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Current Affairs

Vol. 1 No. 2 | Spring 2014
A Temporary M...

A Temporary Marriage of Convenience:

Transnational Jihadists in Proxy Warfare

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross | 22 May 2014

Cecily G. Brewer of the U.S. Department of State defines proxy wars as “inter-state conflicts fought via intra-state means.”[1] She notes that traditionally in such conflicts, “the intra-state symptoms of the conflict draw attention,” while the inter-state driver — the support an actor receives from outside the country — “is ignored.” A prototypical example, albeit one where outside support given to the non-state actors at the heart of the conflict has received copious attention, is the Afghan-Soviet war. Not only did the Afghan mujahedin force the powerful Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan following a costly and humiliating defeat, but the conflict also gave birth to the preeminent transnational jihadist group, al-Qaeda. This article examines how proxy warfare functions in the context of jihadist groups that share al-Qaeda’s transnational outlook, arguing that they create more difficulties for the state attempting to exploit them than do traditional proxies. Pakistan’s policies, and the resulting costs inflicted upon the Pakistani state, provide a powerful case study in the dangers involved in relying on jihadist proxies.


The Afghan-Soviet war was a key event in shaping Pakistan’s self-destructive use of proxies. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 quickly became notorious throughout the Muslim world. The invasion triggered stiff resistance from Afghan mujahedin, and encouraged both state and non-state actors to support the various mujahedin factions. In the Cold War context, the United States perceived the Soviet invasion as an opportunity to give the U.S.S.R. its own Vietnam War, according to President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.[2] The mujahedin thus became a proxy of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, each with their own somewhat divergent interests in supporting these factions. The largest U.S. covert aid program since Vietnam, with American support (totaling around $3 billion) matched dollar for dollar by Saudi Arabia, flowed to the anti-Soviet fighters. American and Saudi aid was routed through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).


Despite the strong presence of Islamic fundamentalists among the mujahedin factions – and Pakistan’s well-known preference for aiding Islamists – the United States perceived the Afghan-Soviet war as a traditional proxy conflict. The Afghan mujahedin were seen as primarily nationalist in orientation, even if their outlook had a distinctly religious flavor; and the U.S. refrained from backing foreign fighters from the Arab world who flocked to South Asia to join the fight, such as Osama bin Laden.[3]


In the war’s final days, bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, the former’s mentor, agreed that the organization they had built up during the course of the conflict shouldn’t disband post-Soviet withdrawal.[4] They thus established al-Qaeda, which would propel transnational jihadism to new heights, and in doing so, would change fundamentally the calculus for states attempting to utilize jihadist violent non-state actors (VNSAs) as proxies...


As a longer article, this piece will only be offered in PDF format for easier reading. Download the PDF to read more.

[1] Cecily G. Brewer, “Peril by Proxy: Negotiating Conflicts in East Africa,” International Negotiation 16 (2011): 138.

[2] “Les Révélations d’un Ancien Conseilleur de Carter: ‘Oui, la CIA est Entrée en Afghanistan avant les Russes,’” Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris), January 15-21, 1998.

[3] Richard Miniter, Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2005).

[4] Indictment, United States v. Arnaout, 02 CR 892 (N.D. Ill., 2002), 2; 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 56.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross 


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs.

Purveyors of Ter...

Purveyors of Terror:

Counterterrorism in Africa's Failing States

Thomas Dempsey | 22 May 2014

Weak and failing states in Africa continue to offer challenging environments for counterterrorism campaigns in both a military and a civil law enforcement context. Weakly governed and ungoverned spaces in these states offer venues that violent extremist groups continue to exploit as platforms for terrorism. These groups – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Shabaab in Somalia are simply two of the more prominent examples – use these weakly governed and ungoverned spaces to recruit new followers, build capability and capacity, and launch new terrorist attacks while avoiding the scrutiny and attention of African security sectors and their international partners. A defining feature of these weakly governed and ungoverned spaces in Africa is the predominance of non-state security actors, including local militias, neighborhood watch organizations, traditional hunting societies, and traditional, customary, or religious justice processes that operate outside of the formal court system. Some of these non-state actors themselves represent violent extremist groups involved in acts of terror.  Others play central roles in the mediation of disputes (administration of justice), delivery of police services, or as military surrogates in providing for local defense.


I argued in Counterterrorism in African Failed States that collaboration between U.S. military forces and law enforcement agencies is essential to effective counterterrorism interventions in African failed states.[i] Subsequent counterterrorism operations in the region have confirmed that argument, and African senior police and militaryleaders increasingly emphasize the importance of collaboration between military and police forces.[ii] In addition to military forces and law enforcement services, counterterrorism in Africa must effectively address the need for effective partners in the justice sector – prosecutors (and defense counsels), courts, prisons and corrections – in implementing counterterrorism strategies. All three components of counterterrorism strategies must confront the reality that weakly governed and ungoverned spaces are ground zero for counterterrorism on the continent, and that non-state security actors are a defining feature of those spaces. 


