Achieving objectives by fair means or foul, that is the most important spiritual legacy of the renaissance. In the middle ages, this represented a breakthrough against romantic chivalry and the declining tradition of knighthood. It meant using means, some possibly comprehensive and without restraint to achieve an objective. This found coherence also in the kind of warfare practiced during those times. One look around the globe alludes, that every capable nation has given a contract to some non- state actor to fight, facilitating its own self interests. The proxy environment has dominated the world scenery and it looms large in modern war.
Understanding the canvas of conflict has perpetually been the foremost and most complicated facet of the study of war. It took the geniuses of Alexander, Chandragupta, Hannibal, Genghis and Napoleon to understand the sensitivities of their times and exploit them to their advantage, yielding out of proportion gains. Clausewitz argues “ We can thus only say that the aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but will also confirm to the spirit of the age and to its general character”.1 This statement has buried wisdom in it for the strategists, as well as military thinkers. The flavour of the battle should be decided as per the spirit and character of the prevailing times. India’s strategic challenges are quite unique in many ways. We as a nation are amongst one of the biggest countries demographically and geographically. We are endowed with respectable wealth of natural and human resources. Our technological and industrial base is also diverse and sizeable. We possess nuclear weapons and have impressive space capabilities. To add to it, we are one the oldest civilization.
‘Iqra, Iqra, Iqra’ meaning ‘read, recite and read’ was the first message of Allah delivered by Angel Gabriel to Prophet Mohammad, while he was meditating in the caves of Mount Hira. The Indian strategist should seek inspiration and accept the need to have a relook on how we deal with our external threats. Since independence, India has been a victim of regular venomous attacks by Pak and China. They have been able to inflict harm and made attempts to hinder in the progress of India by supporting the proxies. Whether it was ‘the bleeding by thousand cuts policy’ by Pakistan or support of North East Insurgency by China, the damage caused by both the neighbours have been enormous. Proxy war is a low cost option of modern conflict which can be considered to mitigate it.
The General Character and the Spirit of the Age
Achieving objectives by fair means or foul, that is the most important spiritual legacy of the renaissance. In the middle ages, this represented a breakthrough against romantic chivalry and the declining tradition of knighthood. It meant using means, some possibly comprehensive and without restraint to achieve an objective. This found coherence also in the kind of warfare practiced during those times.3 One look around the globe alludes, that every capable nation has given a contract to some non- state actor to fight, facilitating its own self interests. The proxy environment has dominated the world scenery and it looms large in modern war.
As Table 1 illustrates the significant conflicts of the modern times, we can arrive at this analysis, that it is not just a Russian, Iranian or American approach to war, but many nations and polities engage in proxy warfare. Where Russia and USA had once set the rules of the game, state and non-state sponsors of proxy forces are proliferating today in every corner of the world. This is erasing traditional frontlines, reshaping alliances, and transforming rivalries thus bringing novelty to the ways and means of statecraft. A complex mesh of partnerships among states, corporations, mercenaries, militias, and other ‘useful brigands’ are radically changing how wars are fought and won.4 We must confess, that today’s conflicts are more complex and more intertwined than those of the past. Several prevailing trends are driving this shift. An escalation of inter-state competition between a resurgent Russia, a rising China and the United States and intensifying sectarian divides and regional rivalries between client states have become a catalyst to this new spectrum of conflict. The proliferation or threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among regional rivals such as Israel, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are transforming frontlines and alliances.
