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  • A Race to the Bottom:Strong States and the Delusion of Proxy Warfare
  • Tamanna Salikuddin (bio)

Today's multipolar world with the re-emergence of great-power conflict and the outsized digital reach of nonstate actors beyond their apparent conventional capacities has encouraged countries to support proxy forces in most major wars.1 The United States actively supported proxies before and during the Cold War, but since September 11, Congress has granted the Department of Defense unprecedented authorities to organize, train, equip, and advise proxy forces.2 The significant changes in the global security landscape have prompted a re-examination of the use of proxies: why do states choose to outsource violence when its legitimate use is a fiercely guarded defining characteristic of a modern nation state? Current discourse explores what the costs and benefits are of global proxy use, whether current legal (domestic and international) frameworks are sufficient to handle the explosion of proxy warfare,3 and how policymakers should assess its utility.4 Most of this literature is focused on foreign support of state and nonstate actors in civil wars and interstate conflicts, largely leaving intrastate use of proxies untouched.

In her compelling new book, Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, Yelena Biberman explores the contours of a state's support for nonstate actors in domestic civil wars. A state's use of proxies against insurgents or separatists within its own borders is a salient, though understudied, phenomenon in the relations between South Asia's nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. Biberman uses these two states as [End Page 180] examples in her revamped theory of "balance of interests" to explain why a state chooses to back proxies and how successfully it is able to do so. She expands this framework to Turkey and Russia to test its usefulness further afield with states that are former imperial powers rather than postcolonial democracies. Her framework is useful in understanding the complex and often convoluted relationships between states and their domestic proxies. Biberman makes the case that a state's essential motivation in a civil war is to re-establish sovereignty or preserve the status quo. But, notably, she pushes back on the common understanding that a state will enforce its sovereignty at any cost within its borders. Rather, she gives examples of states having competing interests that lead them to tolerate some level of internal intransigence and not fully defend their sovereignty. The balance-of-interests theory recognizes the role of both power and interests in state-nonstate alliances, specifies when states seek nonstate allies, and identifies the conditions under which different types of nonstate actors join counterinsurgency operations. In a departure from much of the literature that assumes proxy support is tied only to a state's power, Biberman expertly argues that a state's interests are equally important in the decision to support proxies in a domestic civil war (p. 9).

Gambling with Violence shows that strong states with strong militaries cannot always do what they want, even within their own borders. The book's examination of India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Russia helps make the case that uprisings are common in states with robust armed forces, especially states as diverse and large as these. Previous studies assumed that a state's weakness leads it to back proxy forces inside its own borders. However, Russia's experience in the First Chechen War demonstrates that a competent military is necessary to successfully use, manage, and control proxy forces (p. 144). The book observes repeatedly that a state's power is relative to the context in which it is deployed (see, for example, p. 11). Furthermore, the postcolonial realities of both India and Pakistan are revealed in the discussion of Kashmir and Bangladesh, as well as the fact that each country's strong military was not well-positioned to fight in these particular civil wars. Independence from colonial rule and the creation of the modern states of India and Pakistan left many unresolved conflicts and territorial disputes that festered under each government's lack of legitimacy due to the population's alienation from the state; religious, ethnic, and tribal prejudices; and continued colonial practices of...


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pp. 180-184
Launched on MUSE
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