The Norms of Proxy War: Guidelines for the Resort to Unconventional Warfare

In previous posts on this blog, we have described the use of proxy forces to impose costs on a shared adversary (AKA, unconventional warfare). But perhaps the most difficult aspect of unconventional warfare is not in its planning or execution, but in knowing when it is an appropriate approach at all. A recent article from the Army War College on proxy war norms by Dr. Anthony Pfaff goes a long way to outlining an answer to this question, and to providing a framework for developing a strategic approach for an unconventional warfare campaign.

While Pfaff’s analysis is normative in character, being based in the legal tradition of “just war theory” (jus ad bellum), the norms of proxy wars” at which he arrives map remarkably well onto the political considerations that lie at the heart of unconventional warfare strategy. We will step through those recommendations one by one:

Benefactors should make good faith efforts to not just seek non-violent solutions first, but also to ensure the option for such solutions is always open.

Unconventional warfare campaigns are generally subject to a high risk of escalation and the creation of chronic instability. Unlike conventional warfare, which may cause massive destruction over a shorter term, unconventional warfare develops and mobilizes resistance forces (usually armed). This fostering of decentralized organizations designed for destabilization and violence can create a self-perpetuating dynamic, wherein the resistance justifies its continued existence through resistance to government crackdowns which are themselves a response to the violence perpetrated by the existence.

The best way to avoid this destabilization dynamic is to avoid violence altogether. This can mean supporting only those elements of the resistance that employ non-violent means, or simply abstaining from supporting any portion of the resistance, and seeking to achieve the underlying political goals through other means. However, if violent means are deemed necessary to achieving those goals, then the sponsor (or benefactor, in Pfaff’s characterization) should make every effort to ensure the a return to non-violent means is available in the future. Failure to maintain such options locks the sponsor into a course of action in which the only choices available are escalation of violence to achieve success or withdrawal in failure.

Moreover, failure to maintain the availability of non-violent options does not only place the sponsor in a strategically inflexible position, but it condemns the resistance to an even worse fate. Where violence is the only option, resistance forces will tend to become ever more extreme in their approach and their political views, contributing to the likelihood of blowback: a dangerous situation in which a sponsor’s support to a resistance force enables and encourages that force to attack the sponsor. Even where blowback does not occur, the spiraling violence of a resistance force will create instability in the target country and spillover instability throughout the region, generally to the detriment of the sponsor.

Where the proxy has resorted to war and has a just cause, benefactor intervention is permissible to the extent it is prudent.

This norm needs little explanation. However, its contrapositive merits discussion: “Benefactor intervention is not permissible or prudent where the proxy has not resorted to war with a just cause.” This statement may at first seem to some as overly restrictive on the sponsor. But it is actually good advice: sponsors should be reluctant to foment violent resistance where it would otherwise not arise, and should also be reluctant to become embroiled in a conflict of questionable merit.

This does not mean that a sponsor should not engage with partners or prospective partners in adversarial countries, but it should be reluctant to encourage those partners to take part in violent resistance. Where a resistance movement is not already strongly contemplating violence, it is likely because non-violent means remain available to them and these options appear to be reasonably promising. A sponsor could provide support to these non-violent options, but as discussed above, these options should be pursued to their fullest extent.

Additionally, even where a violent resistance is underway, a prospective sponsor should avoid embroiling themselves in an unjust conflict. In addition to the legal liabilities incurred by a sponsor of an unjust proxy war, the likelihood of exposure of the sponsorship should deter such support for any sponsor concerned about their reputation in the international community. Additionally,  supporting a conflict in which the proxy is motivated by ideals which the sponsor finds to be unjust will inevitably lead to problems in the relationship, either during the campaign or following it. It is precisely this sort of policy mismatch that can lead to blowback against the sponsor.

However, the term “resort to war” should be taken with a grain of salt. Many resistance movements are simply not capable of employing morally acceptable forms of violence due to government repression, resource poverty, or for other reasons. Their choice is then to submit to the injustices against which they would prefer to rebel, or to employ an approach that is morally repugnant, such as terrorism. In these cases, a sponsor can provide the means to resist in a responsible and morally permissible way (and not necessarily through violence).

Perhaps the better phrasing of this recommendation is “Sponsor intervention is not permissible or prudent unless the proxy has justly and independently sought to resist.”

Where the proxy’s just resort to war depends on benefactor intervention, the benefactor’s cause must also be, in some sense, just as well as necessary. While it may not be a direct response to aggression against itself, it must serve some overriding good; such as preserving a just international order or deterring future aggression.

This proposed norm can serve to remind those considering unconventional warfare to avoid simple adventurism. Too often, the ability to conduct an activity anonymously leads actors to take actions that are not in their long-term interest. This applies to unconventional warfare just as much as it does to personal social media use. In addition to the risk of exposure of an activity that was intended to be covert or clandestine, and the resulting political fallout, there is an increased risk that the activity will have long-term consequences that are adverse to the sponsors interest.

This brings us back to the concept of alignment of interests: Sponsorship of a proxy force, acting however justly, must be in the interest of the sponsor. Asking if the sponsor’s cause in supporting the conflict is just or wise will provide a useful lens on whether the sponsor’s long-term interests are being properly served by the campaign. If a convincing argument in favor of the justness of the campaign cannot be made, then the negative impacts of the campaign are very likely to outweigh the benefits.

In cases where the proxy’s cause is unjust, benefactors may intervene only to avoid some gross violation of human rights, humanitarian disaster, or set conditions for a rapid and just resolution to the conflict.

This proposed norm can help to draw attention to possible mismatches between the proxy’s tactics and the sponsor’s political imperative to avoid being seen as supporting terrorism or human rights abuses.

A resistance movement is often tempted to undertake unsavory expedients, such as terrorism or indiscriminate violence, which they see as justified by their oppression or weak position. They are often further encouraged in this direction by the fact that they have little or no reputation to protect, and that the identities of their leaders and members may be concealed. However, a sponsor who openly supports such a resistance, or whose convert support is exposed, is in a much different position. They have a reputation that they likely will not want to see tarnished by the actions of a proxy.

However, a sponsor may be able to help the proxy to modify its behavior, whether by providing them the means to conduct more legitimate resistance operations, through training and advising, or simply through pressure. A sponsor should have a clear understanding of the reasons behind their prospective proxy’s choice of operational modalities well before committing to any support relationship. After all, if the human rights abuses or terroristic acts perpetrated by the proxy are caused by a more fundamental animosity or political extremism, then it is unlikely that the sponsor will be able to significantly modify the proxy’s behavior.

Benefactor’s causes, interests, and intentions should align in a way that attains the proxy’s objective and either achieves the benefactor’s goals or at least ends the need for the proxy relationship. When the proxy wins, the proxy relationship should end and transform into something that contributes to order rather than set conditions for future chaos.

Too often, proxy wars are used simply as a way to impose costs on an adversary, rather than in an attempt to make a positive change the environment over the long-term. This type of short-sightedness is the cause of much of the world’s current instability. The admonition above can remind policymakers to look past the immediate convenience of the intervention, and look more to the systemic impacts of that intervention. Does it trade away long-term regional stability for short-term political benefit?

This admonition is also helpful in pointing out that the sponsor should look not only at their own intentions, but also those of the proxy. Misalignment of interests can lead to very unpleasant surprises in the aftermath of a proxy war. The rise of Al Qaeda and the chaos of Afghanistan following US involvement in the Russo-Afghan war is a case in point.

Benefactors must articulate a reasonable connection between the assistance they provide and the political objectives they and any putative proxy would achieve.

This admonition, beyond its jus ad bellum implications, is simply good strategy-development advice. If a sponsor cannot articulate how their support will contribute to achieving their strategic objectives, then they should reconsider the strategy. Without such a theory of victory or theory of success, strategic directives and operational planning risk being misaligned with the strategic intent.

A policymaker considering unconventional warfare should not, however, simply apply a straightforward “ends, ways, means” analysis. As argued by Maj. ML Cavanaugh at West Point’s Modern War Institute, the “ends, ways, means” formula can become an intellectual straitjacket. He quotes Barry Posen on grand strategy (“a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself”) and Eliot Cohen on strategy (“a theory of victory”), and others including Tami Biddle and Colin Gray, concluding that “The key word is theory. Theory forces the strategist to describe how and why success is to happen against a competitive foe.”

This straitjacket becomes all the more dangerous when the methods to be used are indirect, prolonged, political, and vicarious, as they typically are in an unconventional warfare. The development of  strategy in this context cannot be formulaic; instead the strategist must be allowed the freedom to think creatively and consider unorthodox approaches. Once the strategy is reasonably mature, it can be translated into the “ends, ways, means” formulation for the benefit of communicating it to operational planners.

Benefactors should enable proxies to fight justly and take measures to minimize costs to all affected parties.

Similar to the concern raised above about the behavior of a prospective proxy force, this proposed norm reminds policymakers that their responsibility for ensuring that the chosen proxy behaves appropriately does not stop once the relationship is begun. The sponsor not only may, but must use the leverage provided by its sponsorship to guide the proxy force away from any pattern of behavior that would negatively reflect on the sponsor.

In addition to any legal and moral requirements, good sense and the risk of exposure of the proxy relationship dictates that the sponsor plan the campaign under the assumption that it will be held fully responsible for all of the proxy’s abuses, and none of their successes.

Benefactors should account for all costs to those affected by the war. Because such cost projections are unreliable, both sponsor and proxy must prepare in advance to favorably end any escalation and limit any diffusion of military assistance to the hands of other bad actors.

This recommendation is directly applicable to both the decision to engage in a proxy war, and to the planning of the unconventional warfare campaign. As characterized by Pfaff, “The concern here is that the capabilities a benefactor may provide a proxy may not stay with the proxy. This diffusion can thus create new conditions for instability.”

This is closely related to the concern raised above regarding creating long-term instability, but in a much more tangible form: the weapons, training, and other assistance provided to the resistance do not simply evaporate upon the conclusion of the conflict. Instead, unless active measures are taken, they are likely to be transferred to parties that the sponsor has not vetted, and may be quite dangerous to long-term stability and increase the risk of blowback. Indeed, it is quite likely that such transfers will occur as soon as the assistance is provided, unless control measures are implemented.

Benefactors and proxies may keep their relationship secret, but must subject it to reasonable oversight.

Oversight of programs (of all sorts) is vital to ensuring that those programs remain on track, achieve their objectives, and are free from corruption or abuse. This much is obvious. But in the case of covert operations, the need for active oversight is amplified. The secrecy required in conducting unconventional warfare (and covert action) not only makes oversight more difficult, but also shields the activity from healthy criticism and encourages groupthink.

But ensuring adequate oversight is easier said than done. Unless and until clear mechanisms for oversight are developed, the military considering or conducting unconventional warfare should actively seek to inform select oversight bodies (In the U.S., Congressional Intelligence and Armed Services Committees) in as much detail as is reasonably possible. This will not only act as a foil against groupthink and raise overlooked concerns with the strategy, but can help the strategists to gauge the political support they can expect in the case of exposure.


As noted above, one of the most difficult aspects of unconventional warfare is knowing when it is an appropriate approach. However, a happy convergence of morality and efficacy can help to illuminate this question, and provides valuable insight for development a strategic approach for an unconventional warfare campaign. In part because of the inherently political nature of unconventional warfare, and in part due to its elevated risk of unintended consequences, concerns that seek to address moral issues about responsibility for proxy actions and harm to civilians actually require little if any modification to be applicable to the more Machiavellian aspects of strategy development.

The Imperative: Irregular Warfare and the Future of Security

Irregular Challenges are at the future of international security

This blog was started not just out of a personal passion for the subject matter, but a firmly held belief that the United States will increasingly be confronted by irregular challenges, and that it has a troublesome tendency to bury its head in the sand about such threats when planning its military and diplomatic forces.

The nature of warfare in the 21st century remains as it has been since ancient times – ‘a violent clash of interests between or among organized groups characterized by the use of military force.’ These organized groups are no longer limited to states with easily identifiable regular armed forces, nor do they all operate by internationally accepted conventions and standards.
IW JOC 1.0, quoting 7 MCDP 1, Warfighting (Washington, DC, United States Marine Corps, June 1997).

While the most catastrophic conflicts in which the US might engage would undoubtedly be those involving open warfare with major powers, such as China or Russia, these states also understand this fact, and know that they would very likely have no chance of success in such a conflict. Therefore, like the smaller “rogue” states and non-state dissident groups we more frequently confront, they will avoid direct conflict with the US, and rely instead on irregular and hybrid modes of conflict. Using these more indirect means, they can avoid provoking the immense conventional power of the US military while still affecting the international environment in ways that are unacceptably contrary to our interests, in much the same way that the Soviet Union attempted to achieve dominance through its “salami slice” approach to the Cold War.

Faced with the conventional warfighting capacity of the United States, our adversaries will likely choose to fight using a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, catastrophic, and traditional capabilities as a way to achieve their strategic objectives. The strategy of our adversaries will be to subvert, attrite, and exhaust us rather than defeat us militarily. They will seek to undermine and erode the national power, influence, and will of the United States and its strategic partners.

IW JOC 1.0.

This truth has been stated over and over again, but to little avail. In 2005, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Dr. John Hillen, told the Joint Worldwide Planning Conference that “We imagine the brewing threats of ‘Perfect Storms’ of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, catalytic regional crises, and the proliferation of dangerous weapons. We see lagging economies, unintegrated and disenfranchised populations, transnational crime, illicit sub-national power structures, and destabilizing bulges of uneducated and unemployed youth.” By 2008, it was becoming clear that this threat emanated not only from failed states and non-state actors, but state powers as well. Recognizing this, the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept stated that “Our adversaries will pursue IW strategies, employing a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, traditional, and catastrophic capabilities to undermine and erode the influence and will of the United States and our strategic partners.” Moreover, it predicted that “our adversaries will continue to wage IW against us until we demonstrate the same competency in IW that we demonstrate in conventional warfighting.”

But this is not merely prognostication. Recent conflicts with powers small and large are characterized largely by the employment of irregular means and methods. Al Qaeda has survived its trials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere and has developed a more subtle, long-term strategy to build a network of allied dissident groups, while its former branch in Iraq has morphed into a semi-regular force that controls a massive amount of territory and has developed one of the most sophisticated information operations campaigns the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, Russia has adroitly applied its conventional and special forces to bolster and lead irregular forces in Eastern Ukraine, challenging the future of NATO and the European balance of power. Furthermore, China has been engaging in a coordinated campaign of lawfare and harassment in the South and East China Seas, using forces and methods that allow it to work toward its strategic goals while remaining below the threshold at which conventional conflict is likely to result.

Irregular challenges to security are nothing new

While this may seem like a new and troubling trend, the most troubling aspect is that this trend is hardly new. While many in the defense and national security field lament what appears to be the breakdown of the system of state monopoly on violence as a political tool, it seems more likely that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the “Westphalian moment,” as described by Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. This period was likely created by the window of opportunity for organization, in which the available modes of communication were sufficient to disseminate information and guidance, allowing top-down political organization, but not sufficient to allow more horizontal alternative networks to arise. Modern communications greatly reduce the divide between the ability for individuals to communicate and that of the state communications apparatus. This allows individuals to organize across distance without resorting to the state or other superstructures (e.g., the church, guild, union, etc.), subsequently creating too many voices for the state to adequately respond.

In fact, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, since the time of Napoleon, approximately 80% of conflict has been irregular in nature. Obvious examples in U.S. history abound: guerrilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II, the counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense waged in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, unconventional warfare in Afghanistan in the 1980s, stability operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, and arguably the (abortive) unconventional warfare in Iraq in 1991, just to name a few. This is not to mention the more recent extensive efforts following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Let history guide policy

Although this is not a blog on military or political history, it is essential to understand important lessons from the past for how our military and diplomatic corps will need to operate in the future, and how they must prepare themselves to do so. The rich history of irregular warfare also lends its compelling voice to the call for improved capabilities to confront modern-day irregular challenges. Throughout this blog, we will draw on the lessons of history and current events to guide and inform our analysis of the threats we face, and the most effective means of confronting them.

The Core Activities of Irregular Warfare

As discussed briefly in the previous post, current US military doctrine describes irregular warfare as having five core activities: counterterrorism (CT), unconventional warfare (UW), foreign internal defense (FID), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations (SO). Rather than being viewed as a list of discrete options, these activities (sometimes called the “five pillars of irregular warfare”), according to IW JOC 2.0, may be undertaken in sequence, in parallel, or in blended form as part of a campaign to address irregular threats. It is interesting to note that of these five activities, only one–unconventional warfare–is “offensive” in a strategic sense (counterterrorism is often offensive at the operational and tactical levels, but is reactive and defensive at the strategic level). Nonetheless, there is a significant convergence between several of these activities. For example, it will often be difficult to determine if an activity in a complex operation is in support of a foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, or stability operations line of effort. In fact, the activity may support all of these simultaneously.

Each of the core activities of irregular warfare has at least one natural partner: unconventional warfare is combatted through counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense, while counterterrorism is naturally paired with terrorism. But terrorism is not on the list according to US joint doctrine… And what about insurgency itself? The key to understanding this is realizing that the US only identified the core activities of irregular warfare according to a purely US-centric point of view. Based on the conclusion that the US does not participate in terrorism, counterterrorism is a sufficient activity to cover this domain of warfare, and the fact that insurgencies will be conducted only by proxy allow the US to focus only on unconventional warfare.

This blog takes a slightly different view of the number and organization of the core activities of irregular warfare.

First, the use of the term “pillars” is misleading as to the nature of these activities within irregular warfare doctrine. Pillars support a structure and (assuming that they are not merely cosmetic) are necessary to the integrity of that structure. However, the activities listed above are not in the abstract necessary to an irregular warfare campaign. For example, a state conducting an internal counterinsurgency may or may not require a foreign internal defense effort, while a counterterrorism campaign may find that the terrorists have no popular support, obviating the need for counterinsurgency. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, stability operations may be required to quell rioting and limit looting, but there may be no effective organization to the unrest, limiting the role of counterinsurgency to measures that are essentially prophylactic. Additionally, as the only offensive activity among those listed, unconventional warfare will in many cases be conducted in the absence any of the others.

The term “core activities” is therefore preferable to “pillars,” since it makes clear the importance of these activities in irregular warfare writ large, but does not imply that each of the activities will be necessary in every irregular warfare campaign. It also carries the implication that these activities will be the primary effort in a campaign, supported by other activities like strategic communications, psychological operations, and civil-military operations.

Beyond simple terminology preferences, there is also the more important issue of precisely what activities are core to irregular warfare. Since this blog is not specifically focused on development of US military forces (as the Joint Operating Concepts on Irregular Warfare are), this blog takes the position that there are several sets of core activities: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency; Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense; Stability Operations; and Terrorism and Counterterrorism. In addition to regrouping the activities, it should be noted that two new activities are added: insurgency and terrorism. This is not merely an academic choice, however, since including all fundamental operational activities is essential to the study of the enemy’s strategic, operational, and tactical considerations. While it is unlikely that US forces will conduct these activities itself, it must still understand them in order to confront them (through COIN, FID and CT) and, in the case of insurgency, to support it when required through unconventional warfare. Thus, as part of a coherent classification system of irregular warfare, they must be included along with their “counter” activities.

And as has been clear from the time of Sun Tzu, understanding your adversaries’ options and strategies is a foundational requirement to confronting that adversary. This is true in any confrontational pursuit, whether it be politics, the courtroom, business, or the battlefield. In an irregular struggle, whether against a state or non-state adversary, understanding that adversary’s strategic goals, options and constraints will allow a strategist to formulate a plan to take advantage of his weakest points and properly prepare for attacks against his own. In a counterinsurgency campaign, for example, the counterinsurgent must do more that simply track down and kill the insurgent leadership, or infiltrate and destroy their sanctuary. They must also confront the political ideology driving the insurgents and their supporters in order to isolate them and transform their support structures from assets into liabilities. In order to do this, the counterinsurgent must have a keen understanding of the purposes and functions of insurgent movements and their organizational structures.


These activities are grouped into the pairs above to highlight the offensive and defensive forms of each activity. Unfortunately, as the above graphic makes clear, there is more than one obvious way that activities related to insurgency may be grouped: along offensive versus defensive lines, train and equip versus direct conduct lines, or simply as a foursome. There is no right answer, and in different discussions, it may be more useful to use one grouping rather than another. However, for most of the discussions we will pursue in this blog, the offensive versus defensive lines will be most useful, since it will help to clarify the most vital aspects of each. However, we may from time to time use alternate groupings to discuss various aspects of these activities. And the same will be true to a lesser extent for the terrorism and stability activities, as we discuss the various overlaps and blended responses inherent in confronting to irregular threats.

While each of these fundamental areas of irregular warfare are inextricably linked to one another, this blog will take on each pairing separately in a series of posts for the sake of clarity, and outline the interlinkages in the course of discussion. In addition, we will discuss other operational activity sets related to irregular warfare, such as intelligence and counterintelligence, organized crime and law enforcement, and security sector reform and assistance.

Defining Irregular Warfare

“IW is a complex, ‘messy,’ and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to clean, neat, concise, or precise definition.”
Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, 2008

The above quote reflects the discomfort that the US military had (and continues to have) in coming to terms with an aspect of warfare that was becoming increasingly apparent in the wake of its struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many were concerned that the military was gearing up to take on political objectives and employ political methods, there was a growing understanding that the “traditional” way of doing business was not working as well as might be hoped, and a growing number of voices arguing that these problems were not going to go away any time soon. So the Pentagon set out to try to come to grips with the problem, formulating a new doctrine of irregular warfare–often abbreviated to “IW”– to encompass the many interrelated issues that it was confronting.

Doctrinal definition of Irregular Warfare

Irregular Warfare is defined in US joint doctrine as “A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” As such, it encompasses much of what has until recently been considered to be traditional warfare, since militaries have long understood that they must take public perception into account in their planning. However, it also includes areas of military operations that are not as well-known, and in fact seek to maintain that low profile. Such “special” operations are understood to be politically sensitive and thus often function best when their existence goes undetected. Complicating things further, according to this definition, irregular warfare also includes activities that are usually not considered to be the purview of the military, such as strategic communications, diplomatic activities, and other forms of political or cultural engagement.

Irregular Warfare and political violence

Being a “violent struggle,” IW does not seek to address the political maneuverings of those who do not and are not expected to employ force to achieve their goals. However, it does seek to address the employment of political methodologies of violent organizations. It is interesting to note the relationship of irregular warfare in this regard to traditional warfare, which seeks to address the violent methodologies of (formal) political organizations. This mirror image dichotomy exposes one of the key aspects of IW that should be understood by all military theorists and practitioners: irregular and traditional forms of warfare view the same basic problem from different perspectives: political violence. The following graphic, from the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept may help to illuminate this duality:

Contrasting Conventional and Irregular Warfare

As opposite sides of the same coin, while each may be independently useful in a given situation, they are usually best used in some blended form based upon the scenario at hand. For example, IW tends to be of most use in dealing with non-state actors, when deniability is required, or when the instability to be addressed has its roots in popular unrest.

Core activities of Irregular Warfare

Because of this, current US military doctrine describes the five core activities of irregular warfare as counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, stability operations and unconventional warfare. These activities are highlighted not to limit the scope of IW, but because each necessarily involves the attempt to either bolster or undermine the legitimacy of a foreign government in the eyes of its own population, or some portion thereof. In fact, this could be considered a second definition of irregular warfare, albeit a more circumscribed one.

In future posts, we will return to these considerations again and again as we explore the many facets of irregular warfare.