To address the purveyors of terror – in most cases, non-state security actors like Al-Shabaab in Somalia or AQIM in the Sahel – counterterrorism strategies in ungoverned and weakly governed spaces in Africa must address all of the non-state security actors that proliferate in those areas.  Strategies must overcome the influence of non-state security actors that impede or actively resist counterterrorism efforts (like local militias in Northern Mali), which may not be actively supporting AQIM agendas, but are nonetheless hostile to Malian state security services. At the same time, these strategies must accommodate, and may in some cases partner with, non-state security actors that have local legitimacy and functionality to counter violent extremist groups that have become purveyors of terror. Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) forces in 1998 succeeded in countering deliberate programs of terror by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces in Sierra Leone largely through collaboration with local non-state actors like the Kamajor hunting societies; Kenyan components of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have forged similar relationships with local Somali clan militias that are hostile to Al-Shabaab. Counterterrorism strategies that effectively counter negative non-state security actors while developing effective partnerships with more functional and legitimate non-state security actors may be able to significantly improve counterterrorism outcomes.


African security sectors and their external partners must also recognize the potential risks of partnering with non-state security actors. "Franchising" the state security function is unlikely to contribute to stronger state security institutions. Collaboration with security actors that operate outside of the formal institutions of governance creates challenges of accountability and oversight, and can potentially undermine effective governance, especially at the local level. Counterterrorism strategists seeking to partner with non-state security actors will need to develop effective measures for mitigating these risks. External partners will also need to negotiate the significant barriers in national and international law to partnering with security actors that lack the formal sanction of state institutions of governance...

As a longer article, this piece will only be offered in PDF format for easier reading. Download the PDF to read more.

[i] Thomas Dempsey, “Counterterrorism in African Failed States: Challenges and Potential Solutions,” United States Army War College, Institute for Strategic Studies, (2006): 26-27.

[ii] Senior African military and police officers in discussion with the author, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Mozambique, March, 2014.

Colonel Thomas Dempsey


Colonel Thomas Dempsey, U.S. Army (retired) is the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) Chair for Security Studies. Professor Dempsey specializes in security sector reform, rule of law, post-conflict transitions and peace operations. - See more at:

Plausible Denia...

Plausible Deniability:

Proxy Wars in Africa

Jennifer L. DeMaio | 22 May 2014

A Tool of Statecraft


In the decades since independence, proxy wars have frequently threatened regional security in Africa. Many interstate and intrastate wars on the continent have become increasingly complicated by the involvement of opposing nation states using third parties as surrogates for fighting each other directly. As civil wars threaten to spill across borders and destabilize entire regions, the nature and extent of states using these wars as proxies for their own agendas needs to be studied more systematically.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union relied on proxy wars as a means of engaging the enemy indirectly and advancing their foreign policy agendas, while leaving minimal visible blood on their hands. These proxy wars between the superpowers played out across Africa, from the Horn to Angola to Mozambique. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the superpower competition for regional supremacy has been replaced by new proxy wars and trans-border alliances between African states and local armed groups. As Joseph argues, the recourse to proxy wars reflects the challenges faced by the African state and its inability to institutionalize democratic structures. But the problem is much deeper. Engaging in proxy wars is a critical strategy for state-building, and develops from calculations by state leaders to advance their policy agendas. Threatened regimes wishing to maintain their hold on power may allow and enable civil tensions to spill across borders and destabilize neighboring countries. This approach can be used as a means to consolidate power domestically and spread influence internationally. A civil war thereby becomes a proxy war between states, with the advantage that governments can distance themselves from atrocities committed by their proxies by either attributing blame to rebel factions or by just claiming that they are in fact not sponsoring any group.


This essay proposes that governments have an incentive to allow civil wars to spread across borders in order to engage in proxy battles with neighboring states. Governments can utilize proxy wars to strengthen their hold on the domestic state apparatus and to gain regional superiority. This strategy can include using militarily weak countries as proxies in order to assert their regional dominance and broadcast domestic power. Proxy wars can then advance domestic and foreign policy agendas while allowing states to avoid engaging in costly and bloody direct combat. The use of proxy war as a tool of statecraft is thus calculated and controlled...

As a longer article, this piece will only be offered in PDF format for easier reading. Download the PDF to read more.

Jennifer De Maio


Jennifer De Maio is an Associate Professor of Political Science at California State University, Northridge.  She is the author of "Confronting Ethnic Conflict: The Role of Third Parties in Managing Africa's Civil Wars" as well as papers on ethnic politics, civil wars and conflict management in Africa, including a recent article on the problem of exclusivity in peace processes which appeared in the journal "Civil Wars," a chapter on the role of youth people in African Politics in the book "Civic Youth Work," an article on the transnationalization of conflict in Darfur for African Studies Quarterly, and a piece on preventive diplomacy published in "World Affairs."

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