The New Era of the Proliferated Proxy War

War in the modern world is changing. Since the end of the Cold War inter-state war has declined globally, whilst even civil wars have become a relative rarity. But war is not becoming an obsolete element of human interaction.[1] Governments and militaries around the world are simply changing the way that their strategic objectives are secured. An approximate 50% reduction in major inter- and intra-state conflicts between 1990 and 2010 belies a significant shift in global attitudes to war.[2] A heightened perception of risk, greater restrictions on military expenditure as a result of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, and a greater public aversion (in the West at least) to conventional confrontation has led to an accentuated appeal for national security goals and defence priorities being attained by other means. This is the era of indirect war by proxy.

Concerns over the increased recourse to proxy war are currently prevalent given how the West is tackling the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) in part through the delivery of large amounts of weaponry, ammunition, and money to moderate Syrian rebel groups and the Kurdish peshmerga. Furthermore, Russian military action in the Crimea in 2014 caused much consternation in the West over fears that the Kremlin was attempting to coerce its regional neighbours and expand its borders via ambiguous but aggressive military action.[3] So-called little green men—Russian volunteers, insisted Russian President Vladimir Putin—took control of key areas in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart ()

The resurgence of proxy warfare (a type of conflict long associated with the Cold War) does not reinvent the wheel in strategic terms. Indeed, in many ways contemporary proxy warfare is the latest iteration of what Sir Basil Liddell Hart labelled the indirect approach. Liddell Hart based his notion on an understanding that brains were a more effective strategic lever than brawn, arguing that indirect methods “endow warfare with intelligent properties that raise it above the brute application of force.”[4] This required focusing strategic efforts on the psychological will of the enemy, emphasising the nature of surprise. Such characteristics remain pertinent factors in understanding how states aim to degrade and ultimately destroy the capabilities of groups like ISIS, or undermine rival regional powers today. As such, contemporary proxy warfare is a modern manifestation of an indirect strategic approach.

This article reinterprets Liddell Hart’s strategy by arguing that the indirect component of modern warfare is not about the repositioning of one’s own forces for the purposes of deep strategic penetration and rear manoeuvres but the fundamental re-routing of lethal activity through a third party. The indirect element of modern strategic approaches therefore refers to both the source of the threat (something that is complicated by the use of proxies) and the ambiguous methods often utilised (that are seen as a guarantor of maintaining the plausible deniability of the perpetrator and mitigating against escalation). The strategic use of an indirect approach can manifest itself in different ways in modern proxy wars, including the use of third parties to conduct information operations, psychological operations, cyber attacks and the sponsorship of a terrorist attack through the indirect provision of money, weapons and other logistical or communications equipment. Liddell Hart himself had an undeniable tendency to selectively decide what was an example of the indirect approach at work based on its success or failure. However, all proxy wars can be considered contemporary acts of the indirect approach. If we shift our understanding of the main raison d’etre of the strategy away from broad interpretations of avoiding strength to attack weakness and towards an appreciation of the desire to avoid any direct intervention by instead outsourcing kinetic activity to a third party proxy.

Basil Liddell Hart and the Indirect Approach

As Liddell Hart’s biographer Alex Danchev noted, the indirect approach was his “signature tune.”[5] The indirect approach is encapsulated in dictums from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, including “Subdue the enemy without fighting” and “Avoid what is strong to strike what is weak.”[6] Unfairly dismissed by its critics as little more than war avoidance,  the indirect approach is admittedly a strategic ideal, but it is one that is better depicted as war displacement.[7] As Shelford Bidwell argued in the early 1970s, Liddell Hart was “a synthesizer as much as an originator,” owing much to the ideas not just of Sun Tzu, but other members of what Bidwell labels the British school of strategic thought who saw war as an art not a science, especially T.E Lawrence and J.F.C Fuller. Yet Bidwell, correctly, ultimately forgives Liddell Hart’s “exaggeration and fancifulness” because he “used an electric ox-goad to penetrate the hide of orthodox military thought.”[8]

