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  • Author's Response:Reconsidering How We Think about Proxies
  • Yelena Biberman (bio)

I am thankful to Asia Policy for inviting Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India to be the focus of this book review roundtable and to the reviewers for their deep engagement with the ideas and evidence presented in my work. As Tamanna Salikuddin astutely observes, proxies are all the rage in academic and policy circles. The book's publication coincides with the release of several works exploring how states can effectively manage their local partners and the complications that invariably arise in proxy warfare.1 Much of the fascination stems from questions and anxieties surrounding the United States' global decline. Proxy warfare is widely viewed as one of the key instruments through which powerful states will either try to maintain or achieve great-power status in a new era of geopolitical competition.2 New ideas about state-proxy relations are in high demand, but we must keep in mind that history, and certainly South Asian history, has much to teach us. As Samir Puri points out, novel-sounding ideas like "hybrid war" would be deeply familiar to military philosophers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Kautilya.

Rashmi Singh identifies as an "enormous contribution" that my new framework "refuses to privilege the interests and power of one side over the other in the process of alliance formation." A pattern that continues to strike me in the literature and policy conversations about proxies is the state-centric orientation, which implicitly privileges the state's dominant narrative. This may in part stem from the relationship between one's level [End Page 193] of education and attitude toward state violence.3 Drawing on U.S. data from the World Values Survey and the General Social Survey, sociologist Landon Schnabel found that those with more education are more likely to consider state-sanctioned violence (specifically, war and police violence) justifiable. He posits that "schooling socializes people to establishment culture, identity, and interests, thereby legitimating ruling authority and its actions." 4 We tend to see things from the perspective of the state because we are more likely to identify with the state than with those it is most likely to abuse—marginalized groups and foreign actors.

While much of the existing scholarship is methodologically meticulous, the "problems" it seeks to solve seem to privilege powerful states and their needs. This was the point I emphasized in the policy recommendations section in my book's concluding chapter, and one that the reviewers welcomed. The Machiavellian impulse to advise and give the benefit of doubt to those with the most power—be it the prince or the state—can not only weaken scholarly impartiality but also, especially in times of conflict, blunt our humanist instincts. Take some of the news coming out of Afghanistan in late 2020. It includes atrocities carried out not just by the Taliban, but also by state actors and state-backed proxies. In November 2020 the New York Times described how "the elite of the elite among Australian soldiers" in the Australian Defence Force had carried out "a methodical campaign to kill helpless Afghans and cover it up."5 In December 2020, the Intercept made public the atrocities committed by U.S.-backed Afghan "death squads," paramilitary units (known as 01 and 02) outside the control of the Afghan government.6 What problems or puzzles do these events raise for scholars? We should reflect on the questions that are often asked in scholarly research and the underlying assumptions that motivate them.

My book brings into the limelight the nonstate actors—their interests, agency, and experiences—by making them central to its theoretical framework and empirical inquiry. Singh is correct to remind us that state actors are no less diverse and interesting, and I interviewed dozens of government, military, and intelligence officials for their sides of the story. [End Page 194] Their accounts were certainly vital and complex, and often quoted in the book. But the existing accounts of the counterinsurgency operations detailed in the book have, I would argue, already done justice to the conflicting motives and predicaments of these individuals, who are typically quite accessible for...


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pp. 193-196
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