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A proxy war is a conflict between two nations where neither country directly engages the other.1 While this can encompass a breadth of armed confrontation, its core definition hinges on two separate powers utilizing external strife to somehow attack the interests or territorial holdings of the other. This frequently involves both countries fighting their opponent's allies, or assisting their allies in fighting their opponent.
Proxy wars have been especially common since the close of World War II and the rise of the Cold War, and were a defining aspect of global conflict during the latter half of the 20th century. Much of this was motivated by fears that direct conflict between the United States and Soviet Union would result in nuclear holocaust, rendering proxy wars an ostensibly safer way of exercising hostilities.2 There were also more immediate reasons for the emergence of proxy war on the global stage. During its later years, the USSR often found it less expensive to arm or otherwise prop up NATO-antagonistic parties in lieu of direct engagement.3 In addition, the proliferation of televised media and its impact on public perception made the U.S. public especially susceptible to war-weariness and skeptical of risking American life abroad.4 This led to the practice of arming insurgent forces, such as the funneling of supplies to the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War.5
Proxy wars can also emerge from independent conflicts escalating due to the intervention of external powers. For example, the Spanish Civil War began as a civil war between the pro-fascist revolutionary Nationalists and supporters of the Spanish Republic, called Republicans. However, it evolved into a proxy war as Nazi Germany and its allies began supporting the Nationalists, while the USSR, Mexico and various international volunteers supported the Republicans.6
There are many reasons why countries may fight proxy wars. One of them involves the military strength of the two countries. Let's say that Country A and Country B are bitter enemies, and Country A is significantly stronger than Country B. If Country B wants to eliminate Country A, then it is in Country B's best interest to use a proxy war, since Country B doesn't stand a chance in direct conflict. A real-world example of this is the Arab-Israeli conflict. This conflict developed into a proxy war following Israel's decisive defeat of the Arab coalitions in the First Arab-Israeli War, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The Arab countries realized they couldn't defeat Israel in direct conflict, and have since resorted to funding terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.78
Another reason countries, particularly democracies, might fight a proxy war involves public support for a war. Let's say Country C wants to do to war with Country D. However, Country C's public refuses to support this. If Country C is a democracy, then if Country C goes to war anyway, the government of Country C will get voted out of power next election. The government doesn't want this to happen, and might choose to have a proxy go to war with Country D. An example of this is the Soviet-Afghan War. This began only four years after the end of the Vietnam War, and the American public had no intention of fighting another war. This led the USA to support instead the Mujahideen, who were fighting the USSR.5
Another reason countries might fight a proxy war, though this primarily applies to the modern world, is international reaction. Let's say Country E and Country F are rivals, and they're both dependent on Country G for revenue. If Country G has threatened to cut off trade with any country that provokes a war, then neither Country E nor Country F would benefit from starting a war. They might instead choose to fight each other using proxies. A modern-day example of this involves Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have very tense relations. However, both countries would likely get punished economically for provoking a war, and so have resorted to fighting each other with proxy wars, resulting in the Syrian Civil War and the current Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.9
Proxy wars can have a huge impact, especially on the local area. The Syrian Civil War, a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the USA and the EU on one side and Iran and Russia on the other, has resulted in the deaths of 220,000 people and the displacement of over one million.10 Another proxy war with significant effects was the Vietnam War between the USA and the USSR. In particular, the bombing campaign Operation Rolling Thunder destroyed lots of infrastructure, making life more difficult for North Vietnamese citizens. In addition, unexploded bombs dropped during the campaign have killed tens of thousands since the war ended, not only in Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos too.11 Also significant was the Soviet-Afghan War, which cost millions of lives and billions of dollars,12 bankrupting the Soviet Union and contributing to its collapse.3
Proxy wars generally have a destabilizing effect. For example, in the Middle East, proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between Israel and Palestine have destroyed the region. These conflicts have resulted in, among other things, the Syrian Civil War, the rise of ISIL, the current civil war in Yemen, and the reemergence of the Taliban. Since 2003, more than 500,000 have died in Iraq.13 Since 2011, more than 220,000 have died in Syria.10 In Yemen, over 1,000 have died in just one month.14 In Israel, more than 8,000 have died since 2000.15 In Afghanistan, more than 17,000 have been killed since 2009.16 In Pakistan, more than 57,000 have been killed since 2003.17
One of the reasons the death toll in these conflicts is so high because of the fact that most of the groups fighting them are paramilitary. In Israel, there's Hamas and Hezbollah.7818 In Ukraine, there's the pro-Russian rebels.19 In Syria, there's ISIL, al-Qaeda and a lot of other rebel groups.9 Because these groups are paramilitary, they're not technically allowed to be there. If anyone who was willing to control them was able to, they wouldn't exist in the first place. Also because they're paramilitary, they often don't have much respect for existing laws and military norms. Often, they won't go out of their way to prevent civilian deaths, dramatically increasing the number of casualties. Some of these groups, such as Hamas, even consider civilians legitimate targets and weapons.citation needed
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- Wilde, Robert. "Mutually Assured Destruction." About Education. About.com, n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. <http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/glossary/g/glmad.htm>.
- Prof CJ. "Ep. 0014: Fall of the Soviet Empire." Prof CJ, 21 July 2014. MP3 file.
- Curtis, Anthony R. "Mass Media Influence on Society." University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 23 June 2012. PDF file.
- The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1499983/Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan>.
- The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Spanish Civil War." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/558032/Spanish-Civil-War>.
- Masters, Jonathan, and Zachary Laub. "Hezbollah (a.k.a. Hizbollah, Hizbu'llah)." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 3 January 2014. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.cfr.org/lebanon/hezbollah-k-hizbollah-hizbullah/p9155>.
- Laub, Zachary. "Hamas." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 1 August 2014. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.cfr.org/israel/hamas/p8968>.
- Calabresi, Massimo. "Caught in the Cross Fire." Time 13 April 2015: 24-27. Print.
- "Syria Civil War Fast Facts." CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 13 April 2015. Web. 27 April 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/27/world/meast/syria-civil-war-fast-facts/index.html>.
- "Operation Rolling Thunder." History. A&E Television Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/operation-rolling-thunder>.
- "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978-1980." U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State, 31 October 2013. Web. 28 April 2015. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1977-1980/soviet-invasion-afghanistan>.
- Sheridan, Kerry. "War-related deaths near 500,000 in Iraq." Your Middle East. Your Middle East, 16 October 2013. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/news/warrelated-deaths-near-500000-in-iraq_18729>.
- "More than 115 children killed in Yemen war." Aljazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 24 April 2015. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/115-children-killed-yemen-war-150424124524050.html>.
- Fisher, Max. "This chart shows every person killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict since 2000." Vox. Vox Media, Inc., 14 July 2014. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.vox.com/2014/7/14/5898581/chart-israel-palestine-conflict-deaths>.
- "Afghanistan sees record high of civilians casualties in five years." English.news.cn. Xinhua, english.news.cn., 19 February 2015. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2015-02/19/c_134005952.htm>.
- "Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan 2003-2015." SATP. SATP, 26 April 2015. Web. 28 April 2015. <http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/pakistan/database/casualties.htm>.
- Counter Terrorism Guide. National Counterterrorism Center, n.d. Web. 28 April 2015.
- Shuster, Simon, and Andrew Katz. "Beneath the Front Lines." Time 23 February 2015: 44-51. Print.