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  • The Proxies That Countries Keep
  • Samir Puri (bio)

As Yelena Biberman argues in Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, it is wise to judge a state by the company it keeps in wartime. The book is a study of partnerships between state security forces and nonstate militias, auxiliaries, and proxies. This theme is examined in six case studies of counterinsurgent armed conflict. Biberman moves with some novelty through the well-trodden ground of the 1971 East Pakistan War, the Kashmir insurgency, Pakistan's war with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and India's war against the Naxalites before venturing out of South Asia to examine Turkey's war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Russia's war in Chechnya. The basic narrative of each episode is well-known by historians and experts, but the shady dealings between state security forces and their local armed allies receive less attention in most accounts. Herein resides the value of this compact volume.

As Biberman observes at the close of the Kashmir case study, "the tangled web of interests spun by shifting power dynamics during war can lead to extraordinary measures, not least unexpected alliances" (p. 96). The rogues' gallery of village mafias, ex-convicts, defecting terrorists, and mere opportunists who populate each case study attest to this. Weapons are thrust into hands, and words of encouragement whispered into ears, often by equally roguish intelligence officers. The desperation of the security forces that grapple with remorseless insurgents finds its outlet in their quest for local allies to share the burden of fighting and dying.

Indeed, so common is this desperation that governments of all stripes, whether democratic or autocratic, are forced by exigencies of counterinsurgency campaigns to opt for a shortcut by outsourcing violence. Examples come from far and wide. The book mentions in passing, for example, the collusion between British security forces and various Ulster-bannered Loyalist militias in Northern Ireland. Another example that could have warranted discussion is the Israel Defense Force and its Christian Phalange militia allies that it increasingly relied on after invading Lebanon in 1982. As a relatively concise volume, this book cannot, [End Page 190] of course, cover too many case studies, or dilute its primary focus on South Asia, but raising these other examples serves to validate the book's main premise—that reliance on local armed nonstate allies is a common characteristic of anti-insurgent warfare.

Another area that could have received greater focus is the fate of government-supported militias and proxies during peace negotiations. Not all wars or conflicts end with formal peace negotiations, but when they do, the potential for insurgent groups to act as spoilers, or for their existence to become an obstacle during talks, is another important theme that warrants attention. Disbanding these pro-government groups or rolling them into state security forces may not always be possible, and additional reflection on this conundrum would have been welcome.

The historical grounding of the case studies recalls the false novelty that is implicit in the current jargon of "hybrid war." This term gained currency after Russia fomented an armed intervention in neighboring Ukraine in March 2014 by backing local militias of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" to wage war against Ukrainian armed forces. Such undeclared outsourcing of violence to militias or auxiliary forces has been an occasional feature of warfare through much of history. This raises the question as to what Biberman thinks of the popularization of the hybrid warfare terminology and how it relates to her book and its historical case studies. During my past service as an observer for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during the Ukraine conflict, I kept in the back of my mind the relevance of lessons learned by the Russian armed forces from the Chechen conflict, not least in how states select which local allies to gamble on and how such wagers can backfire.

The "gamble" in the book's title points to its greatest strength: a philosophical ease throughout the writing with the variegations of human motivation. Biberman correctly points to the fact that large-N studies neglect the human...


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pp. 190-192
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