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New Wars of Attrition

30 April 2024

In recent years, the term "war of attrition" has gained prominence in global politics, reflecting the resurgence of international conflict among major powers following three decades of American dominance after the end of the Cold War. Headlines and articles discussing competition between major powers are increasingly prevalent. A defining feature of this new era is how traditional and rising global powers inflict harm on each other without direct confrontations. According to the International Encyclopedia of World War I, a war of attrition is "the continuous process of exhausting the enemy to force its physical collapse through continuous losses of personnel, equipment, and supplies, or wearing them down to the point where they become susceptible to collapse and the elimination of their will to fight."


Discussions of "wars of attrition" are often accompanied by references to "proxy wars," where militarily and economically stronger states employ political systems and armed militias to act on their behalf, aiming to maximize the attrition of other powers. The war in Ukraine has brought the discourse surrounding proxy wars and wars of attrition to a new level. This is due to the indirect confrontation between the United States and Russia. Additionally, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has further reinforced the idea that the world is heading towards a new Cold War. In this scenario, regional conflicts are exploited to settle scores between major powers or to weaken a dominant power on the international stage.


Former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once described proxy wars as "the cheapest insurance in the world." According to Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq, they are necessary and desirable to "keep the pot boiling." Proxy wars offer a logical alternative for states to advance their strategic objectives without direct, costly, and bloody engagement.


A 2023 Rand Corporation study, employing both quantitative and qualitative methods, concluded that the resurgence of proxy wars is a likely prospect in the near future due to various factors. These factors stem from the intensifying competition between major powers, particularly the United States and China.


Despite the study's recommendations for Washington to avoid entering new proxy wars as much as possible to prevent Cold War scenarios, all indications suggest that the United States is moving towards increased involvement in proxy wars and wars of attrition. This shift in approach is especially evident following the protracted conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza as both Ukraine and Israel hold significant importance for US military strategy.


In his book "New Cold Wars," journalist David Sanger discusses the shift in expectations regarding Russia and China's integration into the West. Sanger writes, "We were also convinced that, for all the shock, trauma, and disorder of the twenty-first century, the world would sort itself out in the way we had long anticipated. Key to that was the almost universally held assumption that Russia and China—a fast-declining power and a fast-rising one—would integrate themselves into the West in their own ways. Each, it was argued, had an overwhelming national interest in keeping its products, profits, and financial interactions flowing, even with geopolitical adversaries. Economics would ultimately trump nationalism and territorial ambition." However, recent events have contradicted these expectations. Tensions have escalated between China and Russia, on one hand, and the Western camp led by the United States, on the other. These tensions are driven by economic ambitions and a fading belief in the power of globalization to contain international conflicts.


Today, experts are concerned about the significant changes in international competition and the use of proxy wars to settle disputes with adversaries. This is reminiscent of past events such as the US support for Afghan mujahideen during the Cold War in the 1970s, or the Soviet Union's use of Cuban proxies in Angola in 1974. The current danger lies in the presence of highly trained armed groups scattered across different regions, particularly the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. These groups can be utilized in various ways, including the ability to establish cross-border loyalties more extensively and deeply than in the past. Non-state actors can now be recruited to engage in unprecedented ways.


In the past, private militaries were not a viable option as the use of force was primarily restricted to states or government forces. However, the Cold War brought about a shift in this dynamic. By the end of 1991, there was an abundance of individuals with exceptional military expertise, leading to the emergence of private militaries and military security companies. These entities have become prevalent in numerous regions worldwide, with over 150 companies engaging in activities valued at $223 billion in 2022. Projections indicate that this market will double by 2030. Additionally, the mercenary market has reached $100 billion. 


After awakening from the illusions of a unipolar world, US military institutions turned their attention to studying the nature of future wars between two major powers: the United States and China. Researchers suggest that these wars are typically not short and sharp, but rather long and grueling battles of attrition that tend to expand geographically, dragging other regions into the conflict. While some believe that the US-China conflict over Taiwan may be an exception, potentially being short and contained, it is not feasible to generalize this assumption based on historical precedent.


The world is currently experiencing a new phase of conflict between major powers, as they compete for political, economic, military, scientific, technological dominance, and wealth accumulation. Although the rules of the game have not undergone significant changes, the primary means of draining capabilities continue to be indirect military confrontations and the exploitation of regional conflicts and small wars to weaken adversaries. All signs point to this conflict intensifying in the upcoming decades.