Toward An American Approach To Proxy Warfare

U.S.-supported Philippine guerilla fighters led the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Luzon during World War II. [Warfare History Network]

U.S. Army Major Amos Fox has recently published the first two of a set of three articles examining nature of proxy warfare in the early 21st century and suggests some ideas for how the U.S. might better conduct it.

In “In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare,” published in February 2019 by the The Institute of Land Warfare at the Association of the U.S. Army, and “Time, Power, and Principal-Agent Problems: Why the U.S. Army is Ill-Suited for Proxy Warfare Hotspots,” published in the March-April 2019 edition of Military Review, Fox argues,

Proxy environments dominate modern war… It is not just a Russian, Iranian or American approach to war, but one in which many nations and polities engage. However, the U.S. Army lacks a paradigm for proxy warfare, which disrupts its ability to understand the environment or develop useful tactics, operations and strategies for those environments.

His examination of the basic elements of proxy warfare leads him to conclude that “it is dominated by a principal actor dynamic, power relationships and the tyranny of time.” From this premise, Fox outlines two basic models of proxy warfare: exploitative and transactional.

The exploitative model…is characterized by a proxy force being completely dependent on its principal for survival… [It] is usually the result of a stronger actor looking for a tool—a proxy force—to pursue an objective. As a result, the proxy is only as useful to the principal as its ability to make progress toward the principal’s ends. Once the principal’s ends have been achieved or the proxy is unable to maintain momentum toward the principal’s ends, then the principal discontinues the relationship or distances itself from the proxy.

The transactional model is…more often like a business deal. An exchange of services and goods that benefits all parties—defeat of a mutual threat, training of the agent’s force, foreign military sales and finance—is at the heart of the transactional model. However, this model is a paradox because the proxy is the powerbroker in the relationship. In many cases, the proxy government is independent but looking for assistance in defeating an adversary; it is not interested in political or military subjugation by the principal. Moreover, the proxy possesses the power in the relationship because its association with the principal is wholly transactional…the clock starts ticking on the duration of the bond as soon as the first combined shot is fired. As a result, as the common goal is gradually achieved, the agent’s interest in the principal recedes at a comparable rate.

With this concept in hand, Fox makes that case that

[T]he U.S. Army is ill-suited for warfare in the proxy environment because it mismanages the fixed time and the finite power it possesses over a proxy force in pursuit of waning mutual interests. Fundamentally, the salient features of proxy environments—available time, power over a proxy force, and mutual interests—are fleeting due to the fact that proxy relationships are transactional in nature; they are marriages of convenience in which a given force works through another in pursuit of provisionally aligned political or military ends… In order to better position itself to succeed in the proxy environment, the U.S. Army must clearly understand the background and components of proxy warfare.

These two articles provide an excellent basis for a wider discussion for thinking about and shaping not just a more coherent U.S. Army doctrine, but a common policy/strategic/operational framework for understanding and successfully operating in the proxy warfare environments that will only loom larger in 21st century international affairs. It will be interesting to see how Fox’s third article rounds out his discussion.

Has The Army Given Up On Counterinsurgency Research, Again?


[In light of the U.S. Army’s recent publication of a history of it’s involvement in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, it may be relevant to re-post this piece from from 29 June 2016.]

As Chris Lawrence mentioned yesterday, retired Brigadier General John Hanley’s review of America’s Modern Wars in the current edition of Military Review concluded by pointing out the importance of a solid empirical basis for staff planning support for reliable military decision-making. This notion seems so obvious as to be a truism, but in reality, the U.S. Army has demonstrated no serious interest in remedying the weaknesses or gaps in the base of knowledge underpinning its basic concepts and doctrine.

In 2012, Major James A. Zanella published a monograph for the School of Advanced Military Studies of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (graduates of which are known informally as “Jedi Knights”), which examined problems the Army has had with estimating force requirements, particularly in recent stability and counterinsurgency efforts.

Historically, the United States military has had difficulty articulating and justifying force requirements to civilian decision makers. Since at least 1975, governmental officials and civilian analysts have consistently criticized the military for inadequate planning and execution. Most recently, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reinvigorated the debate over the proper identification of force requirements…Because Army planners have failed numerous times to provide force estimates acceptable to the President, the question arises, why are the planning methods inadequate and why have they not been improved?[1]

Zanella surveyed the various available Army planning tools and methodologies for determining force requirements, but found them all either inappropriate or only marginally applicable, or unsupported by any real-world data. He concluded

Considering the limitations of Army force planning methods, it is fair to conclude that Army force estimates have failed to persuade civilian decision-makers because the advice is not supported by a consistent valid method for estimating the force requirements… What is clear is that the current methods have utility when dealing with military situations that mirror the conditions represented by each model. In the contemporary military operating environment, the doctrinal models no longer fit.[2]

Zanella did identify the existence of recent, relevant empirical studies on manpower and counterinsurgency. He noted that “the existing doctrine on force requirements does not benefit from recent research” but suggested optimistically that it could provide “the Army with new tools to reinvigorate the discussion of troops-to-task calculations.”[3] Even before Zanella published his monograph, however, the Defense Department began removing any detailed reference or discussion about force requirements in counterinsurgency from Army and Joint doctrinal publications.

As Zanella discussed, there is a body of recent empirical research on manpower and counterinsurgency that contains a variety of valid and useful insights, but as I recently discussed, it does not yet offer definitive conclusions. Much more research and analysis is needed before the conclusions can be counted on as a valid and justifiably reliable basis for life and death decision-making. Yet, the last of these government sponsored studies was completed in 2010. Neither the Army nor any other organization in the U.S. government has funded any follow-on work on this subject and none appears forthcoming. This boom-or-bust pattern is nothing new, but the failure to do anything about it is becoming less and less understandable.


[1] Major James A. Zanella, “Combat Power Analysis is Combat Power Density” (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), pp. 1-2.

[2] Ibid, 50.

[3] Ibid, 47.

Afghan Security Forces Deaths Top 45,000 Since 2014

The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, speaking with CNN’s Farid Zakiria, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 25 January 2019. [Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]

Last Friday, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani admitted that his country’s security forces had suffered over 45,000 fatalities since he took office in September 2014. This total far exceeds the total of 28,000 killed since 2015 that Ghani had previously announced in November 2018. Ghani’s cryptic comment in Davos did not indicate how the newly revealed total relates to previously released figures, whether it was based on new accounting, a sharp increase in recent casualties, or more forthrightness.

This revised figure casts significant doubt on the validity of analysis based on the previous reporting. Correcting it will be difficult. At the request of the Afghan government in May 2017, the U.S. military has treated security forces attrition and loss data as classified and has withheld it from public release.

If Ghani’s figure is, in fact, accurate, then it reinforces the observation that the course of the conflict is tilting increasingly against the Afghan government.


U.S. Army Releases New Iraq War History

On Thursday, the U.S. Army released a long-awaited history of its operational combat experience in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The study, titled The U.S. Army in the Iraq War – Volume 1: Invasion – Insurgency – Civil War, 2003-2006 and The U.S. Army in the Iraq War – Volume 2: Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011, was published under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

This reflects its unconventional origins. Under normal circumstances, such work would be undertaken by either the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute (CSI), which is charged with writing quick-turnaround “instant histories,” or the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH), which writes more deeply researched “official history,” years or decades after the fact.[1] Instead, these volumes were directly commissioned by then-Chief of the Staff of the Army, General Raymond Odierno, who created an Iraq Study Group in 2013 to research and write them. According to Odierno, his intent was “to capture key lessons, insights, and innovations from our more than 8 years of conflict in that country.[I]t was time to conduct an initial examination of the Army’s experiences in the post-9/11 wars, to determine their implications for our future operations, strategy, doctrine, force structure, and institutions.”

CSI had already started writing contemporary histories of the conflict, publishing On Point: The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2004) and On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign (2008), which covered the period from 2003 to January 2005. A projected third volume was advertised, but never published.

Although the Iraq Study Group completed its work in June 2016 and the first volume of the history was scheduled for publication that October, its release was delayed due to concerns within the Army historical community regarding the its perspective and controversial conclusions. After external reviewers deemed the study fair and recommended its publication, claims were lodged after its existence was made public last autumn that the Army was suppressing it to avoid embarrassment. Making clear that the study was not an official history publication, current Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley added his own forward to Odierno’s, and publicly released the two volumes yesterday.


[1] For a discussion of the roles and mission of CSI and CMH with regard to history, see W. Shane Story, “Transformation or Troop Strength? Early Accounts of the Invasion of IraqArmy History, Winter 2006; Richard W. Stewart, “‘Instant’ History and History: A Hierarchy of NeedsArmy History, Winter 2006; Jeffrey J. Clarke, “The Care and Feeding of Contemporary History,” Army History, Winter 2006; and Gregory Fontenot, “The U.S. Army and Contemporary Military History,” Army History, Spring 2008.


