What is a Proxy War?


Storming out of Syria and taking control of key cities in a matter of days, the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has shown that Iraq’s stability could be very easily measured on the Richter scale. But state fragility, democratic deficits and measures of success in democracy promotion, are hardly the hot topic. Proxy wars are.

Left, right and centre, the media started using “proxy wars” and “proxy warfare” to describe what is happening in Iraq. Dusting the Cold War archives paid off: a catchy phrase, a newspaper seller, a tool for finger pointing. Any while journalistic zeal is usually overdoing it, this time they surely nailed it. What the ISIS is doing in Iraq is a fully fledged proxy war which hides centuries old Sunni-Shiite rivalry and spreads over many borders. All of this, however, makes for some pertinent questions: What is proxy warfare? Who is actually fighting in the Middle East? Why are they fighting? Oh, and let’s not forget, how do we stop it?

To put it simply, proxy wars are indirect interventions. To complicate things, proxy wars are indirect interventions in which a Beneficiary uses a Proxy against a specific Target. The labels used until now to speak of the parties involved in indirect wars vary from “client” and “patron” to “principal” and “pawn”, and are essentially tributary to the Cold War quest for bloc building. But proxy war history is lengthy, almost mythical, and heavily complicated by archival secrecy, and as a foreign policy tool its origins lay with George Kennan’s notion of psychological warfare, used against the Soviets.

What we see today, however, is much more than that and I argue it comes in two forms: 1) projecting a rivalry on an ongoing conflict by indirectly supporting a party (Guatemala in 1954, Afghanistan during the 1980s, Iraq now), and 2) using a third party to fight your conflict (Sudan’s use of the Arab rebel military group Janjaweed as a proxy agent in Darfur, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia supporting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army against the authority in Khartoum).

What makes them different is the different logic of indirect action that they follow. When using a conflict for their own interests, states substitute the war context. By providing economic and military assistance they further a conflict directed not necessarily at the party the proxy is fighting, but at their own rival. However, when they use a third party, not only do they substitute themselves, but they also delegate. Simply put, they empower a proxy to directly fight their enemy. In both cases, the result is a chain of dependencies, whose main strengths are plausible deniability and risk minimising.

So what is happening in Iraq? Like so many countries in Africa and Latin America, Iraq is a place of dumped rivalries. What complicates the picture is that besides decades long Western-Eastern ideological confrontation, the country is riddled with its own divides. And it’s not only the country, but the entire region. As former spokesperson for the US defence department J.D. Gordon said, what we are seeing now is a “proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the Iranians which is now spilled over into Iraq and there will be a lot more violence in the months, years to come.” On a local level, the conflict in Iraq brings forth Sunni claims for greater political representation and power-sharing. On a wider more regional level, Iraq becomes the background for projecting the complex and historically rich conflict between the Shia and the Sunni, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states funding ISIS and other rebels first against Syria and now against the government of Iraq (the latter being know to frequently align with Teheran).

Then if ISIS is co-dependent and the Saudis are the enablers, what is the right course of action? Turned into a question of counterinsurgency, there are not that many options. Unilateral direct intervention would create public outrage, and with Obama shifting focus onto East Asia it’s unlikely to happen (the 275 authorised military personnel sent to the US Embassy in Baghdad hardly makes the case for Iraq II, and despite Baghdad officially asking the US for airstrikes, talks point to limited targeted airstrikes similar to those in Yemeni and Pakistan). Indirect intervention is already happening, as archives will inevitably show decades from now. However, to stabilise the situation, a first step is to isolate ISIS by cutting the links between the proxy and the funding states (although intelligence sources reveal that their assets are now worth $1.5 billion). Secondly, there should be increased military collaboration with the extremely well organised and capable Kurdish pesh merga militia, while cautioning Turkey to look at the bigger picture and not just at possible Kurdish separatist repercussions. Lastly, the US has to bring to the table the people who have mastered indirect wars, have regional credible intelligence, and, strangely, who should have already been at the table since the fall of Saddam Hussein: Iran. Iran is no stranger to indirect intervention, its involvement in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas being well known. As shocking as the prospects of a US-Iran Axis of Good are, this the next logical step. After all, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, a common enemy is a good start for them to be friends.

Vladimir Rauta is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham researching proxy wars. He tweets @VladimirRauta


The CIA and drones: a case of déjà vu

As debate continues over whether or not the Central Intelligence Agency should be allowed to keep its drones, along come declassified documents to remind us that we’ve been here before.

This summer, Freedom of Information Act releases have added previously unknown detail to the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, and revealed Kissinger’s heartfelt conviction that Chile’s Allende needed to be removed. Another recently declassified, pertinent gem is the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) in-house history of the U-2 and A-12 projects, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974′. The U-2 (a designation so loaded with Cold War angst that four lads from Dublin named their garage band after it) is known primarily as the aircraft in which Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot, was shot down over Sverdlovsk, incurring the wrath of Nikita Khruschev and engendering the sort of non-apology that Washington administrations are prone to make when caught with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar. The U-2 (nicknamed ‘Angel’) also had a younger, faster sister, the A-12 (christened ‘Archangel’), capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3. These ‘inquisitive angels’, armed only with cameras and electronic sensors, were intended to conduct strategic reconnaissance over the Soviet Union, operating either so high, or so fast, that interception would be impossible.

Of relevance to airpower, intelligence, and general IR researchers alike, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ tells a compelling tale for several reasons. One is the length to which a state will go to gain intelligence on a potential enemy. As the Cold War deepened into the 1950s, it became obvious to American intelligence that, when it came to the Soviet’s strategic intentions, they had little or none. The few modern maps they had were the products of 1941-1943 Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions; thus, the maps ended at the Urals, only covering parts of Western Russia. The appearance of the Myasishchev M-4 in 1954, a Soviet jet bomber that appeared to constitute a strategic threat, coupled with Khruschev’s insistence that the USSR was making ICBMs ‘like sausages’, created enough panic in the Eisenhower Administration that what might otherwise seem an odd idea, a jet-powered glider with cameras and other electronic intelligence (ELINT) gear, was entertained.

The U-2 was quite fragile; in order to achieve the range necessary for overflights of the Soviet Union, and because, unlike U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft it had no secondary strike capability, as a weight-saving (and thus range-increasing) measure the U-2 was not designed to take much stress. Rough ground handling, crosswinds, or a hard landing would damage the airframe. The only thing preventing the Soviets from shooting down a U-2 would be its operational ceiling, 70,000+ feet, and the Americans’ assumption that Soviet radars would not be able to acquire, much less track, a target at that height. As the Eisenhower Administration was afraid that continuing to employ military aircraft and crews for periphery and overflights, the decision was made to leave the U-2s unmarked, and to put civilian pilots in them. After an initial attempt to recruit foreign nationals as pilots (plausible deniability, anyone?) which was a failure, the Central Intelligence Agency opened recruiting to U.S. Air Force and RAF pilots, who would then resign their commissions to be employed by the Agency. That anyone in the Eisenhower Administration believed or pretended that an unmarked airplane stuffed with cameras and ELINT equipment flown by non-uniformed (but obviously NATO) personnel would not cause an international incident if it was shot down deep inside the Soviet Union should be food for thought for IR researchers studying the use of drones, data-collecting, and other questionable manifestations of state behaviour. It also might help clear up American confusion about what is, and isn’t, an act of war.

Image by US Navy

Image by US Navy

As Bernard and Fawn Brodie noted in their From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution in Weapons and Tactics in Warfare, the history of warfare has seen a progression, from soldiers creating weapons for soldiers, to civilians creating weapons for soldiers. The U-2 program essentially adds a chapter to this narrative, with civilians creating a weapon for civilians. Or, was the U-2 a weapon? The Strategic Air Command’s General Curtis LeMay did not think so, stomping out of an early interagency intelligence meeting on the U-2 because he “wasn’t interested in an airplane without guns”; the U-2 was simply too postmodern a ‘weapon’ for him. If Clausewitz is correct, and war is the use of force or the threat of force to compel our adversary to do our will, then whatever intelligence we collect to aid either our threat-making, or our understanding of threats made by our opponent, complements our in-the-event-of-war effort.

‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ is also a cautionary tale of constantly underestimating one’s opponent. The CIA history relates, as mentioned before, that the scientific panels involved in its creation believed that the U-2 would be untrackable, if not unacquirable, by Soviet radars. However, the ‘why’ behind this reasoning is one of the great strategic fallacies powers make, which is to assume your enemy is static and unchanging; American scientists thought all mid-50s Soviet radars to simply be copies of radars sold to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. That this was not the case should have been evident to CIA mission planners from the very first U-2 overflight of the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956, which was detected by Soviet radars, though not tracked continuously. Even missions that were not ‘penetration’ flights (see Carol Cohn’s ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ for more on the military-industrial complex’s choice of language), i.e. never violated Soviet airspace, were the target of attempted intercept by Soviet fighters. Despite Eisenhower’s ‘rapid disenchantment’ with the program and the calling off of overflights throughout most of 1958 through 1959, enough photography was conducted to dispel the U.S. Air Force’s mythological ‘bomber gap’ and deny them additional funding for B-52s “to ‘catch up’ to the Soviets”.

Another myth that ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ helps to dispel is that the downing of Francis Gary Power’s plane over Sverdlovsk was a ‘lucky shot’ on the part of the Soviets. Cursory reading of the CIA’s history of the U-2 program paints a very different picture. As mentioned above, from the very first overflights in 1956, the Soviets had been able to track the aircraft, something the designers and proponents of the U-2 had assured policy makers would not happen.

As early as 1956, Eisenhower questioned “how far this should now be pushed, knowing that detection is unlikely to be avoided.” Nikita Khruschev had remarked that the April 9, 1960, overflight before Power’s May 1 flight should have been shot down, “but our anti-aircraft batteries were caught napping and didn’t open fire soon enough”. Indeed, earlier in 1960 the United States Air Force’s Air Technical Center had released a bulletin on Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), remarking they now felt the latest generation of SAMs had a ‘high probability of successful intercept’.

On May 1, 1960, Soviet radar started tracking Power’s U-2 before it ever entered the Soviet Union, and, over Sverdlovsk, an SA-2 SAM detonated “close to and just behind his aircraft”. Powers lived, but it was the death-knell for strategic reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.

It also meant the end of the other reconnaissance platform described by the CIA history, the Oxcart/A-12. Intended as a follow-on to the U-2 program, the Oxcart was capable of speeds in excess of Mach 3, and, like the U-2, it was thought that Soviet radars would not be able to acquire or track the aircraft. Much dearer in treasure than the U-2, which cost just under a million USD each at the time, each of the eighteen Oxcarts built cost 20 million USD. Even before the last Oxcart was delivered, Soviet advances in radar meant it would never be used for its intended purpose, strategic reconnaissance of the Soviet Union, and the program was terminated by the Johnson Administration in 1968, yet another cogent, cautionary tale of the defence acquisition process. Defence contractors promise the moon, but political events, production delays, and an adversary who is not static, but ever changing mean that, by delivery day, pricey military hardware can be irrelevant.

Image by CIA

Image by CIA

What conclusions can be reached over this gospel of inquisitive angels? It can be argued that the U-2, despite angering the Soviets with its on-again, off-again trespassing, contributed to Cold War stability between superpowers. Employing U-2 photography, American intelligence was able to ascertain that there was neither bomber nor missile gap, lessening if not preventing a potentially destabilizing arms race. The U-2’s camera work also contributed to American deterrence, identifying thousands of potential targets while charting heretofore unmapped sections of the Soviet Union. However, as with the current drone debate, the U-2 and A-12 programs had the twin problems of lack of government oversight, with CIA acquisition and operations kept from lawmakers, and overlap with United States Air Force operations, making the CIA strategic reconnaissance program redundant. Just as the CIA’s airplanes were handed over to the USAF in the seventies, so now is it being recommended that the civilian-run CIA hand its drones over to the uniformed Air Force because of a lack of oversight and redundancy with USAF activities. Lessons could be drawn from history about what the proper role of a civilian intelligence agency should be. Beyond its ability to question Cold War narratives, it is precisely this relevancy to current debate that makes FOIA Act releases like ‘The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance’ germane to airpower, security, and IR researchers today.

Frank Douglas Aigner did an MA in International Security & Terrorism at the University of Nottingham. He is currently a social studies and history teacher in Middlebury, Vermont.

An American perspective on the EU: The United States must enforce the necessity for European stability

Image by openDemocracy

Image by openDemocracy

Eurosceptiscm is gaining attention and support in the UK, and perhaps throughout Europe. Although this appears to be a European problem, any wavering in the stability of the European Union will have widespread effects on the global political economy. In the following post I examine eurosceptiscm from an American standpoint, and assesses how and why the United States must continue, if not increase, its support for unity within the European Union.

The cold war officially ended in 1991. Despite this, the United States has remained skeptical that there is not, nor will be, a future military threat from the Eastern hemisphere.  If this statement was once considered debatable, such doubts were surely quelled in the spring of 2006 when the United States began negotiations with both the Czech Republic and Poland to determine the best site for the future installation of an anti-ballistic missile site.

The United States has been an aggressive military nation since, or perhaps because of, its initial creation. We are a nation that profits and rarely shirks from military interference and must be realistic about future military engagements. The rationale for defending the EU solely for its appropriateness as a missile defense system against nations like Iran and North Korea only begins to touch on the benefits that the European Union provides for the United States. By combining 27 nations in unity the European Union provides the strongest ally in defense for the United States. We no longer have to address, nor stress, individual diplomatic relations in Europe, but can instead be sure of support from 27 of the world’s strongest nations. The benefits of having strong diplomatic ties with so many nations versus individual nations surely need no further explanation.

In the United Kingdom there is often a tendency to address only the western European nations when discussing the effectiveness of the European Union. In the United States, we must not adopt the British tendency to dismiss the Union as individual nations and study only the effectiveness of the EU as a whole. The Union is a federal state made up 27 member-states, 17 of which use the euro, and must constantly be examined as such. The benefits of the European Union lie not only in the diplomatic solidarity provided by a unity of such a large number of nations, but also in the economic stability provided by such a vast joining of nations.

Growing from the position as a strong “supporter” of European integration; the US/EU now holds the largest economic relationship in the world. In 2010 $1,537.4 billion flowed between the European Union and the United States. Today, the EU counts for 18.7% of exports from the US. Including services, and not including $131.9 billion of direct investments, the EU makes up more than 31% of all US trade relations. When looking at the increasing trend towards globalization, this relationship will only continue to grow as trade relations continue to dissolve international barriers.

At least, this is one scenario.

On the opposing side the relationship could completely dissolve, not through choice, but through inevitability.

The economic climate today has forced nations to reconsider their spending habits. In Europe, where the recession has caused some nations, specifically southern nations, to hover on the brink of bankruptcy, spending has been scrutinized to the point that each spending measure has become politicized. Eurosceptiscm, or criticism of the EU, is an act of opposition to the process of European integration. The idea centers on the thought that integration weakens the nation-state and claims that it is undemocratic (on the most-extreme side) or argues that the EU is too bureaucratic and costly (the most common argument). Whereas at one time the EU was considered a highly popular institution, today only 31.9% of citizens polled in a Eurobarometer test believe that the EU views the EU positively.

In the UK this view is especially strong. What used to be a notion of the Conservative Party is now a policy initiative that David Cameron recently delivered a speech on. In an age of increased austerity, Cameron has addressed the concern that the EU’s recent demand of a 6.8% increase in UK spending in the EU is unwarranted. What once seemed to be a mere financial grumbling of the Conservatives has become a popular prediction for some economists.

While the British are considering decreased relations with Europe, it may be useful to consider what increasing our relations with Europe could do for both the American and global economy. For the past year, a free-trade agreement between the US and Europe has become more attainable than any discussions in the past decade have alluded to. Both leaders of the private and public sector seem to agree that a free-trade agreement between the two continents could result in the stimulus that economists have been searching for since the 2008 crisis. Although tariffs between the US and EU are already low, the companies that do the most transatlantic trade argue that a decrease in the 3% average would mean huge savings for the firms.  As an agreement like this would boost the earnings of firms without have repercussions on the taxpayer, increasing support for EU/US relations to mature in a NAFTA-like agreement seems to be a feasible idea.

A free-trade agreement would not only act as a stimulus, but would help to weaken the growing American dependence on the Chinese. China has dominated the political debate in the US, which may or may not be accurate, but in reality trade with Europe is much larger than trade with China. Increasing our support for the EU would help to set a positive curve for demand and help to decrease the rate of acceleration of dependence on the Chinese. At the same time, Europe is considering the same type of agreement with China, as they recognize and need, the stimulus benefits from such a trade agreement. If we do not act then surely, as the past decade has shown, the Chinese will be quick to make an agreement with the EU. The Chinese know that fluctuation in the Yuan is always a concern and they would be quick to seal a deal that would help to increase stability in export and imports.

In order to benefit from such a trade agreement, a decision must be taken quickly on European and American trade relations. Without it the natural dissolution of trade barriers will allow this to happen inevitably, but in a slow process that would not act as a stimulus to growth on either side of the Atlantic.

Further reading

Facts and figures on EU-China trade

Anti-Europeanism and Euroskepticism in the United States

On the Economics of Euroscepticism

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Katrina Kelly is doing a PhD with the Centre for the Study of European Governance at the University of Nottingham.