Guerrilla warfare is nothing new. Neither is proxy war. China’s history of using indirect methods to erode and undermine their enemies without battle goes back to the earliest treatises on warfare written by the general T’ai Kung. (Sun Tzu’s admonition that supreme excellence is found in victory without fighting has nothing to do with pacifism or diplomacy; it is about using politics, economics, and espionage to precipitate the enemy’s collapse before armies ever took to the field.) Alexander waged a vicious counterinsurgency in Sogdiana (now Afghanistan) after the fall of Darius.
But the twentieth century, post-World War II, saw guerrilla warfare and proxy war elevated to levels no one had seen before. Faced with nuclear weapons on both sides and the graphic illustration of what those weapons could do following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. and the Soviet Union embarked on a 45-year proxy war waged against allies and interests with covert action, guerrilla uprisings, and coups.
In the process, the techniques of such shadow warfare have been codified and refined. From Mao Zedong’s “On Guerrilla Warfare” to Carlos Marighella’s “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla” to Che Guevara’s “Guerrilla Warfare,” the techniques of waging guerrilla war are easily accessible, and were often disseminated by the Soviets. Many of these guerrilla wars were successful, as well, by using politics and information warfare to get even the West on the same side as the communist guerrillas. ZIPRA and ZANLA in Rhodesia are a classic example.
The Soviets and Cubans weren’t the only ones to support guerrilla proxies against their adversaries, either. The U.S. did it; just look for “Clandestine Operations Manual for Central America,” a guide to (primarily) the political-indoctrination portion of guerrilla warfare, specifically oriented for the Contras.
Not only that, but it was through the U.S. collaboration with Pakistani ISI that some of the more extreme Islamist literature and Salafist ideology began to spread. The U.S. considered radical Islam a promising proxy weapon to use against the Soviet Union. Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated for appealing to Islam by way of encouraging “dissidence” within the Soviet Union. How much the people supporting the preaching of jihad against the atheistic Soviets understood about what they were backing is unclear; it appears doubtful they comprehended the consequences.
What we face today, the growing normalization of guerrilla and proxy war, the cellular nature of threats that makes transnational and regional threats into a hydra of small groups united by agenda and knowledge rather than hierarchy and organization, is the unintended consequence of the steps taken to fight the Cold War.
Direct confrontation with the Soviet Union became too dangerous once the Russians demonstrated that they had nuclear weapons. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction forced both sides to find other means of enforcing their interests and projecting power that wouldn’t tip either side over the edge into open war. Even if the war started purely conventionally, with tanks trading fire in the Fulda Gap, it was believed that any such confrontation would inevitably escalate to a nuclear exchange.
So steps were taken to isolate both sides from their proxies, even where the war was especially hot. The Soviets supported revolutionary/Marxist groups all over the world, from the Cuban-backed rebels in South America to the Vietcong, Pathet-Lao, and Khmer Rouge in Southeast Asia, and the likes of ZANLA, ZIPRA, and the ANC in Africa. Again, this support was to varying degrees, often going through Cuban or other proxies. The U.S. supported the Contras in Nicaragua, attempted (albeit half-heartedly) to overthrow Castro using Cuban exiles, and supported the Mujahideen through Pakistani ISI.
The end result has been twofold. One, the genie is out of the bottle. The techniques have been shown to be successful and the information to put them into practice is readily available. As a result, any group with enough of a grievance and an audience provided by modern telecommunications can begin an insurgency. Global networking allows them to communicate with and gain support from any other groups or players, national or non-state, that have an interest in either their cause or the destabilization that their violence and disruption causes.
Two, the success of proxy and guerrilla war has resulted in it becoming the default method of power projection for any would-be global player (aside from the U.S., in many cases). Russia supports militias and rebels in eastern Ukraine, Iran supports Hezbollah and sends IRGC Qods Force operatives all over the world to pursue covert warfare against the Islamic Republic’s enemies, and China wages economic and cyber warfare while occasionally lending well-concealed support to criminal and insurgent groups to further their own interests.
Disorder spreads. Conflicts continue to crop up in East Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Global networking is inspiring lone-wolf Islamists such as the shooters in Australia and France. And the groundwork was laid in an attempt to avoid nuclear Armageddon.