Looking At Recent Reported Combat Loss Rates In Afghanistan

Afghan National Army soldiers simulate clearing a compound with help from their instructors at the 2nd Brigade, 205th Corps ANA Non-commissioned Officer Academy on Forward Operating Base Eagle in Zabul province Jan. 10, 2012 [{Wikimedia]

Last Friday, Rod Nordland published an article in the New York Times alleging that Afghan security forces (Afghan National Army (ANA) and police) had suffered an average of 57 killed in action (KIA) per day during the previous week, up from 22 killed per day in 2016. If true, such reports would indicate a dramatic increase in loss rates over the previous years.

These reported figures should be regarded critically, however. It is not clear how Nordland arrived at the total of 22 KIA per day for 2016. His article cited another article by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, published in the Times on 30 October 2017. This reported Afghan security forces casualties for 2016 at 6,700 KIA and 12,000 wounded in action (WIA), which works out to an average of 18.36 KIA per day (6,700/365), not 22. The total number of KIA + WIA works out to an average of 51.23 per day (18,700/365).

The lede of Gibbons-Neff’s 2017 article was that the U.S. and Afghan governments had stopped providing official strength and loss figures for the Afghan security forces. Citing the last report of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Gibbons-Neff reported Afghan security forces losses from 1 January-8 May 2017 (126 days) as 2,531 KIA and 4,238 WIA. This works out to an average of 20.08 KIA (2,531/126) and 53.72 KIA + WIA (6,679/126) per day.

Nordland arrived at the figure of 57 KIA per day based on a report of 400 Afghan security forces killed in the week leading up the publication of his article on 21 September 2018. He calculated it by averaging the total over the previous seven days (400/7). Casualty rates in combat have been highly variable, historically. Brief spikes in rates are common. In the same paragraph reporting the 400 KIA total, Nordland quoted senior Afghan government officials stating that the daily average for recent months had been 30 to 40 KIA per day.

It is possible to use the figures cited by Nordland and Gibbons-Neff to make ballpark estimates for Afghan security forces casualties in 2017 and 2018. Even if the weekly loss of 400 KIA for 14-20 September 2018 represents an abnormally high total, it is reasonable to conclude that the Afghan security forces are very likely incurring sharply higher combat losses in 2018 than the previous two years. These figures do not include counts of missing or captured and thus underestimate the actual numbers of battle casualties being suffered by the Afghan forces. It is also possible that the estimates of 30-40 KIA per day apply only to the peak spring-to-autumn fighting season, which would somewhat reduce the overall 2018 KIA and WIA totals.

As Nordland reported, these losses are resulting in an increasing strain on the Afghan forces. His article stated that the strength of the ANA and police in April 2018 was 314,000, 38,000 below the authorized total of 352,000, and that the actual total was likely even lower due to fraudulent reporting and unreported desertions. The ANA suffered a monthly attrition rate of 2.9 percent in early 2017 from combat casualties, desertion, and failed reenlistments, requiring one-third of the overall force to be replaced by new recruits annually. That attrition rate is undoubtedly far higher now and almost certainly not sustainable for long.

In comparison, the Afghan government reported in August that its security forces had killed 42 Taliban fighters per day, or 1,300 per month. For the year ending in March 2018, it claimed to have killed 13,600 insurgent fighters. There has been no independent confirmation of these claims and they should be treated skeptically.

Chris Lawrence Interviewed About America’s Modern Wars

TDI President Chris Lawrence was recently interviewed on The Donna Seebo Show about his 2015 book, America’s Modern War: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The 27 June 2018 interview can be listed to below.


Russian General Staff Chief Dishes On Military Operations In Syria

General of the Army Valeriy Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and First Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation [Wikipedia]

General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, provided detailed information on Russian military operations in Syria in an interview published in Komsomolskaya Pravda on the day after Christmas.

Maxim A. Suchkov, the Russian coverage editor for Al-Monitor, provided an English-language summary on Twitter.

While Gerasimov’s comments should be read critically, they do provide a fascinating insight into the Russian perspective on the intervention in Syria, which has proved remarkably successful with an economical investment in resources and money.

Gerasimov stated that planning for Russian military operations used Operation Anadyr, the secret deployment of troops and weapons to Cuba in 1962, as a template. A large-scale deployment of ground forces was ruled out at the start. The Syrian government army and militias were deemed combat-capable despite heavy combat losses, so the primary supporting tasks were identified as targeting and supporting fires to disrupt enemy “control systems.”