The Art of War in a classical bamboo book (Wikimedia) and a modern book (Amazon)

Liddell Hart first enunciated his ideas on the topic in book form in 1929, followed by a further four books building on the same theme in 1941, 1946, 1954, and 1967. The last edition (titled Strategy: An Indirect Approach) sold over 100,000 copies in the US alone and was treated, as Brian Holden Reid rightly describes, as “a major intellectual event in the armed forces of the West and beyond.”[9] His theorising of modern war was borne out of a military career cut short by injury in the First World War, followed by doctrine-writing work for the Army, and as a military correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and The Times.  His works on General Sherman’s influence in the American civil war, Napoleon’s strategic legacy, and perceptions on the evolution of warfare made him a warrior-scholar of international renown. He was feted on book promotion tours and had his ideas openly embraced by the then Senator Jack Kennedy during the 1960 presidential election.[10]

Alex Danchev deftly described the ideas expounded in Strategy: An Indirect Approach as “part prescription, part idealization, part excogitation.”[11] Holden Reid argues that it embodies Liddell Hart’s “Edwardian rationalism that exalted not just reason, but truth, order, progress, judicious compromise and careful understanding.”[12] For Liddell Hart. the indirect approach had manifestly guided the British Way of Warfare (the title of his 1932 book) from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Again, Danchev’s insights on this synonymy are insightful, especially when he observed that for Britain during this three hundred year period war on land “was prosecuted by proxy, by the artful dodge of ‘lending sovereigns to sovereigns,’ and not sending an expeditionary force."[13]

The shift in the modern landscape of war wrought by the heightened use of proxy militias and dulled appetite for boots on the ground in conflict zones from Syria to Ukraine should give us reason to learn how to play Liddell Hart’s signature tune...

This artful dodge has been contemporised and indeed arguably come to encompass a broader Western Way of War. The shift in the modern landscape of war wrought by the heightened use of proxy militias and dulled appetite for boots on the ground in conflict zones from Syria to Ukraine should give us reason to learn how to play Liddell Hart’s signature tune as a means of making greater sense of this new era of proliferated proxy war. An indirect approach ensures that “the business of war… [is] not position and attrition and mutual exhaustion, but analysis and paralysis and maximal preservation.”[14] The recourse to proxy war provides a strong capacity for analysis by the proxy’s benefactor given the spatial displacement from any lethal activity; a high chance for enemy paralysis given the sudden potency of their indirectly-sponsored opponent (as seen in Crimea in 2014 given the rapid successes scored by pro-Russian militias); and the most literal guarantee of force protection given the displacement of kinetic activity to proxies.

Proxy War as an Indirect Strategic Approach

Proxy war can been defined as: “the indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence its strategic outcome.”[15] This can involve the provision of weapons, money and other forms of assistance, but crucially absolves the intervening party (often described as a benefactor or sponsor) from having to undertake its own direct military intervention in a pre-existing conflict by outsourcing the lethal activity to a proxy, such as a militia group or other national military (often labelled a surrogate). Proxy wars are fought at arms-length by those who want to simultaneously protect or expand their interests whilst avoiding the exposure and costs of a direct military intervention. As a concept proxy wars transcend the mono-causal modes of conflict that have dominated recent strategic discourse, such as insurgency or piracy. Instead, it encompasses a complex set of relationships, dynamics and processes. Proxy warfare takes place in multi-threat environments in which states and non-state actors interact (both covertly and overtly) for the purposes of extending influence, interest and, in some cases, territory via third parties. This goal does not have to be achieved through lethal means alone, and can indeed be conducted virtually in cyberspace. Historically, states have exploited specific localised events (such as a civil war) to provoke a shift in the wider geo-political environment (such as the stifling of a rival ideology in the broader region).

