Modern warfare is often depicted in media or in public discourse as some massive clash between giant national armies. If asked to name the first war that comes to mind, one might bring up World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War. But contemporary conflicts aren’t always fought between national governments and their standing armies. Increasingly, proxy militias are the main perpetrators of violence in intra-national and international conflicts. 

A militia is a combat organization made up of members of a community, region, or country with reasons to form outside of government security organizations such as the military or police force. The term “proxy” refers to an individual or group that acts on behalf of another, often because of shared interests. Thus, a proxy conflict is a “war in which a state attempts to increase its power or influence without taking part in the action, as by providing arms or finance to one of the participants.” Militias form when there is an absence of security otherwise provided by the state. They can just be interested in self-defense or they form in order to secure safety and even promote their group ideology. In the latter case, governments with similar ideologies or goals will often fund these militias as a way to indirectly spread influence. 

Without foreign financial support, most militias would not have easy access to government militaries’ same weapons and resources. However, more often than not, foreign governments do sponsor proxy militias on account of shared interests. Funding militias abroad is often a more cost-effective method of expanding a country’s influence than putting boots on the ground. The centrality of proxy militias in contemporary warfare is evidenced by the fact that the main buyers of weapons and other military goods – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are both engaged in a proxy war in Yemen. In another example of the popularity of proxy militias, protests in Syria against the government’s abuse of state power evolved into an open conflict, which concerned many outside countries seeking to ensure their interests. Consequently, the United States (U.S.), Russia, Iran, Turkey, and other countries all supported militias on the ground in Syria for different reasons such as ensuring government stability, ideological influence, getting access to natural resources, etcetera. 

This foreign support for proxy militias brings about protracted conflicts that devastate entire regions or countries, and an influx of weaponry can make an area much less safe for civilians caught in the crossfire of the conflict. 

The Colonial Origins of Proxy Militias

Proxy militias and conflicts as we understand them today have their roots in European colonialism. European empires relied on proxy warfare to further their own imperial expansion – by giving goods, trade agreements, guns, and other incentives to different peoples on the ground to then fight one another, European armies could avoid their own casualties. In the end, Indigenous peoples would be significantly weakened from fighting each other with these new weapons, leaving the door open for European colonizers to swoop in and deal the final blow.

Some of the most well-known examples of this were the French and British empires competing for control in the Battle of Plassey in India in 1757 and in North America in 1763 during the French and Indian war. In North America, guns were quickly adopted by many Native American tribes, and those who didn’t often were wiped out. This continued into the late 19th century as a powerful tool for spreading colonial influence worldwide. 

Proxy Support for Militias During the Cold War

Support for proxy militias played a significant role in overall tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. By funding militias in countries that were felt to be close ideologically to the opposing side and therefore a threat to their respective nations, the U.S. and the Soviet Union could push their own agendas internationally all while avoiding direct hostilities. In addition, with foreign support, these militias could also maintain revolutions for much longer than otherwise possible and had greater resources to pursue their own political and economic interests.   

For instance, during the Iran Contra Affair, the U.S. government-funded right-wing militias called the Contras sought to overthrow the leftist government in Nicaragua. Despite there being an embargo in place, prominent officials in the Reagen administration helped organize the sale of weapons to the Iranian regime, using the profits to then fund the Contras. Only after uncovering these illegal sales was support for the militias undercut, forcing them to surrender and come to the negotiating table. The Iran Contra Affair is an excellent example of how important foreign support of militias is to their ability to survive. While foreign support is not the end-all-be-all for militias in active combat, they do make up for support that may be missing if they are not popular with the public.  

International Response and Responsibilities 

Proxy militias should be considered a topic of concern to everyone – chances are, the majority of us either live in a country where proxy militias are active or in a country that supports proxy militias. Even if we are not directly affected by violence related to proxy militias, we should be opposed to our tax dollars being used to further conflict. But what can be done? Proxy militias often destabilize countries as they compete for control, making it so less can be done to limit the conflict at an international level without direct intervention. 

There are no great options when it comes to preventing the support of proxy militias. In a globalized world, it has become much easier to transfer arms, money, and goods without leaving an obvious paper trail. United Nations members have tried – albeit rather unsuccessfully – to limit the number of arms that are illegally bought, sold, and transported through programs such as the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. While weapons identification programs like the U.N. ‘s can assist in tracking weapons from their original locations and suppliers, there is minimal accountability for the transfer of weapons to smaller militia groups as information about the location and purpose of said weapons is not as easily found. 

In addition, action on sanctioning the sale of weapons to proxy militias is largely limited due to the fact that many of the top five weapon exporters such as the U.S, Russia, and China sit on the U.N. Security Council. This gives them exclusive veto power on resolutions regarding weapons supply to proxy militias and other groups. 

Proxy warfare-induced destabilization and bloodshed must be tackled more aggressively and more pressure should be put on directing grievances and action at the international level. If not, we run the risk of further falling into an international cold war where no one takes responsibility and no country is safe from foreign meddling.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...