Proxy warfare has come to occupy a central role in the United States’ national security strategy in the post-9/11 era, and U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have become America’s foremost sponsors of foreign proxies. SOF-sponsored proxy warfare has underpinned counterterrorism operations across the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia for nearly two decades. During that time, counterterrorism operations have largely been the driving force shaping the military’s strategic, organizational, financial, and technological direction. Even as U.S. national security strategy shifts toward great power competition and conventional military supremacy, the military’s investment in partners to undertake counterterrorism operations has hardly diminished. As Congress considers this year’s annual defense authorization bill, the House and Senate have each included measures in their versions of the bill – albeit in very different directions – that will shape the future of Special Operations Forces and proxy warfare. These proposals offer an opportunity to consider what that future should be.
What “Proxy Warfare” Means for the United States
“Proxy Warfare” is a loaded term. When the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights convened an Expert Working Group — of which I was a member — to examine the international legal framework governing proxy warfare, we understood both the messy connotations and the definitional difficulties associated with the term. What we intended to capture was a set of relationships involving: i) a sponsor who provides assistance with ii) an intent to facilitate specific actions by a recipient, and iii) a recipient who may have a range of motivations but commits to taking those actions intended by the sponsor. As Andrew Mumford summarizes it, “proxy wars are the logical replacement for states seeking to further their own strategic goals yet at the same time avoid engaging in direct, costly and bloody warfare.” The sponsor may rarely in practice exercise “effective control” over the recipient [meaning that, legalistically, state responsibility for its actions is not engaged], but the fundamental nature of the relationship establishes the recipient as a means to the sponsor’s ends — potentially even where those ends do not coincide with those of the recipient. While many might use the term to refer solely to support of non-state armed groups, such a narrow view misses the escalatory dynamics between rival sponsors that characterize proxy warfare.
The United States has adopted proxy warfare as an intentional strategy through which to address a post-9/11 national security landscape where threats have generally been less than existential, but have proliferated in geographic scope, diversity, and complexity. Direct U.S. military interventions to confront these threats have been evaluated to be untenably risky and costly. U.S. leaders looked at loosely-affiliated terrorist groups in dozens of nations around the world and saw a need to act, but also saw that the resources and political will necessary for the U.S. military to confront these threats alone would likely be far beyond reach. Instead, leaders opted to work “by, with, and through” partner forces. U.S. Special Operations Forces, which have for decades undertaken proxy support as part of Foreign Internal Defense activities, have more than doubled in size since 9/11 and have become the designated specialists in working by, with, and through both state and non-state proxies in support of more mainstream missions.
To understand how the United States engages in proxy warfare as defined above, let’s take a brief tour through some representative examples of U.S. security assistance in the post-9/11 era. These examples fit a pattern that has been repeated many times across the Middle East and Africa, wherein U.S. attempts to facilitate the actions of local actors – including both state and non-state armed groups – in support of its own interests led to failures to achieve the immediate security objectives of the effort, enhanced risk or harm to civilians, prompted counter-interventions by adversaries or rivals, and ultimately deepened rather than lessened regional instability. Unquestionably, in some cases, such as the “Sons of Iraq” example discussed below, support of local proxies has been viewed by military leaders as a successful strategy, though results are usually complex. More often, though, proxy efforts have followed a troubling pattern. And in most cases, though certainly not all, SOF played a central role.
Our Recent Proxy Warfare History
The two major post-9/11 military operations — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — have followed a similar pattern as laid out above. In both contexts, the United States has worked through well-organized non-state militias (Kurdish militias in Iraq; the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan) and through other, less organized armed groups (the Sons of Iraq and various other militias in Iraq; various pro-government militias, SOF-sponsored “village defense forces,” and the quasi-state-sanctioned Afghan Local Police in Afghanistan). Simultaneously, the United States sought to build the capacity of national security forces as explicit stand-ins for U.S. forces, succinctly summarized in the Bush Administration with the slogan “as they stand up, we stand down.”
U.S. support for the “Sons of Iraq” (SOI) during the height of the Iraq insurgency is emblematic of U.S. proxy strategy. Though some might argue that the SOI cannot be proxies because they were fighting alongside U.S. forces, their relationship carries all the hallmarks of a proxy arrangement: SOI were paid by and directed by the United States to carry out specific tasks to advance U.S. military strategy. The Congressional Research Service describes the fee-for-service relationship:
In theory, SOIs “work for” the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], while the coalition forces pay them. Division and brigade commanders on the ground, interacting with SOIs, reinforce that message. In practice, however, SOIs are designed to fill the gaps — to “thicken the ranks” — where ISF presence is limited, so they may be more likely to have regular interaction with coalition forces counterparts. In any case, SOI groups are only created in areas where their work can be supervised.
Next door in Syria, the model evolved. The United States assembled, trained, and armed an opposition force to combat Bashir al-Assad’s loyalist military. Reportedly beginning with a CIA program in 2013, and bolstered by a Defense Department initiative authorized in 2014, “support entailed ammunition and small arms, including rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and valuable anti-tank guided missiles. Critically, it also entailed money for salaries, without which commanders could not recruit or retain fighters who would desert or defect to better-resourced extremist groups.” President Donald Trump cancelled the program, which reportedly involved both the CIA and SOF, in 2017.
American SOF have also supported a state proxy in the Philippines for most of the two decades since 9/11 as a means to combat Islamic extremist groups there. The U.S. Special Operations Command stood up the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in 2002 to provide training, equipment, and “advise-and-assist” support to Filipino counterparts to facilitate their long-running campaign against these terrorist groups. The Task Force operated until 2015. Then, in 2017, the Department of Defense (DoD) launched Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines to assist Filipino counterparts to respond to a terrorist resurgence. The U.S. provided the Philippines roughly $50 million – a significant percentage of that nation’s military budget — annually from 2002 to 2016 to support counterterrorism capacity building and operations.
Somalia offers a spectrum of examples of U.S. proxy warfare involving both state and non-state actors. Around 2006, the United States began supporting the so-called “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism,” a loose collection of warlords that committed to fighting against alleged Al-Qaeda operatives in exchange for U.S. remuneration. This relationship provides a classic example of proxy warfare and its risks: ultimately, the corruption, abuse, and heavy-handedness of the warlords prompted the rise of the Islamic Courts Union, a predecessor to the Al-Shabaab militia that has held Somalia under siege to varying degrees for the last decade.
Ironically, such failures at various points in Somalia spawned a doubling down on proxy warfare as a strategy. The United States provided “extensive behind-the-scenes support” for an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 designed to topple the Islamic Courts Union. That invasion created massive anti-Ethiopian and anti-American sentiments among the Somali populace, and Ethiopia’s 2009 withdrawal prompted the near-immediate ascendance of Al-Shabaab.
In turn, Al-Shabaab’s rise prompted the U.S. to provide more than $2 billion in capacity-building support to AMISOM, the African Union-blessed coalition created to fill the security void left by Ethiopia. U.S. security assistance was also invested in a different type of proxy: the private security contracting firm Bancroft. As the security situation evolved, the U.S. has continuously invested substantially in building up the Somali National Army. In particular, the U.S. has worked through SOF to provide tens of millions of dollars to train and equip the Danaab special forces unit, which has been used to pursue counterterrorism targets deemed priority threats by the United States and to support U.S. missions against those targets.
Thus, one could argue that the U.S. strategy in Somalia has included working through a host-nation proxy, a third-party state proxy, an international-coalition proxy, a non-state proxy, and a private-contractor proxy. Rarely, if ever, have the interests of these groups aligned with those of the United States; instead, they are motivated by cash and profit-making; clan, ethnic, and religious rivalries; and domestic politics. But they were all harnessed to advance U.S. strategy in Somalia.
Given the growth in support to both state and non-state armed groups and the risks attendant in such partnerships, the ABA Center for Human Rights Working Group examined whether there is a sufficient oversight regime in place for these activities. It concluded that the current regime is strong but has not been implemented properly. This implementation gap is particularly dangerous when it comes to support of non-state armed groups, which typically function outside the accountability mechanisms in place for regular forces.
