A proxy war is a conflict between two states or non-state actors where neither entity directly engages the other. 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 a safer way of exercising hostilities. 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. 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. This led to the practice of arming insurgent forces, such as the funneling of supplies to the Mujahideen during the Soviet–Afghan War.
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 the 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.
A significant disparity in the belligerents' conventional military strength may motivate the weaker party to begin or continue a conflict through allied nations or non-state actors. Such a situation arose during the Arab–Israeli conflict, which continued as a series of proxy wars following Israel's decisive defeat of the Arab coalitions in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The coalition members, upon failing to achieve military dominance via direct conventional warfare, have since resorted to funding armed insurgent and paramilitary organizations, such as Hezbollah, to engage in irregular combat against Israel.
Additionally, the governments of some nations, particularly liberal democracies, may choose to engage in proxy warfare (despite military superiority) when a majority of their citizens oppose declaring or entering a conventional war. This featured prominently in US strategy following the Vietnam War, due to the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" of extreme war weariness among the American population. This was also a significant factor in motivating the US to enter conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War via proxy actors, after a series of costly, drawn-out direct engagements in the Middle East spurred a recurrence of war weariness, a so-called "War on Terror syndrome".
Nations may also resort to proxy warfare to avoid potential negative international reactions from allied nations, profitable trading partners, or intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations. This is especially significant when standing peace treaties, acts of alliance, or other international agreements ostensibly forbid direct warfare: breaking such agreements could lead to a variety of negative consequences due to either negative international reaction (see above), punitive provisions listed in the prior agreement, or retaliatory action by the other parties and their allies.
In some cases, nations may be motivated to engage in proxy warfare due to financial concerns: supporting irregular troops, insurgents, non-state actors, or less-advanced allied militaries (often with obsolete or surplus equipment) can be significantly cheaper than deploying national armed forces, and the proxies usually bear the brunt of casualties and economic damage resulting from prolonged conflict.
Another common motivating factor is the existence of a security dilemma. Leaders that feel threatened by a rival nation's military power may respond aggressively to perceived efforts by the rival to strengthen their position, such as military intervention to install a more favorable government in a third-party state. They may respond by attempting to undermine such efforts, often by backing parties favorable to their own interests (such as those directly or indirectly under their control, sympathetic to their cause, or ideologically aligned). In this case, if one or both rivals come to believe that their favored faction is at a disadvantage, they will often respond by escalating military and/or financial support. If their counterpart(s), perceiving a material threat or desiring to avoid the appearance of weakness or defeat, follow suit, a proxy war ensues between the two powers. This was a major factor in many of the proxy wars during the Cold War between the US and USSR, as well as in the ongoing series of conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially in Yemen and Syria.
Proxy wars can have a huge impact, especially on the local area. A proxy war with significant effects was the Vietnam War between the United States 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. Also significant was the Soviet–Afghan War, which cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, bankrupting the Soviet Union and contributing to its collapse.
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 devastated 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. Since 2011, more than 220,000 have died in Syria. In Yemen, over 1,000 have died in just one month. In Israel, more than 8,000 have died since 2000. In Afghanistan, more than 17,000 have been killed since 2009. In Pakistan, more than 57,000 have been killed since 2003.
In general, the lengths, intensities, and scales of existing armed conflicts are often greatly increased when belligerents' capabilities are augmented by external support. Belligerents are often less likely to engage in diplomatic negotiations, peace talks are less likely to bear fruit, and damage to infrastructure can be many times greater.