The War In Syria Explained (Documentary News)

At the moment, such patterns are evident inside Syria.[16] Since 2011, a myriad of foreign nations have been funding what has been labelled “a chaotic melange of fighters” inside Syria. Syria is a particularly anarchic proxy war involving a broad network of shifting Benefactor-Proxy-Agent relationships, each with different goals and desired end states. The incredibly swift rise of ISIS, combined with their disregard for any other group or country, made strange bedfellows out of the resultant anti-ISIS coalition. America found itself united with Iran and other Gulf states in the effort to quell the rise of this virulent movement and roll back the borders of this self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate. The simultaneous battle to oust Assad from power in Damascus has seen Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar channel financial assistance and weapons towards their favoured rival Sunni groups in the hope it would lead to an outcome of their liking. Instead, this indirect interference was mirrored by pro-Assad Shia groups, like Hezbollah, being sponsored by Iran. The result of this? “Saudi Arabia and Iran have been battling for regional supremacy. For a major criticism of Liddell Hart’s work, which questions how he positioned the indirect approach vis interpretations of the historical record of both world wars, see John J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, to the last Syrian.”[17] Beset by a disunited opposition and by a network of foreign intelligence agents, Syria has become a particularly bloody proxy battle ground symptomatic of this new era of the indirect approach.  

...the recourse to an indirect proxy war is strategically creative because of the way in which it makes strategic strengths...out of weaknesses...

The need for a proxy war strategy that adequately balances ends, ways, and means (the traditional triptych of strategic design) requires a fundamental self-assessment of the realistic attainability of the endgame, the restriction on the number of ways it can be achieved and the availability of means. Limitations placed on any of these factors can cause a state to pursue non-conventional or irregular strategies that are indirect in nature in order to nullify any material or power disadvantages they have in relation to adversaries. All strategy, as Sir Lawrence Freedman has stated, is “fluid and flexible.”[18] The indirect approach adds uncertainty to its characteristics and it is strategically creative. Freedman reminds us that “underdog strategies, in situations where the starting balance of power would predict defeat, provide the real test of creativity.”[19] By taking the immediate belligerency out of war, via the obfuscation of responsibility for what could be construed as an act of war, the recourse to an indirect proxy war is strategically creative because of the way in which it makes strategic strengths (such as deniability) out of weaknesses (such as economic constraints and a poor conventional military capacity).

Despite its persistent presence throughout the history of warfare, proxy warfare needs to be fully sketched out and conceptually understood to avoid strategic confusion, which often arises when conflicts involving multiple competing actors in confusing political environments are conceived of using traditional concepts of war.[20] Proxy warfare takes place on multiple platforms using multiple actors. Yet by being strategically designed to circumvent situations that look like, or could lead to, conventional conflict, proxy warfare will take a position of near permanence on the strategic landscape, much like they did during the Cold War. By tackling and engaging in proxy warfare we are both perpetually avoiding and committing to a continuous conflict. For a major criticism of Liddell Hart’s work, which questions how he positioned the indirect approach vis interpretations of the historical record of both world wars, see John J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History. Even if the prosecution and countering of proxy warfare looks like neither war nor peace, proxy wars are fought in the increasingly militarised grey area in between due to the indirect responsibility for kinetic activity inside a conflict zone.

So ingrained were proxy wars into the behaviour of Cold War superpowers within, and often beyond, their spheres of influence, that in many ways we can perceive the real front line of the Cold War not as the Iron Curtain that fractiously divided the European continent, but the so-called Third World of Africa and Asia. But proxy wars should not be seen as synonymous with the Cold War. We are entering a new era of proxy war, and thus the indirect approach, for several reasons. Firstly, the appeal of fighting an indirect war still rests on an intrinsic set of assumptions based on interest formation, ideological premises, and perceptions of risk. Collectively, this has meant that states are still reluctant to cede interest but are increasingly unwilling to bear the human and financial costs of maintaining it. The result is a heightened appeal in the use of proxies as a means of securing national interest indirectly.

