Episode 6, Season 1 of the Social Science of War podcast examines the role of proxy warfare in strategic and great power competition, and how the Army, the military, and the US government as a whole need to prepare for this distinct form of conflict.
Our guests begin by defining what proxy warfare is and whether it will be relevant in strategic competition. They then outline the reasons why states engage in proxy warfare and the unique challenges that delegating security to proxies poses for states. A large part of the conversation explores proxy warfare through the framework of principal-agent theory, to include a discussion on the role of interest alignment between principals and their proxies, and whether a principal can overcome interest misalignment.
Following discussion on the theory of proxy warfare, our guests discuss the implications of proxy warfare for the Army and the broader national security community. The US Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, are a force organized, trained, and equipped specifically to engage in proxy warfare. However, our guests note that throughout history conventional military leaders—to include in the context of large-scale combat operations during World War I, World War II, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and beyond—have often incorporated proxy forces as part of their broader war plans. If history is precedent, then within strategic competition both special operations forces and conventional forces will need to understand and be prepared to employ proxy warfare approaches.
Dr. Nakissa Jahanbani is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point and a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. She studies political violence, focusing on questions of state-proxy relationships, specifically Iran’s network of proxies. She has published widely on Iran’s use of proxy warfare, and today’s episode is motivated by her coauthored article, “Iran Entangled: Iran and Hezbollah’s Support to Proxies Operating in Syria.”
Dr. Vladimir Rauta is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Reading and a fellow at the Irregular Warfare Initiative. He is widely published on proxy warfare, to include as the editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Proxy Wars for which both host Kyle Atwell and guest Nakissa Jahanbani have contributed chapters.
Lieutenant General Ken Tovo retired as a career Special Forces Officer with almost forty years of experience in the Army, culminating with command of US Army Special Operations Command. He graduated and commissioned as an infantry officer from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1983. His wide operational experience includes the first Gulf War, refugee relief operations in northern Iraq, noncombatant evacuation operations in Sierra Leone, peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, five tours in Iraq, and one tour in Afghanistan.
The Social Science of War podcast is produced by the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Visit our website if you would like to be a student or teach in the Department, or if you would like to connect with any of our instructors based on their expertise.
Kyle Atwell created and is the host of the Social Science of War. Please reach out to Kyle with any questions about this episode or the Science of War podcast in general.
Image credit: Emmanuel Rios, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Arabian Peninsula