|Afghanistan||1979 – 1989||United States||Mujahideens||Soviet- Afghan Conflict|
|East||1980 – Present||Iran||Hezbollah||Multiple|
|Punjab||1984 – 1990||Pakistan||Sikh Separatists||Khalistan Movement|
|Kashmir||1990 – Present||Pakistan||Various Proxies||Proxy War against India|
|Iraq||Oct 2014 – May 2018||United States||Iraqi Security Forces||Op Inherent Resolve|
|Syria||Oct 2014 – Present||United States||Syrian Democratic Forces||Op Inherent Resolve|
|Syria||Oct 2014 – Present||Russia||Syrian regime Forces||Syria Civil War|
|Iraq||Oct 2014 – Present||Iran||Shia Militia Groups||Op Inherent Resolve|
|Yemen||Spring 2014 – Present||Iran||Houthi Rebels||Yemeni Civil War|
|Yemen||Spring 2014 – Present||UAE||Yemini Militia||Yemeni Civil War|
|Philippines||Fall 2016 – Present||United States||Philippine Defense Forces||Defeat ISIS campaign|
|Donbas region of Ukraine||Spring 2014 – Present||Russia||Separatists||Russo – Ukrainian war|
|Afghanistan and Pakistan||Oct 2001 – Present||United States||Afghan Defence Forces||Operation Enduring Freedom/Freedom’s Sentinel|
|Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan||2001 – Present||Russia||Chechen Forces (Regular and Irregular)||Multiple|
Table 1 : Sampling of Modern Proxy War
Globalization, with its resultant liberalisation of markets and currencies, integration of transportation, infrastructure, information and economies is knitting together a new network of corporate and individual interests that in turn have a stake in proxy conflict outcomes. Three successive industrial revolutions have produced profound acceleration in technological synthesis and convergences. All of the above factors have helped precipitate the rise of transnational social movements, many of which hold millenarian and apocalyptic visions.5 It is written on the wall, loud and clear, that war fighting through intermediaries, while vigorously pursuing one’s self interests is the spirit of the age and the general character of war in 21st century.
So Is it worth it?
Post-Westphalian era has been characterized by non-state violence and globalized conflicts. A prioritisation of risk management is imperative in a media driven environment, domestic pressures and a stricter international scrutiny. The state to remain relevant as the primary communal security provider, has to explore new ways to pursue her national interests. Thereby, the organisation of violence has departed from the employment of the state’s soldier as the ‘primary bearer of the burden of warfare’ and shifted to ‘technological and human surrogates’ enabling the state to manage the risks of post-modern conflict remotely.6 It 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. Proxy war stands in contrast not only to a traditional war—when a state shoulders the entire burden of its own defence (or offense)—but also an alliance, when major and minor powers work together with each other making significant contributions as per their capabilities. 7 This interesting deduction poses a very pertinent question, why are nations tilting towards proxy warfare? States uses proxies because of many reasons. The most prominent is the cost in terms of economics and also the clause of deniability. Proxies also offer a way of fighting that can limit escalation. Israel for example had continuous conflicts with Lebanese Hezbollah but has not struck Iran directly. This is even when there is an apparent financial and military support for the group by Tehran. But, if Iran would have attacked Israel with a missile, we can well imagine what would be the ramifications.8 The related risks to this kind of war is political backlash, effective control of proxies and prolonged involvement of principal state in the conflict zone. History is replete with such examples ranging from Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kashmir, war zones of Africa and Greater middle- east. Broad SWOT Analysis of Proxy warfare as done below can indicate to the reader why nations are continuously engaging in it.
Is there a Moral Dilemma for India?
India has unique challenges to face in securing its frontiers and maintaining peace at home. Being a developing nation, it will be detrimental to initiate a war. This will delay the growth trajectory and prosperity of its citizens. India has followed a policy of ‘Vasudev Katumbakam’ while dealing with its neighbours. At personal level, Indians have always pursued for higher values of life. ‘Lust’ has been credited as a reason for doom as written in Karam Yoga of Sri Bhagavad-Gita and controlling that through intellect has been the path shown by Krishna during the battle of Kurukshetra in Mahabharata.9 The parent teaches their children about truth, integrity and contentment rather than deceit, guile and cheating. ‘Self realization and Spirit of Tyaag’ dominates the path of salvation for an average Indian, irrespective of his religion. Our national core values have been inspired from these higher ideals which has motivated India to always maintain justness of actions at every level.
