. (Photo by -/US EMBASSY IN IRAQ/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Brittany Benowitz

Chief Counsel of the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The statements have not been approved by the ABA House of Delegates or Board of Directors and should not be construed as representing ABA policy.

Alicia Ceccanese

Legal Fellow for the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights.