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


Major-General Tim Cross on Iraq: How did it get here and where is it going?

Major-General Tim Cross CBE was the most senior British officer in the building of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and now in retirement has become a military logistics expert. Here, Tim Cross gives us an overview of the military operations in Iraq over the last two decades and outlines his thoughts on what the future has in store for post-war Iraq.


Ten years ago today: a record-breaking rebellion in the House of Commons over Iraq

revoltstitle2Ten years ago today, a record-breaking rebellion took place in the House of Commons. It was the largest backbench revolt, by members of any political party, on any subject since Sir Robert Peel’s administration repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, at a time when the franchise was enjoyed by just 5% of the population, and before anything which resembled today’s political parties had been formed. In other words, it was the largest rebellion since the beginning of modern British politics.

The subject was Iraq, and the rebellion involved 121 Labour MPs. It held that record for just a under a month, until the (more famous) rebellion on 18 March, when 139 Labour MPs (mostly, but not entirely, the same ones) took part in an even larger rebellion. Whereas we suspect the March rebellion – which triggered British involvement in the war – will be marked with lots of coverage, the rebellion of a month before has been almost entirely overlooked.

But the two rebellions of February 2003 – in addition to the 121 Labour MPs rebelling on an amendment, some 60 also voted against the government motion – deserve remembering. They were not the first rebellions over the issue but they formed the first real indication of the scale of opposition on the Labour benches to the Iraq war.

The debate took place on a government motion. Both the Government’s motion for discussion and the rebel amendment were carefully framed. The government motion supported UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein without even mentioning the possibility of war, in order to rally support from as many pro-UN and anti-war MPs. The rebel amendment – moved by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Chris Smith – was deliberately cast in such a way as to generate the maximum possible cross-party support, not just from those opposed to war outright, but also from those in the ‘not yet’ camp; it argued that the case for military action against Iraq was ‘as yet unproven’.

Smith’s amendment was defeated by 393 votes to 199. The Government motion backing UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein was then carried by 434 votes to 124.

There was a gasp of disbelief in the Chamber when the result was announced. It was not that the vote was particularly close – the support of the Conservative frontbench meant that the Government won both votes easily – but the size of the Labour rebellion stunned many observers.

In addition to the 121 who voted against the government, just over 20 Labour MPs abstained. Most absented themselves or by ostentatiously remained seated in the chamber during the vote. Andy Reed, the MP for Loughborough, had voted in both lobbies in order to register his abstention. Reed was a Parliamentary Private Secretary and was expected to back the government in the division lobbies. Normally he would have been sacked immediately. It was a sign of the difficulties that the Government were in that he was allowed to remain in post for a few days, before he resigned.

The previous weekend the Chief Whip had warned the Prime Minister that the rebellion over Smith’s amendment could involve as many as 100 Labour MPs. But armed with the amendment, it had taken Peter Kilfoyle, a former Defence Minister, just an hour to gather sixty signatures in support of it. By the Tuesday morning, the day before the vote, more than 116 Labour backbenchers had already signed it, with every indication that the numbers could rise yet further. But up until lunchtime on the day of the vote the Labour whips were still expecting 145 Labour MPs to back Smith’s amendment, and were pleased at having contained it as well as they had done.

The Iraq rebellions – both those in February and those in March – were key moments in the history of the Blair government. Despite their record-breaking size, the real damage caused by Iraq lay not in the numbers. The problem came in the effect that the issue had on the Parliamentary Labour Party. Immediately following March’s record-breaking rebellion, one whip was definite: ‘Once CNN start beaming up the pictures of Saddam’s torture chambers and the stockpiles of chemical weapons that he claims he does not have, you won’t be able to find anyone who remembers voting against Tony Blair’.

Although the torture chambers and mass graves were found, the stockpiles never appeared – and it was because of the stockpiles that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party thought they had voted for war. For some, those who had already been critics of the government before, this was the factor that destroyed their already weakened faith in the Government’s judgement and direction. For others – especially those who had stuck to the party line, in many cases against their better judgement, because they had put their faith in Tony Blair and his arguments – this was a defining moment. They felt let down, betrayed even, by what had happened. As one concerned minister put it immediately after March’s rebellion:

We’re not only facing the danger that Iraq will give some MPs a rebellion habit, it’s also that they are not giving us the benefit of the doubt any more. People are asking us questions about where quite ordinary policies are going as if we have a hidden agenda.

