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William RosenauZack Gold
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Proxy warfare, according to one definition, occurs “when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself.” ∗ The logic of employing surrogates is as simple as it is compelling. It is a risk-mitigation strategy in which a sponsor seeks to offload military and financial costs onto a proxy—a “principal-agent” arrangement, in the language of social science. For the proxy, such a transactional arrangement offers a wealth of potential opportunities, including the chance to acquire weapons, materiel, intelligence, and other assets.

Proxies (or surrogates) have been a feature of international politics throughout recorded history, and indirect conflict through surrogates is—and is likely to remain—an enduring feature of the international security environment. In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress granted the Department of Defense, and US Special Operations Command, significant authorities to organize, train, equip, and advise proxy forces. However, although the United States has had extensive experience employing proxies before, during, and since the Cold War, changes in the security landscape, including the emergence of the so-called era of great-power competition, suggest that the time is ripe for senior civilian and military leaders to assess US capabilities for conducting proxy war, for evaluating costs, risks, and benefits, and for developing policies and programs that will promote US national interests abroad.

This report contributes to such an assessment. First, we present a series of four case studies: two on current proxy wars involving the United States (support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and support to the African Union Mission in Somalia) and two historical examples (the “Secret War” in Laos, and assistance to the contras in Central America). These case studies explore a common set of factors, including US and proxy objectives, the nature of US support, battlefield performance, and strategic and other impacts and consequences. We then used these factors as the foundation for a comparative analysis, which we used to identify seven key themes across the cases:

  • Proxy forces have helped the United States achieve at least some of its objectives. But the proxies themselves only sometimes achieve their goals.
  • Proxy warfare reduces, but does not eliminate, a US footprint. For example, proxies tend to rely heavily on American airpower.
  • Proxies are most effective when used to fight irregular wars.
  • “Secret” wars do not stay secret for long. Large-scale US support tends to become public knowledge.
  • Proxy warfare is transactional, and relationships with surrogates should not be viewed as permanent.
  • Proxy legitimacy matters. Surrogates that are seen as mere pawns or mercenaries perform less effectively.
  • Proxies are likely to commit human rights abuses, such as deliberately targeting civilians.

Drawing on these themes, we developed a set of rules of thumb that senior civilian and military officials should consider when developing plans, policies, and programs for surrogate-support operations:

  • Policy-makers should set limited, reasonable objectives for proxies to accomplish, and even then assume that some, but not all, of these objectives will be achieved.
  • Support to proxies is almost by definition messier than direct US military intervention; there are likely to be more second and third-order unanticipated issues to handle, and, as a result, timelines for success are likely to be longer than initially assumed.
  • The US must be alert to the fact that it cannot take a completely hands-off approach— the use of surrogates typically reduces the US footprint, but does not eliminate it entirely. Short of limiting one’s support to simply providing cash, most proxies will require at least some measure of US advice, weapons, and materiel, hand-holding and reassurance, and, in many cases, airpower.
  • Policy-makers and the US military should restrict the use of proxies to irregular warfare activities against states or other nonstate armed groups, and avoid any temptations to use them as surrogate conventional armies.
  • If US support to proxies is covert or clandestine, the US must be prepared for the likelihood that American backing will become public knowledge.
  • Proxies are not long-term American partners requiring unending support, and the US must resist the temptation to consider them as such. The sponsor-client relationship is transactional, and the disposability of surrogates is one of the attractive aspects of using them as an instrument of national security.
  • Proxies who believe that the United States “has their back” no matter what will be tempted to engage in high-risk behavior on the battlefield. Beyond that, their interests may be contrary to American interests and they may resist US entreaties to change their behavior.
  • The US must prepare for the likelihood that surrogates will commit human rights abuses. It must set boundaries and redlines, and be willing to hold systematic and widespread violators accountable.

Although there are pitfalls and hazards associated with using proxy forces, the underlying logic of employing them—their relatively low cost, their disposability, and their deniability— suggests that their continued use will prove to be an attractive foreign policy option for the United States and its rivals and adversaries. Cast in that light, it is our hope that these rules of thumb will help the US to most effectively employ proxy forces in the future.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.


  • Pages: 80
  • Document Number: DRM-2019-U-020227-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 7/1/2019
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