Journal Article: Strategic Narratives and US Surrogate Warfare

A way of waging remote warfare is by training and delegating conflict to other ‘surrogate’ militaries or armed groups. By doing so the sponsor country can still have an influential presence in a conflict with no, or in some cases, fewer returning body bags.  

In this article ‘Strategic Narratives and US Surrogate Warfare’ Thomas Waldman discusses how the US frames and justifies their surrogate wars by using strategic narratives. Waldman does this by examining different surrogate warfare and interventions the US has been involved in, including Afghanistan and Iraq. The main argument Waldman makes is that the US has persistently used strategic control the narrative around their remote warfare tactics.

Waldman examines the positive and negative arguments of surrogate warfare. The positive sides of surrogate warfare, according to Waldman, are: First, remote warfare is cost saving for the sponsoring county both financial as the reduced risk of their own military (fewer returning body bags). Second, it is effective because the intel is based on local knowledge. And lastly, if something goes wrong the sponsor country can maintain plausible deniability: ‘This is in part why the US has often chosen to manage surrogate operations covertly (..) allowing plausible deniability (Waldman, 2019, p. 170).

The negative sides of using surrogate warfare, according to Waldman, are: Surrogate warfare can create a ‘moral hazard’ when a surrogate militia ‘launch risky or ill-considered military operations, confident in the belief that America will backstop them if things go badly’ (Waldman, 2019, p. 167). Another negative aspect is that the sponsoring country cannot always control the surrogate group or know for sure that the intel they provide is correct. Another negative consequence is that it can cause long-term instability in the country the conflict takes place this consequence is often hard to predict at the start of the conflict. Lastly, the surrogate warfare can create blowback: ‘For example, surrogates may channel US-supplied weapons to enemy groups, which in turn may use them to attack Americans or their allies’ (Waldman, 2019, p. 167).

Overall, Waldman’s analysis sheds light on the complex nature of surrogate warfare and the strategic narratives used to justify it by the US. Waldman provides both advantages and disadvantages of the strategic tactic of remote warfare.

Click on the reference below to read the article.
Waldman, T. 2019. ‘Strategic Narratives and US Surrogate Warfare’. Survival 61 (1): 161–78.

This post was written by IRW LAB student Tasniem van Buuren.