Most wars today are proxy wars. Russia, Iran, the US and others rely on local forces to achieve military goals like annexing Crimea, or defeating Islamic State. Proxies, in turn, exploit foreign interests for their own purposes, and sometimes deal with competing, even warring, interests at the same time. What they never do, it seems, is call themselves proxies. They see themselves instead as allies, even friends, of their patrons. ‘Since 2004, we have been friendly with the American forces,’ Wahida Mohamed al-Jumailyh, a militia leader in Tikrit told me. ‘They even came to our house, and I have pictures of them with me.’ We were having lunch in Baghdad’s Babylon Rotana Hotel, a luxury tower on the banks of the Tigris. Several of her bodyguards sat at the next table, smoking, surfing the web and drinking lemon soda. None wore a uniform: they were paramilitaries. Wahida showed me a US military app on her phone, and selfies in which she’s standing beside American soldiers. Then she showed me photos of herself with a different patron: the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was assassinated in January by American drones while travelling in a convoy with his patron, Qasim Soleimani. Swiping further, and with a certain amount of pride, she showed me pictures of herself torturing people and desecrating the bodies of her enemies. In one, she raised a fist in triumph over a naked man lashed to the bonnet of a truck. In another, she held aloft a severed head.
Wahida is the daughter of a lorry driver. In 1998, at the age of 16, she married an officer in Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Defence; after the invasion, he joined the US-backed government. When her husband died in an IED blast in 2007, Wahida began fighting his killers – members of a precursor of Islamic State – in the interests of survival, vengeance and American cash. And so she became a proxy for US forces. Or, as she put it to me, ‘my brothers and I formed a faction, a friendly fighting force.’ When the Americans began to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, Muhandis became a new patron of Wahida’s. Like the Americans, he saw IS and its allies as a threat to Iraq. But he saw the Americans as a threat too: his militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, often attacked US troops with support from Soleimani and Iran. This didn’t stop Wahida gathering air-strike intelligence for the US military when it returned in force to Iraq in 2014. In the years since, she has been a proxy for both Washington and Tehran.
I haven’t been in touch with Wahida since her American patrons killed her Iranian patrons. I suspect her sympathies lie with Muhandis’s militia, since it’s made up of fellow Iraqis. It’s now being integrated into the Iraqi state as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or al-Hash’d al-Shaabi. When Western commentators talk about proxies in Iraq, they’re usually referring to the Hash’d, which they often describe as ‘Iranian-backed militias’. Certainly some of them are. But the Hash’d aren’t simply vectors for foreign interests, and they’ve become something more than militias. Expanding from a handful of groups like Muhandis’s, they spread quickly in 2014 in response to the near collapse of the Iraqi army during IS’s initial onslaught, with between 60,000 and 140,000 civilians – mostly young, unemployed men – joining paramilitary outfits like Wahida and Muhandis’s. The Iraqi government formed the Hash’d as an umbrella organisation to manage all these groups. This remains difficult if not impossible. The Hash’d is as powerful as the Iraqi army but it isn’t monolithic. Majority Shia Arab, its dominant groups are divided in their allegiances between Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran, Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf and Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad. Its fifty or so factions also include groups made up of Sunni Arabs like Wahida, as well as Yazidis, Christians, Shia Turkmen and others. The country is divided up piecemeal between the factions; in some places it’s difficult – even for the government – to know who controls a road.
This was apparent on Highway 1, which I took from Baghdad to Tikrit to meet another of Wahida’s patrons. Its cracked asphalt follows the Tigris north, and is dotted by checkpoints. Many belong to Saraya al-Salam, a Sadrist Hash’d group whose nationalist agenda – in line with the immense popular demonstrations of recent months – calls for an end to all foreign interference in Iraq, Iranian as much as American. To be allowed through their checkpoints without question you need a password which changes every few days. The Iraqi journalists I was working with had recruited a member of Saraya who knew the current password to travel with us: we were never stopped.