One key weakness in U.S. law is the lack of transparency regarding SOF support of both state and non-state armed groups provided to the DoD under Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 127e. This authority serves as the basis for the U.S. government’s most explicit proxy warfare program, authorizing SOF “to provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating authorized ongoing military operations by United States special operations forces to combat terrorism.” It was described by an active duty Green Beret officer as “less ‘We’re helping you’ and more ‘You’re doing our bidding,’”
Because its activities are highly classified, little is publicly known about the scope, type, or impact of this assistance. U.S. Army General Raymond Thomas, then-Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, however, testified in 2018 that in the previous year, “we expended nearly $80M in OCO funding to resource 21 programs.” Sources have confirmed 127e operations in numerous African countries, including Tunisia, Niger, Mali, Libya, Somalia, Kenya, Cameroon, and Mauritania.
Two Alternative Futures
The House recently passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (FY21 NDAA). Section 1701 would direct the Comptroller General to conduct a comprehensive review of the 127e authority discussed above, and would establish procedural requirements for planning and ending programs conducted under that authority. This much-needed review offers an opportunity to reevaluate how the United States conducts proxy warfare through Special Operations Forces, both programmatically and strategically.
The good practices recommended by the Expert Working Group offer a roadmap to guide review at the programmatic level. Its recommended practices are divided into four categories:
- Risk assessments
- Oversight of assistance and its use
- Investigation of potential abuses
- Controls over the transfer of arms and equipment
The Comptroller General should assess the 127e authority against each of these categories. It should evaluate whether sufficient tools exist to assess risk in advance of 127e activities, including risks that assistance will facilitate conduct by recipients that violates human rights or contributes to civilian casualties. It should examine whether adequate controls govern the provision of military assistance to partner forces and whether SOF units have the capabilities to effectively monitor assistance once provided. And finally, it should consider whether the Defense Department has both the means and the will to investigate reports of human rights abuses and other misconduct potentially involving U.S. support.
The Defense Department’s ability to control and oversee assistance should be a particular focus. For nearly every other assistance program, Congress has established multiple layers of oversight by requiring public disclosures, annual reporting, and intensive approval processes. All invite scrutiny by Executive Branch agencies, Congress, and the public.
The 127e program stands in stark contrast: its operations are highly classified and briefed to only to a narrow group of policymakers within the interagency and a select few congressional members and staff. Policymakers and congressional staffers who work in areas likely to be most affected by 127e operations – traditional foreign assistance and diplomacy activities, for example – are generally not included among those briefed. Despite the fact that the program provides direct assistance, including training and equipment, to partner security forces, it is exempt from reporting requirements on partner security assistance. The amount, types, and recipients of 127e assistance are unknown outside a small circle, limiting accountability and profoundly challenging the government’s ability to plan, coordinate, and integrate comprehensive assistance packages to its partners.
Any review of the 127e authority and the FY21 NDAA should consider expanding transparency about assistance, particularly to state actors, and better integrating such assistance with broader aid, diplomacy, and other military activities. Likewise, the application of controls — including compliance with both domestic and international legal obligations — to arms transfers should be diligently scrutinized.
Aside from programmatic considerations, the review should generate a discussion of the discretionary and actual use of the 127e authority to advance U.S. national security interests. When, how, and under what circumstances should the United States be providing clandestine assistance to non-state or state recipients in direct support of active military operations? Has the United States become too reliant on proxy operations that obscure cost and risk? Have such operations been effective in achieving strategic objectives or have they created blowback and extended conflicts? How do these proxy operations, largely focused on counterterrorism, fit in with the U.S. national security strategy’s shift toward great power competition with China and Russia?
In short, the 127e review offers the Defense Department and Congress an opportunity to reinvent the United States’ flagship proxy warfare program in accordance with best practices for ensuring these activities are lawful, accountable, and transparent, and that they truly advance U.S. national security interests. Indeed, such a review can and should spark a broader consideration of proxy warfare’s role in advancing U.S. national security and of the processes and policies governing it. Whether or not its congressional drafters had such objectives in mind, it offers a far more responsible future for proxy warfare.