Rabindranath Tagore in his essay on nationalism in 1917 profoundly indicates the Indian mind set, which is true even today “The temptation which is fatal for the strong is still more so for the weak. And I do not welcome it in our Indian life even though it be sent by the lord of the Immortals. Let our life be simple in its outer aspect and rich in its inner gain. Let our civilization take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict. How to do it in the teeth of the drainage of our life-blood by the economic dragons is the task set before the thinkers of all oriental nations who have faith in the human soul. It is a sign of laziness and impotency to accept conditions imposed upon us by others who have other ideals than ours. We should actively try to adapt the world powers to guide our history to its own perfect end.” 10
But sadly, this has not further the national interests of India completely. The present relation with her neighbours, coupled with the way it is tormented with the internal security issues, fuelled by external support is loud testimony to that. India has always tried to maintain justness in her actions. As per Kautilya ‘Saam Daam Danda Bedha’ must be applied in statecraft to achieve the national interests. Dr RP Kangle in his study of Arthasastra, has made very pertinent observations on the relevance of Kautilya in the modern era and states, “We still have the same distrust of one nation by another, the same pursuit of its own interest by every nation tempered only by the considerations of expediency, the same effort to secure alliances with same disregard of them in self-interest”. 11 Kautilya had a clear grasp of the distinction between means and ends, even though he had conceived it more than 2,000 years ago. It is a concept that many strategic thinkers of today have not fully appreciated. He spoke of intrigue, secret missions, covert operations and diplomatic offensives as instruments of the state policy. The prohibitive expenses of war were well appreciated by him and, therefore, he advocated that victory can best be achieved without bloodshed. He advocated utilisation of all elements of state power to achieve favourable outcomes.12 India must learn from Pakistan and China and pursue these interesting realms of proxies to secure her interests. India has the capability and there are opportunities which can be exploited against our adversaries. There is an urgent need to understand how every country is playing proxies. We cannot lag behind and be caught napping blissfully, under the cozy sheet of morals, justness and detachment.
Tools to Till the Playfield!
India has conducted its counter proxy war campaign within its borders and on its own side of the Line of Control (LOC) through sustained counter infiltration and counter insurgency operations. Despite regular grave provocation, the strategic restraint shown by India enabled the country to keep the level of conflict low and sustain a high rate of economic growth. However, it failed to deter, either Pakistan or China in their attempts to haggle with India’s security. We need a fresh look on our resource utilisation, capacities and its nurturing for use in proxy warfare. The honest reality check indicates that the present capabilities are almost negligible. It needs incubation time and then only it can fructify, as the plan unfolds or the situation so demands. The tools which need sharpening are special forces for training and strategic operations, agents, technical force multipliers in terms of cyber and space, economic measures, Info warfare (IW) and identification of correct proxies. The strategy can hinge on four paradigms. The first and most important is IW to build a narrative, manage international pressure and domestic perception ensuring legitimacy of action. The second is ‘other non-kinetic means’ to include economic measures, cyber, media and use of agents shaping the battle space. The third is the actual proxy war wherein a proxy plays their part. Fourth is military support in terms of equipment, training and use of Special Forces in critical operations. Reflecting on the schematic layout below, it is evident that focus on catalysing ‘felt need’ is imperative. This can be done by aggressive IW using all forms of media creating a favourable ‘spin’. Putting gunpowder to the existing spark will facilitate it.
Being a deliberate process, it necessitates planting of own agents, cultivation of crucial political, military and civil dignitaries. A sound intelligence network across the classes will assist in reading the feelings of the population.
Options Available: Providing ‘Coal to the Steam Engine’
Pakistan: Pakistan continues to be faced with multiple sources of internal and external conflict. Due to measures taken by the Pakistani state, incidences of domestic terrorism have reduced, in part. Extremism and intolerance of diversity has grown. The growing extremism has been fuelled by a narrow vision of Pakistan’s national identity, threatening the country’s prospect for social cohesion and stability. The state institutions continue to display their helplessness to reliably provide peaceful ways to resolve grievances. This has encouraged groups to seek violence as a legitimate alternative. While peaceful political transitions occurred in both 2013 and 2018, the country is still facing mounting debt crisis and a perennial trade imbalance on the economic front. 13 Pakistan has internal fault lines which run deep and it questions the ‘idea of Pakistan’.
