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.