Senate Scenario: Bypassing Accountability
An alternative to this future is presented by the Senate, which also recently passed its version of the FY21 NDAA. Its provisions, unfortunately, hold the potential to further remove special operations from accountability and transparency. Section 901 would elevate the assistant secretary for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), the official directly responsible for civilian oversight of special operations forces and the range of activities these units conduct short of war, to a position reporting directly to the top two officials in the Defense Department. The assistant secretary for SOLIC would therefore have a direct line to the secretary of defense, bypassing policy processes designed to balance competing equities across different missions, regions, and services.
As the bill makes strikingly clear, the SOLIC organization would be accountable to no one else: “No officer below the Secretary of Defense or the Deputy Secretary of Defense (other than the Assistant Secretary) may intervene to exercise authority, direction, or control over the Secretariat in its support of the Assistant Secretary in the discharge of such responsibilities.” Yet the assistant secretary for SOLIC, already “has authorities like those of a service secretary for exercising administrative and policy control over designated forces.”
Proponents of the Senate proposal have argued that SOLIC’s elevation is needed to fix anemic civilian oversight. A recent article by authors who include a recently retired acting assistant secretary for SOLIC concluded that, “[i]nsufficient civilian oversight has contributed to the command’s over-emphasis on direct-action capabilities, ethics problems, and a special operations force that is ill-prepared to meet the challenges of great power competition.” They argue that, though the assistant secretary for SOLIC may already have authorities similar to a service secretary, in practice special operations forces are not subject to the same oversight as service secretary provide, and that four-star generals leading Special Operations Command can easily pull rank on the assistant secretary.
However, increasing SOLIC’s power and autonomy within the defense bureaucracy is unlikely to generate effective civilian oversight, particularly when it comes to proxy warfare. In fact, doing so will more likely result in a tail wagging an ever more aggressive dog. Secretaries of the military services are widely known to aggressively pursue greater shares of the defense budget without regard to strategic dictates. Empowering a SOLIC leader to engage in similar service rivalries risks extricating decisions about the size, resourcing, deployment, and operations of Special Operations Forces from a policy framework that seeks to balance capabilities against perceived risk and national security priorities. Untethering SOLIC also risks removing checks against broader and less accountable use of proxies.
As an aside, it is not clear that the proposal would address proponents’ other arguments, either. Though directly reporting to the secretary, the position would remain at the assistant secretary level, meaning that Special Operations Command leaders and other senior generals could still pull rank. Nor does the bill provide for the significant expansion of the SOLIC bureaucracy that would be required to deliver oversight equivalent to service secretariats.
This approach is particularly perplexing at a time when defense strategy is shifting toward more focus on great power competition with China and Russia. To contribute to strategic competition, Special Operations Forces, budgets, and missions need to be more deeply integrated into regional and service strategies, not less so.
We have before us two alternative paths for Special Operations Forces and U.S. proxy warfare. One follows a road through an exacting programmatic and strategic review of the SOF community’s 127e authority, arriving at a destination in which proxy warfare is conducted responsibly and rarely. In this future, the United States establishes checks against ill-advised proxy adventures that exacerbate civilian insecurity or threaten national security priorities and transparency invites public and policymaker investment in strategic choices involving the use of proxies. Another future sees proxy warfare continue to expand dramatically, and to be carried out in circumstances where oversight and strategic reckoning are deeply challenging.
Special Operations Forces are among our nation’s most prized military assets: they are the most qualified and well-trained personnel the military can field, ready to take on the most complex, high-stakes missions imaginable with incredible precision. Protecting this asset does not mean advocating its unconstrained growth and use; rather, it means defending its quality, integrity, and sustainability. Doing so means ensuring that their ongoing conduct of proxy warfare operations is carefully overseen to prevent abuses, strategic miscalculations, and mission failures that could erode trust in the Special Operations Forces more broadly. This year’s defense authorization legislation will have much to say about how we protect this asset, who its partners will be, and whether those partnerships are sustainable and successful. Let us hope Congress chooses the right future.
(The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone.)