Delegate, Disrupt and Protract: Biden’s Path Dependency in the Middle East
Joe Biden is likely to follow a trajectory of path dependency in the Middle East, by leading from behind, delegating rather than implementing, being disruptive rather than constructive, and thus protracting conflict resolutions. [This commentary originally appeared in the RUSI Newsbrief 40:10.]
When the major US news networks started to call the country’s 2020 presidential elections for Joe Biden, much of the world looked at the struggling superpower with relief. There was hope that after four years of erratic and impulsive American Middle East policy under the Donald Trump administration, a change of White House tenancy could reinstate US regional leadership. European countries showed a particular lack of vision and initiative in face of Trump’s America First policy. Expectations are now running high that under Biden the US can lead the way dealing with challenges and threats in the MENA region.
They are missing the point – US global leadership has been gradually declining for nearly two decades, most profoundly in relative terms amid the ‘rise of the rest’, but also in absolute terms with the voluntary surrender of power and responsibilities under President Barack Obama. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was Trump’s predecessor who set the US on a trajectory of ‘leading from behind’, relying on delegation and the externalisation of the burden of conflict to local surrogates – a trend that will tie Biden to a single path.
Faced with major disruptors such as Russia and Iran, the strategic ends Washington is able and willing to pursue in an increasingly complex, apolar regional environment, are ever more modest. While the US, like other Western powers, have traditionally tried to clear, hold and build when engaging in major conflict across the world, the surrogate wars of the 21st century rarely go beyond the strategic objective of disruption. Therefore, the Biden administration, while putting new labels on old ideas, is likely to continue a Middle East policy relying on delegation, disruption and protraction.
What is Surrogate Warfare?
The concept of warfare by surrogate emerges from the proxy warfare literature but is a far more holistic approach revolving around the externalisation of the burden of warfare from a patron to a surrogate, which serves either as a supplement or substitute for the latter’s own forces. The surrogate is an actor or technological tool that absorbs the patron’s political, operational or financial burden of conflict. The surrogate can be a state or non-state actor, a commercial military company, a band of mercenaries or criminal organisation, a terrorist organisation or an insurgency group. Increasingly, surrogates are also cyber trolls and bots, and autonomous technological platforms such as drones or robots.
Thus, the surrogate of the 21st century is an adjunct in a growing tool box for full-spectrum, hybrid conflict. In such conflicts, kinetic action is just one of many levers of power protagonists employ to achieve political ends in wars that are globalised, privatised, securitised and mediatised. All major powers are now drawn to conflicts that are transnational in character, geographically remote from their metropolitan heartland, against non-state actors with no or limited socio-political responsibility. They do this to contain risks that are often subjectively securitised vis-à-vis the ‘unknown unknown’ with no tangibly existent threat, in a security environment of extended global, local and domestic scrutiny where strategic narratives of victory and defeat are often more decisive than strategic action.
In this context, the surrogate can help the state patron to engage in protracted ‘everywhere’ wars of choice to suppress intangible threats that pose potential risks to societies at home – conflicts in the Middle East such as the one in Syria, Libya or Yemen being cases in point. Looking at Syria, moral values aside, the civil war did arguably not concern any vital survival interests of any of the parties that have intervened since 2011. The US had a limited moral imperative to limit the slaughter and ensure that Salafi jihadist groups would not determine the post-conflict environment. For Iran, it was about protecting the important supply routes to its local surrogate Hizbullah while ensuring that the Shias shrines in the country were protected. Russia, while not too hung up on Assad, needed to ensure the survival of the regime so as to guarantee its access to the Mediterranean. Turkey might have had more pressing security interests at stake with the prospect of a Kurdish enclave formalising on its southern border. Nonetheless, all parties were eager to find means to ensure its objectives were achieved, potentially over an indefinite period of time, with limited exposure to public scrutiny and at limited financial costs.
