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Dec 02, 2021
In the aftermath of World War II, countless corners of the globe descended into a viper’s pit of proxy wars. On opposite sides, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union sponsored propaganda, coups and actual all-out violence.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, proxy conflicts have continued apace. Take northern Nigeria, where Saudi religious authorities have been funding Sunni movements in order to curtail the spread and influence of Shiite minority movements. Or last summer’s rift between France and the U.K. inspired by fishing rights around the island of Jersey. According to policy experts, another cold war is already underway between the U.S. and China, as the superpowers vie to gain influence in smaller nations.
And guess what? Behind every proxy war is a gun-running contractor or mercenary army ready to profit. Because like startups, conflicts need external actors to survive. Today’s Daily Dose explores some of the proxy wars you’ve never heard of and the behind-the-scenes actors powering them.
— Based on reporting by Eromo Egbejule
Long Running Proxy Wars
1 - Balochistan
A conflict that has rumbled since the ’40s is happening in Balochistan, a mineral-rich region comprising parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It occupies a strategic location on the Arabian Sea and boasts a high concentration of natural resources, such as oil, coal, gold, copper and gas reserves. This has fueled sectarian struggles between the majority Sunni Muslims and smaller groups of Shiite Muslims and Hindus. Unsurprisingly, a layer of religious extremism has become interwoven into the conflict between the secessionist Balochistan Liberation Army and Islamabad. Meanwhile, New Delhi has been accused of funding the secessionists in order to “destabilize Pakistan” and has coordinated a network of Baloch assets in India. The U.S.’ decision to declare the BLA a terrorist group in 2019 was seen as an attempt to coax help from Pakistan to deal with the situation in neighboring Afghanistan.
2 - Congo
Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, a massive refugee crisis has afflicted northern and eastern Congo. Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of backing rebel groups that have fueled the crisis and of exploiting local gold and diamond reserves. As leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in the 1990s, current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is a member of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, led campaigns to rout a Hutu militia that had been hiding in parts of Congo. More recently, Kagame has been critical of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni, his erstwhile friend and mentor, but even decades ago, their armies were already in conflict.
3 - Angola
Of all the proxy conflicts that sprung up during the Cold War, perhaps the biggest was the Angolan Civil War, which played out over three decades, before ending in 2002. While Cuba and the Soviet Union supported a Marxist coalition, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which was elected at independence in 1975, the U.S. and Chinese governments took a shine to other independence movements. Ethnic and ideological tensions were continuously stoked by all sides as the struggle for political power and control of the country’s natural resources led to a resumption of hostilities in the 1970s. By the time the war ended decades later, at least 1.5 million people were thought to have perished.
The feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional dominance is fueled in part by the countries’ religious differences. Iran is largely Shiite Muslim, while Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. This rift has played out thousands of miles away in northern Nigeria, a region home to more than 80-85 million Muslims, less than 5% of whom are Shiite. But boosted by Iranian proselytizers and Tehran’s funding of social projects in Nigeria since the 1979 revolution, Shiism has been winning converts. In 2015, prominent Shiite leader Ibrahim El-Zakzaky was arrested when the Nigerian army massacred over 300 of his followers. Three years later, the army again massacred Shiite protesters in Abuja, using a statement made by former U.S. President Donald Trump to justify the killings. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim, has been accused of carrying out Saudi motives.
2 - France vs. Russia in the Central African Republic
The history of conflicts in the Central African Republic is intertwined with the maneuvering of its former colonizer, France. Paris continues to influence trade, fiscal policy and electoral processes across Francophone Africa. In the Central African Republic, France has a long history of advancing its economic interests by exploiting ethno-religious conflicts. But now there’s a new actor on the scene challenging its monopoly. In 2017, Russia gave a consignment of weapons to the Central African Republic, a deal it used to sign a defense agreement with the country. This allowed Russia to bring in its own troops and even more ammunition, a move that has led to a proxy war between Moscow’s private armies and the French government, which has a small force on standby in the country.