Balochistan province, the largest but least populated in Pakistan, has seen a separatist insurgency for several decades. The rebels, fighting for independence from Pakistan, have accused the federal government of stealing the province’s rich mineral deposits, and the security forces of widespread human rights violations14. The stark reality facing the power holders is that benefits of independence and the economic growth never permeated to Kalat. The benefits of oil, gas, chromite and mineral exploitations in Quetta Division, rather than being passed to the people in the form of development were transferred into the hands of the sardars of the area with criminal neglect and conceit. As a result, areas of Marri and Bugti, historically part of the British Balochistan, were also pushed into stone age.15 Gilgit Baltistan and Sindh province also shares the same fate of exploitation by the Punjabis. This provides an easy opportunity to exploit. Pakistan army and political leaders strive for power. The equation between polity, army and religious leaders have always been volatile. This is further complicated by poverty and the sectarian divide of shias and sunnis. A very fragile picture emerges which provides adequate coal to the steam engine for initiating proxy warfare.
China: Chinese belligerence on Indian territories of Ladakh in 2020 and its total disregard for New Delhi’s sensitivities on sovereignty and territorial integrity has touched new abyss. It is indeed time to revise the ‘One China policy’ and strike where it hurts China. Arguably, if India challenges the One China policy, it could unnerve the dragon. This is because ‘One China’ is critically related to the issue of Chinese legitimacy. Legitimacy, in simple terms means the right to rule or govern. But this right is based not on force or coercion but on endorsement. 16 China’s modern outlook of ‘One China’ is fundamentally fragile. Observation of Lucian Pye, a political scientist that ‘China is a civilization pretending to be a nation’ is very invigorating. Mainland China and in turn the Hans have exploited the rim lands by demographic inversions, indoctrination camps, occupation and curbing the basic human rights. Assets can be cultivated in the areas of Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Inner Mangolia. These can be activated to fuel a movement or turmoil when the situation so demands. Use of all means of non- contact war must be exploited to tilt the asymmetry.
China is a totally controlled society with CMC monitoring every move of her citizens by use of technology and crushing dissent systematically as was noticed during the Hong Kong protests of 2019. The economic growth of the nation has raised billions from poverty. India has the Tibet government in exile and Tibet settlements all across the nation. Careful selection of agents and good training can facilitate planting of agents in Tibet. Xinjiang already has a spark of insurgency which if fuelled can be exploited to put pressure on much famed CPEC. The demand of independence of East Turkestan has already been made in 1930s and 1940s, reinforcing this argument. India has good relations with Mongolia and issue of Inner Mongolia founds resonance with Mongolia. Russo – China relations can go sour anytime due to historical legacy and being natural competitors. Taiwan has support of United States and is considered to be the critical pressure point of China. It will not be easy though, to convince a great power like China to desist from exercising her military strength in redeeming her aspirations of territorial expansion. Most military disasters have resulted out of frigid strategies that proved to be irrelevant in the end. Dealing with such an adversary would require the Indian armed forces to maximise its resources at hand by ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ recourses.17
Limitation of tangible assets needs to be balanced by intellect, strategy and hitting the weak points, rather than following the traditional route of war fighting. The effort therefore, has to be free of systemic inertia and should be original, though deliberate. Employment of tools of proxy war to China has to be done very discreetly, lest it backfires. The reach of political wing of CMC in every field and at every level is a major impediment towards its fructification. It needs careful study, creative strategy and long term execution with diligence and persistence.
Till we Begin…
Clausewitz argued that ‘no human characteristic appears as suited to the task of directing and inspiring strategy as the gift of cunning’. Cunning inspires the development of strategy because strategy develops out of war, and war, in turn, from the hunt—the original practice in which humans first learned the value of cunning. But a transformation in human capacities attends the historical development of the hunt into war and the modern evolution of strategy. 18 Being ‘Strategic Cunning’ is the way forward in geopolitics. India has generally lacked in this part because of our gullibility, simplicity and lack of vision due to domestic politics. Kautaliya also elaborated that all means are justified to achieve national interests. India must use ‘smart power’ to include proxies to safeguard its core interests. This option is apt choice in modern war, where the face of war has become indistinct and actions are often denied by the states and the non-states.
