View Full Version : The shadowy world of proxy wars By Faqir Hamim Masoom - 6 January 2016

6th January 2016, 09:23 AM
Pakistan has, of late, positioned itself to enhance diplomatic and security ties with its immediate neighbours, namely Afghanistan and China. Pakistan-India relations, however, continue to be plagued by the Kashmir dispute, an active nuclear arms race and perennial border tensions. Add to this the recent attack on the Pathankot air base in India, which has the potential of nullifying gains made by Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore. As the two South Asian giants aggressively pursue their national interests, they refrain from direct armed engagement, so as not to exacerbate nuclear tensions nor act in disobedience to international norms and practices.

South Asia is certainly not the only region that is plagued by conflict largely characterised by the use of proxy forces. Other countries willfully employ similar proxies as an integral part of their security agenda, which runs parallel to diplomatic endeavours. What drives modern states to overtly or covertly support armed non-state actors? Conventional conflicts have diminished in part due to the emergence of uni-polarity. The overarching international order no longer tolerates overt conflicts among nation-states. This does not necessarily mean that modern states have adopted the principles of idealism. Instead, states have begun to pursue alternative strategies to ensure an unwavering commitment towards their rudimentary precept, their very survival. But how are the overbearing principles of liberalism, in effect and very paradoxically, encouraging states to use proxies?

While the international order seemingly matured, it merely shrouded the Machiavellian tendencies of states, which emphasised the need for power maximisation. States began to invest in proxies to further their vested interests, therein avoiding any blatant contradiction to the prevailing idealistic international order and its emphasis on international organisations in addressing inter-state conflicts. Those states that still contemplated open warfare risked being isolated from the international community in some form or the other. Additionally, as in the case of Pakistan and India, the threat of a nuclear war served as a much more effective deterrent.

Take, for example, the ongoing Syrian conflict. As part of the 2011 Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad’s despotic reign was overtly challenged. Protests demanding a change in government soon morphed into a bloody civil war. Factions from Assad’s armed forces defected to form a resistance force, the Free Syrian Army. These domestic resistance groups have also attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom cite sectarian differences as a reason for fighting. Among these foreign groups is the Jabhat-al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that holds an unfavourable view of Assad on account of his sectarian identity.

Subsequently, the lack of governance has created a power vacuum. This has allowed outside powers, both regional and global, to influence Syria’s political future, by extending support to favourable proxies. In 2013, the New York Times reported that “with help from the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters”. By backing an array of anti-government proxies, fears persist of American supplied weapons falling into the hands of religious extremists. The inability of America to track the weapons it supplies to Syrian rebels could pose a security threat to Israel and other US regional allies. Ambitions of regime change via proxies has further embroiled America and other key international players into a crisis in which there is little hope in alleviating Syria’s burgeoning refugee and humanitarian crisis.

Maintaining proxies is a messy business, but why do states continue to do so? And how does it shape the accepted norms of international conflict resolution? Despite a resilient international liberal order in place, regional tensions have triggered both a conventional and nuclear arms race (especially in the case of Pakistan and India). Pushed by a desire to remain within the selectively defined confines of internationally accepted principles, the employment of proxy forces holds an alluring appeal for states to exercise plausible deniability. In essence, an arms race is much like a proxy race, where both are driven by neck-to-neck reciprocity, all in an effort to curtail the mutually-shared sense of insecurity. The employment of proxies has been commonly witnessed in the contemporary dynamics of many conflict-prone regions, thus paving way for the resurgence of proxy wars as a significant feature of today’s conflict resolution and in the process, redefining the tacit acceptance of international norms of conflict.

As long as America’s strategic presence remains unchallenged, countries will continue to pursue their national interests by employing proxies, thus allowing them to engage in international conflicts without acting in blatant disobedience of the overarching global order as defined and enforced by the unipolar hegemon.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2016.