Proxies, puppets, pawns. From the “Great Game” of British imperialism in the 19th century through the Cold War in the 20th century—conflict in Central Asia could still be looked at today as a continuation of hundreds of years of “proxy warfare” between the world’s great powers.
Dr. John Brobst, Associate Professor of History at Ohio University, authored an article on “Multiplayer Great Game: Nineteenth Century Maneuvers on the Chessboard of Afghanistan” in The
Fletcher Society Review.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century strategists of the British Empire called their long struggle for mastery in the borderlands of Central and South Asia the ‘Great Game.’ Their Russian adversaries styled it the ‘Tournament of Shadows’. Each phrase tends to elide as much as it evokes. The Boy’s Own flair obscures, even diminishes, the underlying geopolitics and high stakes involved. Nothing less was at issue, at least from the British point of view, than the balance between global sea power, on one side, and consolidated land power based in the heart of Eurasia on the other. War between the principals frequently seemed in the offing. It erupted in the Crimea in 1854. However, as suggested by the phrase ‘Tournament of Shadows’, the competition between Britain and Russia over Asia and the Middle East played out largely through indirect means.
Proxy warfare figured prominently in the informal imperialism of the Great Game. For their part, the British relied heavily on their time-tested, European strategy of ‘guineas and gunpowder’— subsidies and arms transfers — to delineate spheres of influence, buffer states, and ‘anti-routes’ in the marches of India. Lines of clientage were blurred if not invisible. This afforded plausible deniability, but the advantage was double-edged. Abdur Rahman, Afghanistan’s ‘Iron Amir’ between 1882 and 1901, offers a prime example of the dilemma. His internal wars to consolidate the Afghan state, assisted by British subsidies, helped to staunch the subcontinent’s northern frontier against Russia; they also rattled nerves in British India and a host of its smaller client states in the mountainous reaches west of the upper Indus.
Thomas Barfield, an American scholar of Afghanistan, has noted another “surprising consequence” in the case of Abdur Rahman’s war against the Kafirs: it put the Amir in a position “if Russia was determined to invade India… to ease their way” and thereby “direct the Russians away from any crucial Afghan territory.” British strategists understood that their Afghan proxy left them “to some degree in a cleft stick.” Abdur Rahman’s kingdom was “rapidly being converted into one vast armed camp, equipped by our aid and largely at our expense.” This seemed an inevitable and small price to deter Russia. Still, the British hedged their bets by demarcating a hard border—the ‘Durand Line’—between Afghanistan and what was then British India and is today Pakistan.
Informal imperialism was indeed, as the British historian John Darwin has noted, an inherently “unstable category.” The Great Game exemplifies how flexible yet fraught the sub-category of proxy warfare has been and remains. Current scholarship, focused on the prevalence of proxy warfare in the twenty-first century and its Cold War precedents, emphasizes sub-state, transnational actors. While such proxies loom large today, size is not the defining factor; the uncertain dynamic between proxy and patron is. Moreover, proxies can be found on the highest levels of the international system as well as the lowest, a point that modern scholars underemphasize. Ethnic and political militias, tribal irregulars, and mercenaries each fought as proxies in the Great Game, as did conventional states. Proxies of all kinds often possessed substantial capacities, ambition, and will. “On the Central Asian board,” to quote the distinguished anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, “pawns often moved of their own volition.” Put another way, the Great Game embedded numerous lesser games at different levels. Abdur Rahman was certainly his own agent in a lesser game. And what was true of Afghanistan was true of smaller and bigger examples alike. Throughout the Great Game, proxies functioned at the sub-state, regional, and great power levels. Consider, for instance, the roles played by the Baluch, Iran, and China.
Brobst concludes his piece writing about modern-day proxies–new rounds using old rules.
“Pakistan, the Afghan mujahidin, and the Taliban present essential and standard examples of the attraction, convolutions, and limits of the old wine in new bottles. The collaboration between the United States and India to sustain armed resistance against China in Tibet during the late 1950s and early 1960s presents a lesser-known but equally compelling case.”
Ultimately, the notion of India as a proxy force underlines not only the persistence but also the ambiguity and contingency of proxy warfare as both a strategic and analytical category. In the Indo-American case, it is not even clear who is gaming whom. Americans no more look on their considerable forces in, say, Afghanistan or the South China Sea, as proxies for Indian interests, than Indians see their country’s position vis-à-vis China in Central Asia as a proxy for the United States. But, at least to some degree, do they not act as such? In the nineteenth century, Great Gamesmen engaged proxies to achieve the effects of empire where they could not or would not fight; in the twenty-first century the idea is perhaps more to achieve the effects of alliance where one cannot or will not be formalized. In the former circumstance, a proxy stands somewhere between autonomy and occupation, and in the latter somewhere between the free agency of neutrality and the definite obligations of alliance. The attraction and utility of proxy warfare lies in those vagaries, whether employed as a strategy between big patrons and small clients, as scholars typically treat the phenomenon, or between great powers, as the Great Game suggests scholars more often might. Either way, Rudyard Kipling’s admonition still pertains: “Who can say,” he wrote about the uncertainty of war in Abdur Rahman’s game, “when the night is gathering, all is grey.”
Brobst specializes in the history of the British Empire and international relations. He has written widely on problems of imperialism, grand strategy, and great power politics in Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of The Future of the Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence, and the Defense of Asia, and is currently at work on a book about sea power and globalism in the Indian Ocean during the later stages of European decolonization in the 1960s and ’70s.