The clandestine transfer of up to 50 Russian combat aircraft to Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, Syria, began a month before the beginning of operations in late-September 2015. Logistical and infrastructure preparations took much longer. The most difficult initial challenge, according to Gerasimov, was coordinating Russian air support with Syrian government ground forces, but it was resolved over time.

The Russians viewed Daesh (ISIS) forces battling the Syrian government as a regular army employing combat tactics, fielding about 1,500 tanks and 1,200 artillery pieces seized from Syria and Iraq.

While the U.S.-led coalition conducted 8-10 air strikes per day against Daesh in Syria, the Russians averaged 60-70, with a peak of 120-140. Gerasimov attributed the disparity to the fact that the coalition was seeking to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, not the defeat of Daesh. He said that while the Russians obtained cooperation with the U.S. over aerial deconfliction and “de-escalation” in southern Syria, offers for joint planning, surveillance, and strikes were turned down. Gerasimov asserted that Daesh would have been defeated faster had there been more collaboration.

More controversially, Gerasimov claimed that U.S.-supported New Syrian Army rebel forces at Al Tanf and Al-Shaddidi were “virtually” Daesh militants, seeking to destabilize Syria, and complained that the U.S. refused Russian access to the camp at Rukban.

According to Russian estimates, there were a total of 59,000 Daesh fighters in September 2015 and that 10,000 more were recruited. Now there are only 2,800 and most militants are returning to their home countries. Most are believed heading to Libya, some to Afghanistan, and others to Southwest Asia.

Gerasimov stated that Russia will continue to deploy sufficient forces in Syria to provide offensive support if needed and the Mediterranean naval presence will be maintained. The military situation remains unstable and the primary objective is the elimination of remaining al Nusra/Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (al Qaida in Syria) fighters.

48,000 Russian troops were rotated through Syria, most for three months, from nearly 90% of Russian Army divisions and half of the regiments and brigades. 200 new weapons were tested and “great leaps” were made in developing and using drone technology, which Gerasimov deemed now “integral” to the Russian military.

Gerasimov said that he briefed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Syria twice daily, and Shoigu updated Russian President Vladimir Putin “once or twice a week.” All three would “sometimes” meet to plan together and Gerasimov averred that “Putin sets [the] goals, tasks, [and] knows all the details on every level.

Ted Gurr Has Passed Away

Dr. Ted Robert Gurr, noted researcher on political violence and author of Why Men Rebel (1970), passed away on 25 November 2017 at the age of 81. His obituary is here:

Wikipedia article on Ted Gurr here:


I never knew him, but his work was a major influence on my work. In the late 1960s, Gurr and Professors Ivo and Rosalind Feierabend led two independent quantitative analysis efforts on the causes of revolutions. Even though they each created their own databases and independently did their own regression analysis of the subject, they came up with similar results. I did have several discussions with Dr. Ivo Feierabend while I was doing some independent work on the causes of revolution.

We have posted about this work before. It is here:

Quote from America’s Modern Wars

Why Are We Still Wondering Why Men (And Women) Rebel?

Why Men Rebel?

Rest in peace Dr. Gurr, and we expect that your work will live on.

TDI Friday Read: How Many Troops Are Needed To Defeat An Insurgency?

A paratrooper from the French Foreign Legion (1er REP) with a captured fellagha during the Algerian War (1954-1962). [Via Pinterest]

Today’s edition of TDI Friday Read is a compilation of posts addressing the question of manpower and counterinsurgency. The first four posts summarize research on the question undertaken during the first decade of the 21st century, while the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies were in full bloom. Despite different research questions and analytical methodologies, each of the studies concluded that there is a relationship between counterinsurgent manpower and counterinsurgency outcomes.

The fifth post addresses the U.S. Army’s lack of a formal methodology for calculating manpower requirements for counterinsurgencies and contingency operations.

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency II

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency III

Force Ratios and Counterinsurgency IV

Has The Army Given Up On Counterinsurgency Research, Again?

TDI Friday Read: Afghanistan

[SIGAR, Quarterly Report to Congress, 30 October 2017, p. 107]

While it is too soon to tell if the Trump Administration’s revised strategy in Afghanistan will make a difference, the recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to Congress documents the continued slow erosion of security in that country. Today’s edition of TDI Friday Read offers a selection of recent posts addressing some of the problems facing the U.S. counterinsurgent and stabilization missions there.


Meanwhile, In Afghanistan…

We probably need to keep talking about Afghanistan

What will be our plans for Afghanistan?

Stalemate in Afghanistan

Troop Increase in Afghanistan?

Sending More Troops to Afghanistan

Mattis on Afghanistan

Deployed Troop Counts

Disappearing Statistics