What surrogates are able to provide in the Middle East are means to disrupt the battlespace kinetically, the information space subversively, and the willpower of the adversary psychologically – all without a major combat operation. Surrogates allow patrons to remain engaged in simmering conflicts, albeit in pursuit of limited objectives, in discretion, with plausible deniability, low financial costs and legitimacy on the ground. For over a decade now, the US has learnt from the Russian and Iranian playbook in the Middle East, which focuses on delegation to local partners, contractors and non-state actors.
Cabinet Wars 2.0
The US’s remote Syria policy is not the exception – it has become the rule across the region. Warfare has transformed from the traditional Clausewitzian trinity of society, state and soldier towards a neo-trinitarian assemblage between state and surrogate, creating a disconnect between warfare and the public at home. Surrogate wars are the ‘cabinet wars’ of the 21st century, where the executive can engage coercively in conflict, potentially using kinetic force, with limited or no accountability to the public or legislature. Both the public and legislature tend to be most concerned about investing blood and treasure to achieve political ends overseas – this applies to liberal and illiberal states alike. During protests in Iran in 2019, those taking to the streets to express their socio-economic grievances demanded less money be spent on military adventures overseas. Even Russia’s security apparatus appears to have been concerned about how the public would react to Russian soldiers coming back in body bags from Syria.
These cabinet wars 2.0 unfold in the shadows of both international and domestic public scrutiny. For Americans, their wars in the Middle East are over and despite heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington over the past four years, there is little public support in the US for a more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic. Trump’s delegation of the burden of war against Iran to partners in the Gulf and Iraq as well as remote warfare technology, including cyber power, allowed the US to remain discretely engaged against Iran.
The Trump administration has raised the use of drones as a technological surrogate to a new level. The Obama administration relied on drones to conduct its counterterrorism policy to avoid risking the life of US soldiers. Whereas 1878 drone strikes were conducted during Obama’s eight years in office, there were 2243 drone strikes in the first two years of the Trump presidency alone. Biden is likely to continue this trend, keeping footprints low and technological surrogates on standby.
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, the US government had externalised much of the capacity to run these massive combat operations to more than 200,000 private military and security contractors – thousands of whom would absorb the casualties otherwise borne by US servicemen and women despite the fact that the vast majority of them provided unarmed support services. What the private military and security industry provides to Western governments are the means to bypass contingency caps imposed by lawmakers. As contractors provide any non-core military function on the ground, US uniformed personnel can concentrate on combat operations with a significantly smaller footprint, making it easier to hide the true scope and costs of war.
Another motivating factor behind the externalisation of the burden of warfare to surrogates is the achievement of plausible deniability. In a highly mediatised environment and a competition of legitimacy, surrogate operations create a causal disconnect between patron support and potentially immoral or illegal surrogate actions. Surrogate warfare allows the risk for war crimes and crimes against humanity to be externalised in an effort to evade negative reputational fallout. During the Coalition’s surrogate war in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime in 2011, the coalition was able to avoid the blame for massacres perpetrated by its surrogate, the Northern Alliance.
Despite transferring the human costs of warfare to civilians on the ground in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, the shadow wars by technological surrogate, often directed by the CIA, allowed both the Obama and the Trump administrations to plausibly deny allegations of excessive collateral damage.
Surrogate Wars to What End?
Surrogate warfare appears to be the panacea for many of the problems the US faces today – trying to suppress intangible threats in global, protracted conflicts in times of widespread public aversion to casualties and war.
However, surrogate warfare does not only externalise the burden of war but also control over a conflict and its outcomes. As surrogates are constantly trying to attain more autonomy to achieve their own objectives, the patron finds himself in a considerably weaker position in a supplier’s market where surrogates have options for diversiying their external support.
The loss of control over surrogate operations means that commercial actors tend to overcharge and underperform while insurgent and rebel groups can develop into ‘Frankenstein monsters’ that divert patron support to ulterior causes. In complex, dynamic environments patron and surrogate interests often diverge over time as conflicts become protracted. This makes it particularly hard for patrons in transactional patron–surrogate relations to stop the surrogate from prioritising its own interests over those of the patron. The relationship between the US and the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s is a case in point.
