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In the 1980s, the US government began funneling aid to mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan as part of an American proxy war against the Soviet Union. It was, in the minds of America’s Cold War leaders, a rare chance to bloody the Soviets, to give them a taste of the sort of defeat the Vietnamese, with Soviet help, had inflicted on Washington the decade before. In 1989, after years of bloody combat, the Red Army did indeed limp out of Afghanistan in defeat. Since late 2001, the United States has been fighting its former Afghan proxies and their progeny. Now, after years of bloody combat, it’s the United States that’s looking to withdraw the bulk of its forces and once again employ proxies to secure its interests there.
From Asia and Africa to the Middle East and the Americas, the Obama administration is increasingly embracing a multifaceted, light-footprint brand of warfare. Gone, for the moment at least, are the days of full-scale invasions of the Eurasian mainland. Instead, Washington is now planning to rely ever more heavily on drones and special operations forces to fight scattered global enemies on the cheap. A centerpiece of this new American way of war is the outsourcing of fighting duties to local proxies around the world.
While the United States is currently engaged in just one outright proxy war, backing a multi-nation African force to battle Islamist militants in Somalia, it’s laying the groundwork for the extensive use of surrogate forces in the future, training “native” troops to carry out missions—up to and including outright warfare. With this in mind and under the auspices of the Pentagon and the State Department, US military personnel now take part in near-constant joint exercises and training missions around the world aimed at fostering alliances, building coalitions, and whipping surrogate forces into shape to support US national security objectives.
While using slightly different methods in different regions, the basic strategy is a global one in which the United States will train, equip and advise indigenous forces—generally from poor, underdeveloped nations—to do the fighting (and dying) it doesn’t want to do. In the process, as small an American force as possible, including special forces operatives and air support, will be brought to bear to aid those surrogates. Like drones, proxy warfare appears to offer an easy solution to complex problems. But as Washington’s thirty-year debacle in Afghanistan indicates, the ultimate costs may prove both unimaginable and unimaginably high.
Start with Afghanistan itself. For more than a decade, the United States and its coalition partners have been training Afghan security forces in the hopes that they would take over the war there, defending US and allied interests as the American-led international force draws down. Yet despite an expenditure of almost $50 billion on bringing it up to speed, the Afghan National Army and other security forces have drastically underperformed any and all expectations, year after year.
One track of the US plan has been a little-talked-about proxy army run by the CIA. For years, the Agency has trained and employed six clandestine militias that operate near the cities of Kandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad as well as in Khost, Kunar, and Paktika provinces. Working with US Special Forces and controlled by Americans, these “Counterterror Pursuit Teams” evidently operate free of any Afghan governmental supervision and have reportedly carried out cross-border raids into Pakistan, offering their American patrons a classic benefit of proxy warfare: plausible deniability.