The end of World War II gave way to the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union jostling for influence in the rest of the world. The Cold War never led to a direct confrontation between the two superpowers at the time because of the threat of an all-out nuclear confrontation and the subsequent mutually assured destruction. Still, it changed the dynamics of modern warfare with the use of proxies emerging as the prime recourse to further state interests.
The use of proxies has become more popular with the passage of time and the emergence of regional power centres, even though the world order is still led by the United States. This is because it is widely perceived that proxy warfare serves the interest of both the weaker and the stronger nations to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Some elements are a constant with proxy wars. Number one in this list of constants is that proxies will always remain a cheap alternative to conventional warfare. In a world increasingly looking to add more value at a lower cost this is an irresistible temptation. The severity of international condemnation is also considerably less compared to a ‘boots on ground’ strategy which violates the sanctity of international borders. It is also very difficult to establish the depth of involvement of a nation and in case of a mix of competitors it is even more difficult to separate the victims from the aggressors.
Asymmetric warfare also has a lesser cost in terms of body count, which is an added incentive for the more developed nations who are more casualties-conscious. They do not have to fear for their direct involvement and if the costs start to outweigh the benefits they can easily fold back and withdraw the financial and armament support to their handpicked favourites in the battle field.
Developing nations also venture into the muggy world of ghost wars when they are in an adversarial relationship with a country much bigger in size and military strength. The lure of bleeding the enemy by a thousand cuts is enticing to policy makers in the face of complex geopolitical realities and difficult objectives.
Today the Middle East and South Asia are two major regions where proxies have become permanent agents of chaos and terrorism has become a means to an end and in some cases an end itself. The role of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the fallout of the catastrophic struggle between the Assad forces and the rebel groups have been borne by the civilian population the most. An estimated five million people have been killed since 2011 in the Syrian war.
In South Asia, Afghanistan is still reeling from the disastrous effects of Soviet occupation-US proxy war of the 80s. Those proxies who were sponsored, encouraged and mentored at the time remain major stakeholders in the future of Afghanistan, much to the annoyance of the US. This shows that the interest of the proxy elements and their sponsors do not permanently remain aligned. As they gain strength and establish a foothold in the local population they start pursuing agendas of their own. Even when in survival mode, they may find new sponsors and engage in acts which are antithetical to the arrangement of their original patrons. This may lead to the emergence of newer proxies who constitute more willing and more destructive elements, at the further expense of the host nation. The host country thus becomes a hot bed of proxy wars with conflicting interests being pursued by groups on opposing sides. Eventually, the social fabric, the economy, the civilian infrastructure, and the bond of trust between the government and its people are severely compromised in those countries who are a victim of proxy wars.
Pakistan has also been dealing with the fallout of proxy wars at different junctures of its history. Sometimes it has been with our willingness and sometimes the war has been thrust upon us. At the moment we are facing multifaceted threats, particularly from India, who has not only upped and sustained the ante at the Line of Control but also further heightened the tensions by threatening to sever Balochistan, block our waters and also by challenging Pakistan’s legitimate role in Afghanistan’s rehabilitation through its own proxies there. The Indian media and intelligentsia are increasingly growing with voices who even advocate taking the war deep inside Pakistan.
These are no doubt testing times for Pakistan. However, Pakistan should show strategic restraint and not view Afghanistan with the same lens as India. We should keep trying to address the insecurities of Afghanistan as we have been doing in the past and broaden the areas of cooperation with our western neighbour. In the face of provocation, we must not blink first. We must remember that in the game of proxy wars, the only winning move is not to play or to at least pause for a while.
Raja Omer Shabbir is a columnist and professional services consultant based in Islamabad.