In more transformational patron–surrogate relations, such as those between Iran and its mostly Shia franchises in Iraq and Syria, the patron has more control over the surrogate, as the surrogate genuinely buys into the strategic narrative and grand strategy of the patron. The relationship between Tehran and Hizbullah might be one of the most sustainable patron–surrogate relations in modern history. In Russia’s surrogate wars in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s transformational relationship with ethnic Russians in its ‘near abroad’, provided Moscow with an ability to mobilise communities whose solidarity with the ‘motherland’ is founded on Russian Orthodoxy, socio-cultural and linguistic ties as well as an admiration for Putin as a leader.
It is here where the US is lacking in its global geostrategic aspirations. In an absence of intuitive and authentic strategic narratives that resonate with local populations, American soft power is too limited to create a genuine desire for local surrogates to buy into its strategy. This is not just in the Middle East but also in Africa, central Asia and other conflicts where the struggling superpower is remotely engaged in. Allegiance towards Uncle Sam ends up being mostly driven by financial benefits. When these are exhausted, the situation reverts to its ex ante state. Afghanistan is just one example where after more than $1 trillionof US investment, the security situation is not much different to how it was 19 years ago.
Consequently, surrogate wars are limited in what they can achieve. Delegating operational control and strategic depth to surrogates means that patrons are often withdrawing from the traditional strategic objectives of ‘clear’, ‘hold’ and ‘build’. This is because, unlike conventional operations involving the military, surrogate wars are built around the dispersion of power rather than a concentration of force. Without a coherent unity of effort between the various components of the surrogate assemblage, the patron is rarely able to develop a synchronised approach to achieve anything more than disruption.
Achieving a clear military end-state becomes more difficult as most of the time surrogates might be strong enough to disrupt the status quo but too weak to prevail. Particularly, the ‘build’ component that has achieved prominence during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to be neglected in surrogate wars as the purpose – disruption for an indefinite period of time – does not envisage a clear end-state. This is clearly visible in Syria or Yemen. Moreover, once mobilised, non-state surrogates can rarely be demobilised easily, weighing heavily as a burden on post-conflict stabilisation. The polarisation that accompanies surrogate warfare, especially in a sectarian environment, is highly counterproductive to building sustainable governance in a post-conflict environment.
Yet, in the aftermath of protracted and ‘creeped’ campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least Washington has become more realistic by understanding that surrogate warfare cannot win wars or solve conflicts. With asymmetric powers such as Iran and Russia trying to undermine the geostrategic status quo by disruptive means, America has learned that instead of bearing the unbearable burden of state- and nation-building – tasks that are vulnerable to disruption – it should resort to disruption itself. Surrogate warfare allows the exercise of pressure almost indefinitely and prevents the adversary from achieving its objectives, following a maxim of ‘if I can’t have it, nobody can’. Iran’s operations in Iraq and Syria as well as Russia’s operations in Ukraine follow this maxim.
The US strategy for the Middle East conceived by the Obama administration and continued by the Trump administration follows the same logic. The limited surrogate war in Syria’s northeast, which relies on 2,000 US special forces operators, was never going to secure the US a seat at the table to determine the future of the Assad regime. Washington’s delegation of the burden of warfare in Yemen to partners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE exacerbated a humanitarian catastrophe on the ground, further polarised and divided the country while leaving a void for external powers such as Iran to expand their foothold. In Libya, leading from behind has meant that the US’s surrogate of choice, the UAE, was given a blank cheque to further delegate the burden of conflict to local militia groups who have been polarising and arming the conflict further. In the end, the UAE even went as far as swapping US patronage with Russian patronage – leaving the conflict out of reach for Washington to manage remotely. It has been a long time since the US scored a true victory in the Middle East and Biden is not going to change that. After all, surrogate wars offer easy ways in and easy ways out for the patron, with ‘victory’ merely being a subjective perception that can be shaped globally, locally and domestically as needed. True victory on the ground will remain with those who bear the burden of conflict.
Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at the School of Security at King’s College London, seconded to the Royal College of Defence Studies. He is the author of Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the Twenty-First Century (Georgetown University Press, 2019).