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A proxy war or proxy warfare is a war that results when opposing powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly. While powers have sometimes used governments as proxies, violent non-state actors, mercenaries, or other third parties are more often employed. It is hoped that these groups can strike an opponent without leading to full-scale war.

Proxy wars have also been fought alongside full-scale conflicts. It is almost impossible to have a pure proxy war, as the groups fighting for a certain nation usually have their own interests, which can diverge from those of their patron. Typically proxy wars function best during cold wars, as they become a necessity in conducting armed conflict between at least two belligerents while continuing cold warfare.


Spanish Civil War

A very famous conflict which exhibits patterns of a proxy war was the Spanish Civil War. The conflict that started between the Second Spanish Republic and Francisco Franco's National Sindicalists soon involved the Soviet Union and Mexico on the Spanish Republic's side and Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Portuguese Republic on the Spanish Nationalist side. This war served as a useful testing ground for both the Axis and the Soviets to experiment with equipment and tactics that would later be employed on a wider scale in the Second World War.

Cold War

Proxy wars were common in the Cold War, because the two nuclear-armed superpowers (the Soviet Union and the United States) did not wish to fight each other directly, since that would have run the risk of escalation to a nuclear war (see mutual assured destruction). Proxies were used in conflicts such as Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The first proxy war in the Cold War was the Greek Civil War, which started almost as soon as World War II ended. The Western-allied Greek government was nearly overthrown by Communist rebels with limited direct aid from Soviet ally or client states in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria. The Greek Communists managed to seize most of Greece, but a strong government counterattack forced them back. The Western Allies eventually won, due largely to an ideological split between Joseph Stalin and Josip Broz Tito. Though previously allied to the rebels, Tito closed Yugoslavia's borders to ELAS partisans when Greek Communists sided with Stalin, despite the lack of direct material support from the USSR. Albania followed Tito's lead shortly thereafter. With no way to receive aid, the rebellion collapsed.

In the war between the Mujahadeen and the Soviet Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the aid given by the U.S. to the Mujahadeen during the war included sophisticated weapons such as the FIM-92 Stinger, supplies and training.

In the Lebanese Civil War, Syria supported the Maronite Christian dominated Lebanese Front with arms and troops, while Syria's enemy Israel also supported the Lebanese Front by providing them with arms, tanks and money. The Soviets tended to support Syria, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the leftist Lebanese National Movement (NLM).

Portugal had been fighting three major liberation movements in Angola (FNLA, MPLA, UNITA) and one in Mozambique (FRELIMO) (see: Portuguese Colonial War). While transition of power in Mozambique was a rather simple affair, the three movements in Angola had been rivals for years during the Angolan War of Independence, each receiving low-key support from a motley assembly of countries, making a transition very difficult. The MPLA and initially UNITA, an offspring of the FNLA, were more or less left leaning and mainly supported by socialist countries; the FNLA, at that point by far the strongest of the three, was mainly supported by Zaire. After the Alvor Agreement in early 1976, according to which the three movements set up a joint interim government with Portugal and independence was to be granted in November, the US decided to support the FNLA, fighting between the three movements resumed and the agreement fell apart. In Mozambique power was handed to the one liberation movement, FRELIMO. The new leftist Mozambique government supported liberation movements against the white-minority-led governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. The Rhodesian government organized and funded an anti-communist rebel group called Mozambique National Resistance, later RENAMO beginning the Mozambican Civil War. After Rhodesia collapsed and became Zimbabwe in 1980, South Africa took over supporting RENAMO until the decline of the apartheid regime. In 1992 RENAMO and the government of Mozambique signed a peace accord. The conflict between Israel and the Arab countries has been described as a proxy war, with Israel acting as a proxy for the United States and the Soviet Union's proxies being Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.[1][2] According to Pennsylvania State University Professor of Political Science Stephen J. Cimbala, this theater was the site of the greatest Cold War setback to America when, under the influence of anti-Israeli attitudes after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, American allies Saudi Arabia and Iran (under the shah) drifted from the American sphere of influence, leading to the 1973 oil crisis as well as the eventual Iranian Revolution in 1979.[3]

An example from Latin America is the long-time struggle between the United States and the communist government of Cuba during and after the Cuban Revolution. Many attempts have been made by the United States to overthrow Cuba's government, often by using Cuban exiles as proxies. One of the most notorious is the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961.

Second Congo War

Since the end of the Cold War the largest war by proxy has been the Second Congo War in which the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda all used third party armed irregular groups.

Kargil War

The Kargil conflict was an armed conflict between India and Pakistan that took place between May and July 1999 in along the Line of Control (LOC) in Kargil, Kashmir region of India. The cause of the war was the infiltration of Pakistani soldiers against Republic of India and its people into positions on the Indian side of the LOC during winter after India and Pakistan demilitarized the border. During the initial stages of the war, Pakistan blamed the fighting entirely on independent Kashmiri insurgents.


  1. "Will new ‘Cold War’ play out in Middle East?", Leslie Susser,, The Jewish Journal[[{{subst:DATE}}|{{subst:DATE}}]] disambiguation needed, August 27, 2008
  2. "Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967 (review)", Thomas A. Dine, Journal of Cold War Studies Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2004
  3. Politics of Warfare, Stephen J. Cimbala, Penn State Press, 2004, ISBN 0-271-02592-1, ISBN 978-0-271-02592-6


  • Bernd Greiner / Christian Müller / Dierk Walter (Ed.): Heiße Kriege im Kalten Krieg. Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-936096-61-9 (Review by H. Hoff, Review by I. Küpeli)
  • Scott L. Bills: The world deployed : US and Soviet military intervention and proxy wars in the Third World since 1945. From: Robert W. Clawson (Ed.): East West rivalry in the Third World. Wilmington 1986, p. 77-101.
  • Chris Loveman: Assessing the Phenomeon of Proxy Intervention. From Journal of Conflict, Security and Development, edition 2.3, Routledge 2002, pp 30–48.

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