On the outskirts of Tikrit, I switched cars into an SUV driven by the man I had come to meet. Colonel Talat Khalaf of Iraq’s interior intelligence agency was a portly combat veteran whose office provided support to Wahida and used her intel. He was unhappy about working with unofficial proxies: ‘They do inhuman things,’ he said. A bigger problem was that they sometimes switched sides. ‘We have people who were working with us who now follow IS.’ More frequently, a patron and their proxy’s interests cease to align but don’t quite place them in direct opposition. A few years ago, in Khartoum, I visited the house of Safi al-Nur, a Sudanese general who had been a proxy for the US against Soviet influence in the Horn of Africa during the Cold War. On the wall was a framed certificate he had received on completion of a helicopter training course at Fort Benning in Georgia. But to engage proxies is to court unforeseeable consequences: I was there to discuss his role in the Darfur genocide.
In Tikrit, Talat showed me a death threat he had received by text message the previous week; he wanted nothing more than to stop fighting and leave Iraq. ‘Here we are just waiting for death … I want to go to any country in the world, just to survive with my family.’ Europe or the US would be ideal but Russia was attractive too. In the 1980s Talat’s father had taken the family to Moscow while he was receiving military training from the Soviet Union, which was then seeking to use Iraq as a proxy against the West. Two decades later, Talat spent a fondly remembered 45 days at an American base in Italy. Like all members of Iraq’s official security forces, he is considered an American proxy.
Some of these official forces – Iraqi army soldiers – stopped me at a checkpoint on the way back to Baghdad. For an American like me with his paperwork in order, such stops can be tedious but they’re never worse than that. The Iraqi army isn’t interested in making things difficult for its patron’s citizens. Its officers are always tolerant, sometimes friendly. I was embedded with them during the battle for Mosul in 2017, and found them more welcoming and open than the US army had been when I was embedded with the 1st Cavalry in the same city nearly a decade earlier. The Iraqis were pleased to have a journalist around to document the war’s enormous cost: a 40 per cent casualty rate in Mosul for that particular division.
The officer who led the siege of Mosul was a very senior US proxy, General Najim al-Jubouri. The following summer I ran into Najim at one of the city’s reopened riverside cafés. Across the Tigris was the Old City, IS’s final redoubt, which the US air force had bombed to rubble. At night not a single light was visible on that side of the river. The restaurant, though, was cheerful and crowded. Young men shared hookahs, parents cut up kebabs for children and everybody discreetly watched the long table of military officers with Najim at its head. On his right sat US Marine General Austin ‘Sparky’ Renforth, then the director of Joint Operations Command in Baghdad. The two men, along with their senior officers and bodyguards, were eating out as a signal that Mosul was well under control. I walked over to say hello to Najim, and he invited me to sit down. He speaks some English, but most of the Iraqis and Americans at the table didn’t share a language. The conversation, which had a stilted quality despite Renforth’s West Virginia charm, returned a few times to the Iraqis’ success in liberating Mosul. Najim echoed something I’d heard from soldiers during the battle: he and his men, he said, had fought IS on behalf of the whole world.
They aren’t the whole world’s proxy, though. They receive funding, training, arms and air support from the US to do something Americans don’t want to do: die protecting US interests in the Middle East. To use proxies is to engage in outsourcing. Some proxies receive support directly (like Najim via Renforth), others through intermediaries (like Wahida via Muhandis via Soleimani). The US tends to euphemise the process in both cases, although this may be changing. In a paper published in 2019 by the US army, ‘In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare’, Major Amos Fox argued that the US doesn’t talk about its proxies in frank enough terms. ‘Phrases such as security force assistance, training and advising, partnered force and by, with and through are all misleading and meant to soften or hide the coarseness of proxy warfare.’ The italicised phrases (his) will be grimly familiar to anyone who has followed the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fox rightly thinks of proxy relationships in terms of exploitation and transaction and concludes that ‘moving beyond quixotic notions of security force assistance and embracing the realities of proxyism will help the US army prosper in future proxy environments.’
But what would it mean to embrace the realities of proxyism? At the end of my lunch with Wahida, talk turned to whether one of her militia members, Hannadi, might seek asylum in the US. I doubted whether Hannadi would make it through the screening process, given the Muslim ban and her Hash’d connections, but said vaguely that we should try to get her into the system.
