Pub – Proxy Warfare and U.S. SOF

Proxy Warfare - Hmong Guerrilla Company, Phou Vieng, 1961, Wikimedia Commons.

A report by CNA Analysis & Solutions provides a study of past and current use of proxy warfare by the United States. It examines case studies of the use of proxy forces by the U.S., identifies several common themes, and then outlines a broad set of guidelines for senior policy makers in the future use of proxy forces. The report then goes on to discuss implications for U.S. special operations forces.

Proxy warfare is defined as when a “. . . major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing a party to a conflict but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself.” The use of proxies in a conflict transfers many of the risks and costs onto the proxy. The United States has a lot of experience in employing proxies in the past and continues to use proxies in current conflicts.

This CNA paper aims to assist “. . . senior civilian and military leaders to assess US capabilities for conducting proxy war, for evaluating costs, risks, and benefits, and for developing policies and programs that will promote US national interests abroad.”

The first part of the report examines four case studies. Two in the past and two that are currently in progress.

  • “Secret War” in Laos
  • Contras in Central America
  • Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria
  • African Union Mission in Somalia

Topics explored in each case study include the U.S. objectives, proxy objectives, nature of support, and impact of the use of the proxy. Common factors are identified which are then analyzed to identify key themes across the case studies.

The key themes identified, there are seven of them, help to develop eight rules of thumb for policy makers and decision makers in the use of proxy forces in the future.

The concluding paragraph of the Executive Summary provides an abstract of the purpose of the paper:

“Although there are pitfalls and hazards associated with using proxy forces, the underlying logic of employing them – their relatively low cost, their disposability, and their deniability – suggest that their continued use will prove to be an attractive foreign policy option for the United States and its rivals and adversaries. Cast in that light, it is our hope that these rules of thumb will help the US to most effectively employ proxy forces in the future.”

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Proxy warfare has been used by the United States and other nations throughout history. The use of proxies by the United States in future international security environments will very likely grow. U.S. special operations forces will continue to play a prominent role in proxy warfare.


“The Cheapest Insurance in the World”? The United States and Proxy Warfare,
by William Rosenau and Zack Gold, CNA Analysis & Solutions,
July 2019, 80 pages.


Photo: Hmong Guerrilla Company, Phou Vieng, 1961, Wikimedia Commons.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.