3 - France vs. U.K. Around the Island of Jersey
No blood spilled here, but there’s tension by the boatload. During Brexit negotiations, fishing rights involving the U.K. and EU member states became a major sticking point. Disputes raged over total catches allowed and how they should be allocated. In May, France accused the U.K. of failing to abide by Brexit agreements that defined the fishing rights of EU boats off the island of Jersey in the English Channel. The same month, the U.K. ramped up hostilities by deploying two naval ships to Jersey. In response, France sent out a maritime vessel and a military ops ship. It then threatened to blockade the harbor and to cut off electricity to residents on the island. Relations between the countries have since worsened following a botched submarine deal also involving Australia and the U.S.
4 - U.S. vs. China in Djibouti
Djibouti’s geostrategic position near the Middle East makes it an attractive shipping hub, especially given the conflicts afflicting nearby Somalia and Eritrea. At least five countries including France, Italy and China have set up military bases there. Djibouti’s openness to hosting bases belonging to a multitude of competing superpowers has positioned it at the center of regional affairs and made it especially important to two of those countries: the U.S. and China. Beijing’s economic relationships in the form of infrastructure loans and other support across Africa has worried Washington for years. In 2016, China agreed to a 10-year lease for its base; not long after, the U.S. signed one for two decades.
1 - Rapid Support Forces, Sudan
Established in 2013, the RSF is a Sudanese paramilitary force that grew out of the militias deployed by Khartoum during the Darfur war. But that’s not where its activities stop. The group is primarily composed of the controversial Janjaweed militias that have exported their capabilities to insurgencies across the Sahel region. About 1,000 RSF soldiers were involved in the second Libyan Civil War, supporting the rebel group called the Libyan National Army, which was fighting against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord. It has long been known that the RSF was, and could still be, actively participating in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War.
2 - Blackwater, USA
Perhaps the most famous and influential of all mercenary armies in recent times, Blackwater (aka Academi) received its first contract from the U.S. government after the bombing of USS Cole in 2000. Founded in 1997 by former Navy SEALs Al Clark and Erik Prince, it began as a private security firm providing training support to law enforcement and military organizations. In 2004, it was one of three private military companies that received a Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract from the U.S. State Department to offer protection to U.S. and foreign officials in Iraq, for which it received hundreds of millions of dollars. Offering services to a number of Gulf states including the UAE, Blackwater has also been involved in providing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most dangerous shipping routes.
3 - Wagner Group, Russia
Wagner Group is a homegrown paramilitary organization believed to be used by the Russian government in conflicts where plausible deniability is needed. A close ally of President Vladimir Putin named Yevgeny Prigozhin is suspected to be a major financial backer of Wagner Group and companies tied to him have been sanctioned by U.S. authorities for financing the Internet Research Agency — famous for its role as a troll factory — which ran interference campaigns in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2018. Wagner Group’s first major battlefield appearance was in Ukraine in 2014, where it assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea. The group has also reportedly been hired to supply mercenaries to Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan. In Mali, which signed a defense agreement with Russia two years ago, the transitional government is on the verge of collaborating with Wagner Group in a $10.5 million contract, much to the chagrin of France.
4 - Executive Outcomes, South Africa
This private military company has a dark origin story. Founder Eeben Barlow, a former lieutenant colonel in the South African Defence Force, earned his stripes pursuing anti-apartheid fighters stationed across Southern Africa. Executive Outcomes first gained notoriety in 1993 when it was engaged by the Angolan government to repel rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola forces and to train Angolan army troops. In exchange for mining concessions, the group controversially entered the conflict in Sierra Leone in 1995 on the side of the government. It also provided training and operational advice to Indonesian special forces in a 1996 operation to rescue hostages held in the country’s West Papua province. Barlow also led military operations against Boko Haram after the Islamist group’s kidnapping of more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls in 2014.
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