I didn’t think about this again until I read the translated transcript of that lunch. My Arabic isn’t fluent and to work in Iraq I rely on interpreters. They are a sort of proxy. I must have been taking notes as the conversation about immigration to the US continued in Arabic.
‘There are dangerous states where Iraqis don’t live,’ the interpreter said.
‘What do you mean?’ Hannadi asked.
‘Black Americans live there.’
‘What’s with them?’
Wahida interjected: ‘They’re dangerous and they kill people.’
‘They’re very dangerous,’ the interpreter agreed.
‘Should I let them kill me?’ Hannadi asked, jokingly. ‘Or should I get killed here in Iraq?’
‘Listen to me,’ the interpreter said. ‘I want to tell you the beautiful states that you would want to choose. There are many Iraqis in Michigan and Utah, so you’d be able to live there.’
At this point, recognising English words, I tried to figure out what was going on: ‘Michigan?’ I asked.
Not long after this I parted ways with the interpreter. Using a bad interpreter isn’t the same as outsourcing a war. But to make someone a proxy is to instrumentalise them. Proxy warfare is an expression of policies that privilege ends over means. The use of proxies can reveal what’s appealing as well as what’s chilling about leaders like Putin and Trump. Proxies are traditionally employed to violate international norms at no reputational cost to the patron. Acknowledging that they are tools to that end is honest. It is also flagrantly disrespectful of other countries’ rights to sovereignty and self-determination. The Kremlin, for example, initially denied any involvement in the 2014 annexation of Crimea: Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, described the forces that seized control of the peninsula as local ‘self-defence units’ safeguarding human rights. But journalists very soon revealed that Russian commandos had lent support – or issued orders – to these forces. A year later, when the situation had been settled in his favour, Putin admitted that ‘I gave orders to the Defence Ministry – why hide it? – to deploy special forces of the GRU as well as marines and commandos there.’ His proxies had served their purpose.
What was once America’s most valued proxy in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish Peshmerga, has been less fortunate, having been repeatedly betrayed by its American patrons. Most recently, Trump ended support for Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria, allowing a Turkish assault that killed several hundred Kurds and displaced hundreds of thousands. The Peshmerga retreated and regrouped. Like other Iraqi and Syrian proxies, they represent competing interests and have a long tradition of resistance. Beginning as guerrillas in the Zagros Mountains, they became the most disciplined fighting force in Iraq, controlling an autonomous region in which it’s always clear who commands the roads. It is a state of affairs that many Iraqi militia leaders envy. The Peshmerga got to this position both because of the Americans and despite them.
My closest colleague in Iraq is Kurdish, with close ties to the Peshmerga. Our relationship began as a transaction but evolved into a friendship. Proxies tend to be discussed at the geopolitical rather than the individual level. The word is almost always pejorative. States make militias their proxies. At the individual level, however, we give our proxy. To do so in legal terms is to grant power of attorney, but to give someone your proxy can also mean to put your name, perhaps your life, in another’s hands. I have often given my Kurdish colleague my proxy, and he has given me his.
A couple of years after I met Wahida and Talat, my Kurdish colleague and I were driving from Erbil to Mosul. Approaching the city, we were stopped at a Hash’d checkpoint – we couldn’t tell which faction controlled it. A stubbly militiaman wanted to examine our papers. His fatigues were faded, torn in places. On seeing my American passport, his eyes widened. He pocketed it, waved us to the side of the road and left. He returned a few minutes later without our documents and leaned through the window. ‘America,’ he said. ‘Fuck America!’
A rapid stream of Arabic followed. My colleague was conciliatory, but the militiaman seemed angry and stormed away.
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
‘He wants to know why you came and fucked up our country,’ my colleague said.
There is no satisfactory answer to this question. But any response would have to include the use of proxies, the way the US treats Iraqis as a means in a foreign policy calculation rather than as a people to be respected. We waited. After a few minutes the militiaman returned. He glared at me for a long, tense moment. Finally he leaned through the window again. ‘Bring me to America?’ he asked, grinning.
Then he laughed at my relief, handed over my passport and waved us on. Looking in the rearview mirror, my colleague and I debated whether the man would want to emigrate, given the chance. Proxies are always pursuing their own interests. Only the lack of resources at their disposal prevents them from becoming patrons.
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