The Counterproductive Consequences of America’s Vicarious Wars
In seeking to confront various security threats while simultaneously evading associated military and political costs, America has come to rely on the vicarious warfighting approaches of delegation, danger-proofing and darkness. Thomas Waldman shows in a new CSP journal article that the results are not promising. Security is not a commodity that can be bought on the cheap.
Following the failed military campaigns of the 2000s, America has not shied away from military intervention but has instead settled upon a low-level, limited, and persistent mode of fighting which I term ‘vicarious warfare.’
The concept covers a diverse range of military approaches that come together in different combinations in different contexts. It is broadly characterised by the outsourcing of military missions to proxy actors, the use of force in ways that minimizes the danger to American personnel and assets, and the conduct of covert and special operations in the shadows.
These methods are held together by decision-makers’ belief that wars can be fought economically, at arm’s length, and in discrete, limited and controllable ways, while at the same time evading various risks and restraints. In a recent article, I argue that the rationales underpinning the prosecution of vicarious warfare are deeply flawed. The attractions of such methods are clear, but the benefits are outweighed by longer-term harmful effects.
U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve has arguably been fought as an archetypal vicarious war and, in late 2017, has largely succeeded in removing Islamic State from its major strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Welcome news of course, but at what cost for the future?
In Syria, American-backed groups find themselves in confrontation with regional powers and new political realties make future ethnic strife between Kurds and Arabs likely. In Iraq, the way the operation to retake Mosul was conducted means “there is a real risk that this battle will form one more chapter in a seemingly endless cycle of devastating conflict.”
But how can we account for the emergence of vicarious warfare? Looking back to the early 2000s, influential voices such as General Sir Rupert Smith suggested that we had entered into an age of “war amongst the people” – timeless irregular conflicts involving non-state actors and influenced by an ever-present mass media. Many American security elites thought it advisable to steer clear of such messy conflicts, especially following the bloody debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, contrary to informed and sober analysis, politicians continued to believe that America was assailed by various menacing threats and risks – such as those posed by radical Jihadists and other rogue actors – that had to be confronted with force. But how to do this without being dragged into yet more debilitating irregular wars?
Evolving methods appeared to offer a way to essentially flip Smith’s logic and fight “war without the people” – to prevent serious security incidents, while keeping the necessary measures economically affordable, socially acceptable, legally permissible, and politically viable. Responsibility could be delegated to those designed to take considerable risks (special forces), those about whom the public is little concerned (private contractors, proxies), or those with the ability to sweep risk under the carpet (CIA).
This is the essence of vicarious warfare, and I suggest that it can usefully be understood as comprising three “Ds”: delegation, danger-proofing and darkness. Briefly considering each in turn, it is possible to see how vicarious methods lead to consistently and cumulatively counterproductive outcomes.
The notion that proxy actors might serve as effective force multipliers while concealing the true costs of war appears persuasive. However, the empirical record is less positive and most rigorous studies profoundly sceptical. Rushed programs to build state security forces, sacrificing quality and sustainability for immediate effect, have resulted in “hollow” forces plagued by corruption, divisions and operational deficiencies. Support to irregular militias has been typified by short-term gains balanced by long-term harm: most groups have been associated with a lack of control, radicalization, and abuses. Similarly, incidents involving private contractors have generated baleful consequences leading scholars to conclude that the benefits of outsourcing “are either specious or fleeting, and its costs are massive and manifest.”
Driven by increased political interference in decisions that are usually the responsibility of commanders, America fights so as to minimize harm to American personnel. Yet, there are reasons to believe that excessive protection undermines operations and even increases the risk of casualties. Airpower and stand-off weapons such as armed drones and cruise missiles – extreme forms of danger-proofing, offering protection through distance – have rained death on America’s enemies. Yet, insurgent organizations “exhibit a biological reconstitution capacity” because the underlying causes of their regeneration remain unaddressed. The costs of unremitting drone warfare outweigh whatever tactical gains they deliver.
Covert action, special forces, and rapidly emerging offensive cyber warfare capabilities seemingly allow elites to attain objectives while evading difficult political questions. Yet, such approaches have contributed to major “blowback” and led to embarrassing political crises. Special forces have provided support to local forces, enabling impressive battlefield victories. Yet, focusing on “kinetic” operations has distracted attention from addressing critical underlying issues. Attempts to remove terrorist leaders through “decapitation” strikes have failed to defeat targeted groups, and may have contributed to their longer term lethality.
The three “Ds” are all adopted for their attraction as low-cost, tactically effective approaches to deal with pressing challenges. Superficially, these approaches are not entirely without merit. Rather, it is the way they have come to drive policy that leads to counterproductive outcomes. They distract decision-makers from addressing vital political dynamics, encourage militarised approaches which exacerbate complex problems, and drag America into unintended commitments.
Perhaps more concerning is the deeper self-harm being inflicted on the American polity. The normalization of the persistent use of military force, the expansion of under-scrutinized executive authority and, the rise of xenophobic populism are perhaps just indications of worse things to come.
The record of the Trump administration’s first year in office suggests the central dimensions of vicarious warfare look set to persist. Trump’s loosening of rules governing the use of force by commanders and the marginalization of the State Department may usher in an era of unprecedented militarization, while the costs borne by civilians – directly through bombings, raids, and abuses, or indirectly through protracted conflict and psychological trauma – cumulatively fosters discontent and continued resistance.
Thomas Waldman in lecturer in security studies at Macquarie University. He has published widely on war, military strategy and contemporary conflict. His Twitter handle is @tom_waldman and his work can be followed on Academia.com. He is author of “Vicarious Warfare: The Counterproductive Consequences of Contemporary American Military Practice”, available here.