“Atha cet tvam imam dharmyam
sangramam na karisyasi
tatah sva – dharmam kirtim ca
hitva papam avapsyasi”19
Arjun was a famous fighter, and he attained fame by fighting many great demigods, including even Lord Shiva. In the battle of Kurukshetra he was bewildered and confused with morals, hesitations and decision flux. Shri Krishna as his guru uttered the above shloka to him. It translates as follows ‘If, however, you do not perform your religious duty of fighting, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter’. Karan was a formidable opponent against Pandavas. Conditions were created, by weakening him in form of three curses by the proxies( if we extrapolate it to the present context) and battlefield was shaped by denying him the power of his famous golden ‘kavach and kundals’ (again by a proxy in form of Indra). And in Kurukshetra, when he was vulnerable, while taking out the stuck wheel of his chariot, he was executed by Arjun without any moral dilemma and guilt. There is a need to revisit our culture and carefully study it in relation to present security paradigm.
India is facing multidimensional threats from its neighbours in ever evolving geopolitical realities. The core interests of growth, development and poverty elimination can be achieved by a wholesome approach to the national security. It is pertinent to mention that every internal problem that India faces has linkages to the external dimensions. India has been far too feeble and docile in its approach to handle her adversaries as a matter of policy. The time is ripe to exploit the contours of proxy warfare to mitigate her vulnerabilities and counter her adversaries. India has always maintained high ideals and followed the path of righteousness in resolving the disputes. Proxy war is a low cost option of modern conflict. India must get over the ‘moral high ground syndrome’ and understand the realities in all its nakedness. She needs to revisit the ‘Kutta Niti’ and use proxies without being apologetic, to achieve its national interests. This will endow her to have substantial leverage in management of conflicts and have new outlook altogether to rediscover her security paragon.
“The views expressed in the article are solely of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement. Attributability of the contents lies purely with the Author.”
Clausewitz Carl von. ‘On War’. Translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Priceton University Press,1987), p 594.
Fox Amos C. ‘In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare’. Land Warfare Paper 123/ February 2019, p 1.
Qiao Lang, Wang Xiangsui ‘Unrestricted Warfare’. Translation by Birnes Hayfield Nancy (Shadow Lawn Press, 2017 Edition), p 211.
Rondeaux Candace, Sterman David. ‘Twenty First century Proxy Warfare’. new America International study programme, 9 Nov 2018.
Krieg Andrews, Jean Marc Rickli. ‘Surrogate Warfare: The Art of War in 21st Century’ Taylor and Francis Defence Journal, pp 113-130. 21 Jan 2018.
Byman L Daniel. ‘Why Engage in Proxy War : A state’s perspective’. Brookings. 21 May 2018.
Sri Bhagwad Gita, Chapter 3, Karam Yoga, Shloka 37-42.
Tagore Rabindranath. Essay on ‘Nationalism’. 1917.
Kingle RP, ‘The Kautilya Arthashastra’.
Admiral Murlidharan MP, ‘Relevance of Arthashastra in 21 st Century.’ 17 Jan 2020.
United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/thecurrent-situation-in-pakistan.pdf
Kakar Abdul Ghani. ‘Balochistan – Dangareous Faultlines’. The Friday Times (Pakistan Weekly Newspaper). 10 Oct 2013.
Sharaf Samson Simon. ‘The Faultline in Baluchistan.’ The Nation. 03 Oct 2012.
Bhattacharya Abanthi. ‘The Fallacy of One China Policy’. Vivekananda International Foundation. 18 Aug 2020.
Lt Gen Banerjee Gautam. ‘India’s Military Strategy vis a vis China’. Vivekananda International Foundation. 15 Jul 2013.
Reid Julian. ‘Cunning and Strategy’. https://unbag.net/metis/cunning-strategy
Sri Bhagwad Gita, Chapter 2, Contents of the Gita Summarized, Shloka 33.