Secondly, a new set of actors on the international political scene have emerged who are prime to become proxy war-wagers of the future, including private military companies and internet hackers. These new warriors are able to be co-opted by states at a point when national military recruitment is waning and defence budgets squeezed. The literal outsourcing of military operations creates obvious conditions by which states fight wars indirectly.

Thirdly, the inevitable consequence of the War on Terror on American political willingness to wage large-scale regime-changing wars is that the US will revert to engagement in proxy warfare to maximise their interests whilst minimising their political and military exposure. Additional boots on the ground, especially in the Middle East, as a corollary to airpower exposes American foreign policy to the repetition of recent follies. There are few signs emanating from the Trump White House that there is an appetite in the new administration for extensive expeditionary military engagements. Although denoting a neo-isolationist turn, it remains to be seen whether President Trump will feel inclined to preserve American interests overseas through the utility of more proxies.

Finally, we cannot ignore the role played by two key international players: China and Russia. The continuing rise of China as a global superpower raises significant questions as to how it will exert its presence internationally and whether this actually increases the likelihood of it engaging in proxy wars without damaging its trade relations with the West. Compounding this is Russia’s use of proxies inside the contested zones on NATO’s southern and eastern flanks. The coercion of regional neighbours and territorial annexation inside Crimea in 2014 by Russia has opened up a policy dilemma for the West in regards to how Russian use of volunteers creates the scope for indirect war to be waged as part of a wider hybrid war strategy.[21]

In short, it is a mode of warfare that we are likely to see more, and not less of, in the coming decades given the confluence of global power shifts, political recalibration, and strategic reassessment by key international players.[22] This places the indirect approach firmly back on Western strategic horizons for the foreseeable future.

The New Era of the Indirect Strategic Approach

The indirect approach, as envisaged by Liddell Hart, creates the conditions whereby an enemy is forced to realise that their own strategic objectives are unattainable without the need for direct or conventional use of force. As Freedman has noted, “the logic point[s] to deterrence.”[23] Proxy warfare is a form of conflict predominantly designed to deter competitor states from staking significant strategic resources of their own. This is in large part based on acute calculations of political risk and a desire to maximise self-interest that is greater than the will of an adversary to aggressively respond. This in-built logic of deterrence is reinforced by other key components of proxy warfare, namely causal ambiguity (victim states might be deterred from retaliating in a conventional way because of the unclear lines of responsibility for the initial attack).

As a form of deterrence itself, the prosecution of proxy warfare by adversaries is arguably immune to rival forms of deterrence. Liddell Hart observed over half a century ago that “the nuclear deterrent… does not apply and cannot be applied to the deterrence of subtler forms of aggression.”

As a form of deterrence itself, the prosecution of proxy warfare by adversaries is arguably immune to rival forms of deterrence. Liddell Hart observed over half a century ago that “the nuclear deterrent… does not apply and cannot be applied to the deterrence of subtler forms of aggression.”[24] Indeed, nuclear deterrence could indeed promote the recourse of other, more irregular, forms of conflict. The possession of nuclear weapons is therefore not enough to counter the resort to proxy warfare by competitor states, but it may prevent the escalation of hostilities that encompass direct modes of confrontation.

An indirect approach takes what Liddell Hart called “the line of least resistance” in the physical sense and the “line of least expectation” in the psychological sense. It is both ambiguous and attritional, ensuring that an enemy is weakened "by pricks instead of blows." When states perceive inferiority in their own conventional military capabilities an indirect strategy of proxy warfare may be adopted, especially if the leaders of the state feel assured that the drain on their enemies in countering acts by third party proxies is greater than the sponsorship itself.[25]

The psychological component of the initial recourse to proxy war can be found in acute perceptions of the risks involved in undertaking alternative, more direct, forms of intervention. Christopher Coker has argued that the language and methods of risk analysis are applicable to the way that modern war is understood and conducted and that war has fundamentally "become risk management in all but name."[26] Recourse to proxy warfare is, logically, an act of risk reduction. The desire by a state to avoid using overt, conventional (possibly even nuclear) force with obvious lines of responsibility denotes a decision influenced by the appeal of waging an indirect war in order to lever as much gain out of a pre-existing or newly manufactured conflict without the risk of being an outright combatant in a conventional war that is subject to normal channels of international legal scrutiny therefore reducing the chances of direct retaliation by the victim state.

The overarching purpose of the indirect approach is to reduce resistance within the mindset of enemy decision-makers. This is assured, Liddell Hart argued, through a sudden "change of front,” thus dislocating the enemy through movement in the physical sphere (which can be achieved through territorial gains made as a result of bolstering a proxy materially or financially) and dislocating the enemy commanders steadfastness in the psychological sphere due to the surprise nature of sudden enemy effectiveness (again achieved indirectly through third party benevolence).[27] As he said of the indirect strategic approach more generally, it is “closely related to all problems of the influence of mind upon mind.”[28] We should therefore expect a greater investment in information warfare and psychological operations in areas of strategic concern. The provision of large amounts of weapons and funding to an enemy’s enemy can affect the decision-making capacity of that enemy if what first appeared to be a winnable war is recalibrated to stalemate thanks to targeted indirect intervention by a third party. If, as Liddell Hart believed, “the perfection of strategy should be sought in the elimination of fighting, then the recourse to war by proxy creates such a situation by default for nations who outsource the fight.[29]

The Indirect Approach: On the Horns of a Dilemma

Proxy wars have been used for centuries as a way for states to indirectly manipulate the outcome of foreign wars (just look at how Catholic Spain and Protestant France flocked to support their co-religionists in the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years' War; or British support for the Confederacy during the American Civil War given the importance of the cotton trade). Indirect war has certainly had a perennial appeal. However, proxy wars are rarely stopped in a way that inter-state wars or civil wars are stopped—through either victory by one side or a mediated peace agreement. Many proxy wars tend to end because the proxy outgrows the relationship with the benefactor state. Increased autonomy for the proxy group negates the need for so much external assistance. Take Hizbullah for example. They were gradually able to independently gain enough weapons and money of their own that they weakened their ties with Iran and Syria—two countries who had been using Hizbullah to fight a proxy war with Israel. States usually take some steps to hide their involvement in a proxy war (if not outright plausible deniability, at least shrouding involvement in ambiguity), so sometimes public exposure of a state’s indirect involvement may cause such international outcry that they cease the supply of money and weapons, as we saw with the US in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

The elongation of violence is a key way in which proxy wars fulfil Liddell Hart’s belief that the indirect approach erodes an enemy’s resistance. The history of proxy wars demonstrates how third party interference causes the prolonging of the initial bi-party conflict through the creation of stalemate conditions, which can alter the strategic perceptions of the target state.[30] However, the indirect approach, and by extension war by proxy, is unlikely to ever lead to outright victory. As with all displacement activities rarely do they fulfil the ultimate objective. It lacks decisiveness, overwhelming force, or the provision of superior numbers. It can soften an enemy, erode their will, but it is not a strategy designed to produce an acknowledgeable battlefield win. Indeed, the best it can produce is a strategic impasse. Even in cases where a munificently sponsored proxy has attained its goals (take the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 in the face of potent CIA-backed mujahedeen resistance) we must not overlook additional explanatory factors, including the domestic political situation (such as the crumbling of the USSR and Gorbachev’s unwillingness to prolong the occupation) and the strategic failures of the enemy (the Soviets had settled upon a strategy of urban pacification in a predominantly rural country where the mujahedeen drew their support from). Yet the increasingly risk averse nature of politically-minded and financially constrained strategic planning has embraced the idea of an indirect approach and eschewed the idea (more out of hope than anything else) that victory comes at the price of blood.  The blood price of modern war waged by the West is now largely for proxies to pay.

Portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865, taken by Matthew Brady (Wikimedia)

Portrait of General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865, taken by Matthew Brady (Wikimedia)

Carl von Clausewitz famously described the fog of war to define the absence of information a commander has across a multitude of levels, from the tactical to the grand strategic. Building an intelligence picture of an enemy’s intent, force structure, and weapon capabilities remains a crucial part of any strategy. But proxy warfare represents the foggiest form of war given the deliberate obfuscations that occur in hiding the identity of the benefactor state. Not knowing exactly who the enemy is presents the most fundamental of challenges to strategic formulation. To paraphrase General Sherman during the American Civil War, war waged by proxy puts the opponents on the horns of a dilemma: over-reaction looks preemptive and disproportionate if clear responsibility for an attack has not been established; but the lack of a response leaves a state open to death by a thousand cuts. This is the precarious tightrope that policymakers and military strategists must tread when determining how to respond to the use of proxy warfare by other states in this new era of the indirect strategic approach.

Andrew Mumford is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, where he is also co-director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism. His new book Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance: The Special Relationship on the Rocks is due out in early 2018 with Georgetown University Press. His previous books include The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular Warfare and Proxy Warfare.

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Header Image: Proxy War (Dormidont Viskarev/Russia Beyond)


[1] As claimed by John Mueller in his book Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

[2] Statistics drawn from Bruno Tertrais, "The Demise of Ares: The End of War as We Know It?," The Washington Quarterly (Vol.35 No.3 2012), p.8.

[3] House of Commons Defence Committee, "Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two - NATO," Third Report of Session 2014-15, (HC 358), 31 July 2014, p.12.

[4] Basil Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach (Revised Edition) (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), p.17.

[5] Alex Danchev, Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart (London: Phoenix, 1999), p.156.

[6] Quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.44.

[7] For a major criticism of Liddell Hart’s work, which questions how he positioned the indirect approach vis interpretations of the historical record of both world wars, see John J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988). A direct rejoinder to Mearsheimer came from US Army War College professor, and Liddell Hart ‘pupil’, Jay Luvaas’s review of his book. See Jay Luvaas, ‘Liddell Hart and the Mearsheimer Critique: A “Pupil’s” Retrospective’, Parameters (March 1990), pp.9-19.

[8] Shelford Bidwell, Modern Warfare: A Study of Men, Weapons and Theories (London: Allen Lane, 1973), p.199.

[9] Brian Holden Reid, "The Legacy of Liddell Hart: The Contrasting Responses of Michael Howard and André Beaufre," British Journal for Military History (Vol.1, No.1, 2014), p.67.

[10] Holden Reid, :The Legacy of Liddell Hart," p.69.

[11] Danchev, Alchemist of War, p.157.

[12] Holden Reid, "The Legacy of Liddell Hart," p.67.

[13] Danchev, Alchemist of War, p.169.

[14] Ibid., p.161.

[15] Andrew Mumford, Proxy Warfare (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p.1.

[16] David Ignatius, "Foreign nations’ proxy war in Syria creates chaos,"The Washington Post, 2 October 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Freedman, Strategy: A History, p.xi.

[19] Ibid., p.xii.

[20] Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (London: Hurst, 2012), p.6.

[21] For a discussion of hybrid war see Samuel Charap, "The Ghost of Hybrid War,"Survival (Vol.57, No.6, 2015), pp.51-58.

[22] For further discussion of these factors see Andrew Mumford, "Proxy Warfare and the Future of Conflict," RUSI Journal (Vol. 158, No. 2, April/May 2013), pp. 40–46.

[23] Freedman, Strategy: A History, p.138.

[24] Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, p.373.

[25] Ibid., p.334-5.

[26] Christopher Coker, War in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), p.viii.

[27] Ibid., p.337-9.

[28] Ibid., p.18.

[29] Holden Reid, "The Legacy of Liddell Hart," p.68.

[30] Mumford, Proxy Warfare, p.107.