The announced strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham has been more of the previously championed “no boots on the ground” “strategy” that the administration has followed since the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War in 2011. Fortunately, the President hasn’t used the 2011 term “leading from behind,” probably because it might remind people of just how that ended up working out. Libya is now a chaotic basket case, with Tripoli in the hands of Islamist militants and continued fighting between Libyan government forces and Islamist militias in and around Benghazi. “Leading from behind” didn’t really work out very well there.
What the President described, very vaguely, boils down to using local proxies, namely the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and “other Gulf State partners” to combat ISIS. To some extent this is already happening, though it could more accurately be described as rendering aid by way of airstrikes.
Proxy war appears to be becoming the go-to method for power projection in the 21st century. Iran has largely used Hezbollah and the Sadrist organization to pursue its foreign policy goals, at least those that involve force. Saudi Arabia has used the Syrian opposition to strike at Syria, and, by proxy, Iran. Pakistan has been accused of using the Taliban to pursue its interests in Afghanistan, and in fact the Pakistani ISI has been a supporter of the Taliban and HIG in the past. Russia has used ill-concealed proxies in Ukraine, and it is arguable that the South Ossetian separatists in Georgia have served as Russian proxies in the past, as well. For that matter, Russia’s consistent stance supporting whichever faction the United States determines to be a target, from Saddam Hussein to Bashar al Assad, can be seen as a certain level of proxy war against the United States, all without putting a single Russian soldier at risk.
The People’s Republic of China pursues proxy war by means more difficult to detect; aside from cyber warfare, the Chinese are very good at moving into areas where there is chaos to exploit the natural resources available there. Africa has become the poster child for Chinese resource exploitation, but, more close to home, while the US has been doing the lion’s share of fighting in Afghanistan, most of the mining of that country’s extensive mineral reserves has been done by Chinese companies. And Chinese companies are always, on some level, owned by the State.
So, does the anti-ISIS strategy mean the US is joining the other interventionist powers in pursuing proxy war as a tool of foreign policy? On some level, yes. That’s obvious. However, looking at past history, even well before the current administration, we tend to be uniformly bad at it.
The first and most obvious example would be the Vietnamization campaign, beginning in 1969. The theory was to let the South Vietnamese handle the fighting, with our support and training, thus removing our troops from the front line and effectively using the ARVN as proxies against the NVA, who were being used by the Soviets and Chinese as proxies against the US. Unfortunately, the ARVN were about as effective as the present-day Iraqi Army, and crumbled in the face of the NVA offensive just six years later.
Several counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin America backfired on the US, mainly from a propaganda and IO perspective. Soviet proxies were very good at propaganda, and the often heavy-handed tactics of the Latin American governments the US supported provided the Communist propagandists with plenty of grist for the mill. The fact that the “underdog rebels bravely fighting the forces of injustice” were usually just as bad tended to go unnoticed.
The Soviet-Afghan War was probably the US’ most successful proxy campaign; the combination of the bloodletting in Afghanistan by the mujahideen, openly supported by the US (albeit only the factions the Pakistani ISI wanted supported) and the economic crumbling of the Soviet Union forced the Russians to withdraw from the country. At the same time, that campaign backfired, as well. Radical Islam was used as a very effective weapon against the Soviets, but resulted in a lot of Islamist fanatics running around, some of whom gravitated to increasingly militant groups, including Al Qaeda.
While not all mujahideen went the way of AQ (Masoud was one of the most capable muj during the Soviet-Afghan War, but received almost no Western aid, since ISI wanted it all going to Hekmatyar and his radical Islamists), a good portion of the Islamist global insurgency currently making headlines can be traced back to Afghanistan in the ’80s. The abandonment of the country to the warlords after the Soviets withdrew only strengthened the Islamists claims against the US.
If the US is going to keep trying to dabble in the proxy war business, we need to identify how to do it right. A large part of this is picking proxies who can be expected to succeed. With the exception of the muj, we seem to have a history of picking the weakest, most corrupt, most divided forces to be “our side.” Some of this (especially now) is based on an insistence on backing the “legitimate government,” whether that government has any pull in the battlespace at all. If you’re going to use proxies, you have to find somebody who’s got a chance of winning (and who isn’t all that likely to turn on you once the war’s over). That might mean doing business with some unpleasant people.
That brings up the next part. Regardless of whether a war is fought by regular forces on the battlefield, or proxies backed up by SOF, air, and spooks, propaganda and IO are essential. War is a matter, ultimately, of will. Without that IO/Propaganda side, you will probably lose the battle of will. Propaganda/IO has been made harder in the US in recent years, largely because our bubble’s gotten thicker. The cultural perception on both sides of the political divide insist on seeing the world through Hollywood lenses; there have to be “good guys” and “bad guys,” and they have to be far more black and white than anyone wants to see in fiction these days. The fact that the real world never conforms to this model creates real problems when attempting to wage war, whether directly or by proxy. If anything, it’s worse when you’re dealing with a proxy war situation.
If the US is going to attempt to play in the proxy war playground, it’s going to require, if anything, taking some pointers from the Russian playbook. Throughout the Cold War and the post-Cold War, the Russians have generally been pretty good at proxy warfare, using rebel groups, terrorists, organized crime, and mercenaries to accomplish their goals. Their focus is on Russian interests, not who the “good guys” or “bad guys” are. If you are going to back proxies instead of getting directly involved, you’ve got to lose some of the squeamishness and accept that “our guy” trumps “good guy.”
Image: PKK Fighters in Northern Iraq, where they are aiding the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army against ISIS. The PKK remains a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Image courtesy Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty