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.

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