The Virtues of a Proxy War
Like most liberals, I’ve long considered to be proxy wars to be a bad thing, and historically speaking, they are bad things. Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Unions fought proxy wars in places like Angola, the Congo, and Latin America. For the Cold War players, it was far too risky to use your own troops, because if things escalated and NATO troops faced off with Warsaw Pact troops, the end of humanity could ensue. Instead, the idea of the game was to expand your own sphere of interest or shrink your oppoent’s by supporting factions in various developing nations that were sympathetic to your cause, regardless of the brutality of those factions. Many of the problems that we now see around the world are direct offshoots of these proxy wars.
Anyway, when the United States opted to use the Northern Alliance as its on the ground force for removing the Taliban from power, I felt that good old “here we go again” feeling. I’d read all about how the Northern Alliance had taken the country straight from being a Soviet satellite to being a lawless hellhole where rape, murder, and banditry were features of everyday life, even in the big cities. I thought we were going down that same “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” path that would lead to massive bloodshed and lawlessness in Afghanistan, not to mention daily human rights catastrophies that we’d all be very ashamed of soon enough.
Much to my surprise, that’s not how it turned out. In fact, I think that our choosing to fight a proxy war probably saved literally thousands of lives. If we’d invaded Afghanistan ourselves, the fact is that there’s no way we would have won most battles simply by showing up and waiting for the Taliban forces to surrender or defect. The fact that things work that way in Afghanistan was shocking to me, and probably to most other people unfamiliar with its customs as well. It seems at this point that nearly every Afghan fighting in service to the Taliban did so out of fear rather than out of conviction, and that they were eager to switch sides as soon as it became practical.
Not only has this meant that we didn’t have thousands of soldiers killing each other every day, but it has also prevented many civilian deaths and the destruction of the remaining infrastructure in Afghanistan. Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance with almost no loss of life. That wouldn’t have been the case had it been invaded by the US Marines instead.
So here’s to the proxy war. Afghanistan is almost completely liberated from the Taliban (and more importantly the “foreign Taliban”), and Al Qaeda’s significant infrastructure in Afghanistan has been destroyed. Afghanistan will no longer be the staging area for training global terrorists, and Al Qaeda will no longer have the government of a nation in its hip pocket. The other side of the coin is that for this to really be a success, we have to continue to demand that the Northern Alliance not revert to its sectarian ways, and that they start forging a real peace that can serve Afghanistan in the long term. If Afghanistan reverts back to the country it was in 1992, we’ll be facing the same problems we do now ten years down the road.