A proxy war is a war where two powers use third parties as a supplement or a substitute for fighting each other directly.
While superpowers have sometimes used whole governments as proxies, terrorist groups or other third parties are more often employed. It is hoped that these groups can strike an opponent without leading to full-scale war.
Proxy wars have also been fought alongside full-scale conflicts. For instance, during the Iran-Iraq War, both nations armed factions in the Lebanese Civil War and pitted them against each other.
A famous conflict which exhibits patterns of a proxy war was the Spanish Civil War. An internal political conflict soon involved a battle between fascism and communism as Nazi Germany and Italy (on the fascist side) and the Soviet Union (on the republican side) poured resources and advisers into Spain. This war served as a useful proving ground for the great powers to test equipment and tactics that would later be employed in the Second World War.
Proxy wars were common in the Cold War, because the two nuclear-armed superpowers (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America) did not wish to fight each other directly, since that would have run the risk of escalation to a nuclear war. Proxies were used in conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, Vietnam, and many other states.
The first proxy war in the Cold War was the Greek Civil War, in which the Western-allied Greek government was nearly overthrown by Communist rebels with limited direct aid from Soviet client states in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria. The Greek Communists managed to seize most of Greece, but a strong government counterattack forced them back. The Western Allies eventually won, due largely to an ideological split between Stalin and Tito. Though previously allied to the rebels, Tito closed Yugoslavia's borders to ELAS partisans when, despite the nonexistence of Soviet aid to the rebels, Greek Communists sided with Stalin. Albania followed Tito's suit shortly thereafter. With no way to get aid, the rebellion collapsed.
An example of war by proxy was East Germany's covert support for the Red Army Faction (RAF) which was active from 1968 and carried out a succession of terrorist attacks in West Germany during the 1970s and to a lesser extent in the 1980s. After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany. It had also given several RAF terrorists shelter and new identities. It had not been in the interests of either the RAF or the East Germans to be seen as co-operating. The apologists for the RAF argued that they were striving for a true socialist society not the sort that existed in Eastern Europe. The East German government was involved in Ostpolitik, and it was not in its interest to be caught overtly aiding a terrorist organization operating in West Germany. For more details see the History of Germany since 1945.
In the Korean War the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China aided the Communists in North Korea and China against the United Nations forces led by the United States, but the Soviet Union did not enter the war directly. China however did enter the war directly and sent millions of its troops in 1950 preventing the U.N. coalition from defeating the communist government of the north.
In the Vietnam War the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Viet Minh with training, logistics and materiel but unlike the United States Armed Forces they fought the war through their proxies and did not enter the conflict directly.
During most of the Angolan Civil War after independence in 1975 the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc supported the Marxist government of the MPLA with money, logistics, and weapons, while the Cuban Armed Forces were sent to fight alongside the Angolan Army. The United States cooperated with the Apartheid regime of South Africa in sending support to the largest anti-communist rebel group, UNITA. The MPLA government in Angola was also sending aid and support to antiApartheid groups in South Africa and the independence movement in South West Africa (present day Namibia, which led the South African government to support UNITA with guns and money, and eventually with thousands of troops from the South African National Defence Force.
During the Mozambique civil war, the communist government of Mozambique supported the rebellion against the racist, white minority led government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In response the Rhodesian government organized and than funded an anti-communist rebel group called RENAMO (Mozambique National Resistance). After Rhodesia collapsed and became Zimbabwe in 1980, South Africa took over supporting RENAMO. In 1991 the South African government began reforms at ending Apartheid and also ending its involvement in armed conflict elsewhere. Later that year both South African and Cuban troops withdrew from Angola and in 1992 RENAMO and the government of Mozambique signed a peace accord. UNITA continued to fight the freely elected government of Angola, eventually losing its support from all of its former allies (including the United States and South Africa).
The war between the mujahadeen and the Red Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a classic asymmetric war. The aid given by the U.S. to the mujahadeen during the war was only covert at the tactical level.
During the Lebanese Civil War Syria supported the Maronite Christian dominated Lebanese Front with arms and troops, while interestingly enough Syria's enemy Israel supported the Lebanese Front by providing them with arms, tanks and money. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) supported the Lebanese National Movement (NLM).
Since the end of the Cold War the largest war by proxy has been the Second Congo War in which the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda all used (and are perhaps still using) third party armed irregular groups.