Just as with much of the electorate outside the Palace of Westminster, so too inside: Iraq was the moment when many Labour MPs stopped trusting Tony Blair.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them

The forthcoming tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has prompted much debate – including the claim by Sam Parker in the Huffington Post that the invasion of Iraq and Tony Blair’s ‘hubris’ “robbed a generation of their faith in politics”. As a result of the Government’s refusal to change course, he and apparently his generation “don’t trust the political system, and… don’t believe in politicians”.  Owen Jones has similarly recounted his experience of discussing politics with young people: “When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched [against the Iraq war] ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t”, a sentiment shared by Andrew Murray who argues that the ‘shadow of the largest demonstration in history’ and the fact that it didn’t stop the war constituted a ‘body blow’ for British democracy.

There are good responses, on normative grounds, to both these articles, here and here, but is the claim true empirically?  Thanks to data available from the Audit of Political Engagement, the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society surveys, and the British Election Study, we can test the belief that Iraq has destroyed a generation’s faith in British politics.

Let’s start with measures of political efficacy – the perception of how capable people are of influencing political outcomes when they engage with politics. Figure 1 shows the political efficacy of young people (18 – 24 year olds) from the British Election Study (for 2001, 2005 and 2010) and from the Audit of Political Engagement (from 2003 – 2011). It also shows the efficacy of over 25s from the Audit series for comparison.

It is clear that the events of 2003 had virtually no effect on the perceived political effectiveness of young people, or indeed the rest of the electorate. In 2001, according to the British Election Survey just under 20% of 18–24 year olds reported having some feeling of political efficacy. By 2010, this figure had risen to 22%. The Audit of Political Engagement data shows that in 2003, 39% of young people reported some sense of political efficacy. This figure fluctuated slightly in the following 8 years, and was a slightly higher 41% by 2011. The lack of government responsiveness to the protests against the Iraq war therefore did little to disrupt British voters’ belief that they could change political outcomes if they engaged with politics.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (and Understanding Society from 2009) we can also look at interest in politics. Had the Iraq war destroyed people’s faith in politics, we might expect interest in politics to drop from 2004; if people didn’t feel that politicians would listen to them no matter what they did, why be interested in politics?

The British Household Panel Survey shows that in 2002, 60% of 18–24 year olds had at least some interest in politics. This fell to 57% by 2004 immediately after the Iraq war (hardly indicative of a collapse of political interest), and by 2010 had returned to 60%. There was no collapse in the political interest of young people after the invasion of Iraq.

Data from the British Election Study confirms these findings. Figure 2 shows a range of variables measuring the political attitudes of 18-24 year olds. It confirms that there was no sudden drop in their political interest between the 2001 and 2005 general elections. It also shows that whilst young people’s belief that it was their civic duty to vote in general elections did fall (by 6%) between 2001 and 2010, their overall satisfaction with British democracy – perhaps the most direct indicator relating to the argument that  Iraq destroyed faith in British politics –increased in the same period. In 2001, 58% of young people were satisfied with British democracy; by 2005, the election immediately following the Iraq war, this figure rose to 61%, and reached 66% by 2010. By the time of the general election after the Iraq war, young people were more likely to be satisfied with British democracy than they were before it. There is no evidence at all that an entire generation has been politically scarred for life by the invasion of Iraq or the events that surrounded it.

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

We can go further still in this analysis, however, and compare the political attitudes of the 18–24 year old cohort in 2003 with those of the 25–34 year old cohort in 2011. In other words, we can see how the political attitudes of the generation who were aged 18-24 in 2003 have changed as they have aged. Figure 3 below does just this, using data from the Audit of Political Engagement.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

The figures show pretty definitively that the young people of 2003 did not have their confidence destroyed by the invasion of Iraq, or Tony Blair’s refusal to call off the invasion. The proportion who agreed that they could influence politics if they engaged rose by 3% between 2003 and 2011, and their likelihood to say that they will definitely vote in a general election rose by a similar amount. Their interest in politics fell slightly (by 2%), but certainly not to an extent that would suggest a collapse in democratic confidence.

There was a notable increase of 8% in the proportion who felt that the British political system needs to be improved, but before we read too much into that we should note that the equivalent figures for the entire electorate are very similar: 63% of Brits felt that the British political system needed to be improved in 2003, and this reached 74% by 2011. The generation of 18–24 year olds in 2003 are certainly not alone in becoming more likely to think that British politics needs reform, and following the expenses scandal of 2009 perhaps this is not surprising.

We can see that the invasion of Iraq, the government’s refusal to call off the war, the accusations that dossiers were ‘sexed up’, and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction, actually did very little to undermine the faith in politics of any generation of British voters. These things may well have contributed to a growing feeling that the British political system needs reform, and to the steady decline in political interest over the last decade. But it is clear that there was no collapse of faith in democracy amongst the young people who protested against the invasion of Iraq – or amongst today’s young. People looking to pin the blame for the low political engagement of young people with British politics will have to look beyond Iraq for their explanation.

Stuart Fox