Militias, Weak States, and Contemporary Warfare


Last month, I was invited to a workshop at the University of Glasgow on ‘Proxy Actors, Psyops, and Irregular Warfare’. This proved to be a valuable experience, giving me the opportunity to share and debate ideas with fellow academics, and also to develop a strand of research that started with an article I co-authored with Christian Tripodi six years ago.

Just under a century ago the German sociologist Max Weber observed that one of the essential attributes of a modern state was that it possessed ‘a monopoly of violence’, and that it alone had both the authority and the means to raise and use military and police forces both for external defence and internal security. Yet throughout history governments have raised militias consisting of irregular volunteers to fight internal foes, and the US-led coalitions engaged in campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011) likewise raised local surrogate forces against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The enlistment of local auxiliaries is very much in accordance with Current American and British military thinking on counter-insurgency (COIN). US and British doctrine argues that insurgencies are best defeated if you rally the bulk of the population against them, and that militia forces act as a useful complement to regular armies and constabularies. Militiamen drawn from the communities that they are policing and protecting have the advantages of local knowledge and cultural awareness, and can also provide a focus for any defecting insurgents (‘accidental guerrillas’, as David Kilcullen called them) to rally to the government’s side. The firqat forces in Oman in the 1970s and the ‘Al Anbar Awakening’ in Iraq in 2007-2008 can be cited as examples where the militia model worked.

Due to ‘intervention fatigue’ arising from the Afghan and Iraq wars the USA, Britain, and other Western countries are unwilling to wage COIN campaigns directly against the likes of Islamic State (IS) or Boko Haram – there is a clear preference for training the military and security forces of states threatened by such movements. However, the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014 and its lamentable performance in subsequent battles is such that the Americans and other coalition partners are treating the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (shown in combat in the Youtube video above) as an alternative partner. The Iranians, for their part, have sent their own advisory team to Baghdad led by General Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, using the Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) raised from Iraq’s Shiite majority to fight IS.

The historical parallels here – and the specific reasons for the Iraqi Army’s failure to defend the state against IS – will be the subject of a subsequent blog post. My comments here highlight the potential implications of subcontracting COIN to the militias.

Firstly, irregular auxiliary forces can and do frequently degenerate into marauders and freebooters, preying on the civilian population. When NATO established the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in 2010, its intention was to replicate the traditional model of Pashtun tribal policing. However, in repeated cases ALP units have gone rogue, and their predatory behaviour has served only to bolster support for the Taliban and further discredit the Kabul government.

Secondly, states using militias have the challenge of ensuring their continued loyalty. The mythology surrounding the firqats in Dhofar (1970-1975) overlooks the fact that the Sultan of Oman and his British backers ensured that they never outnumbered the Omani military, and that its fighters were armed with nothing heavier than machine-guns and light mortars. The equivocal commitment of this militia to the government’s cause was such that in December 1973 Sultan Qaboos summoned tribal leaders to a meeting in which he berated them for maintaining contacts with the insurgents, and gave them an ultimatum best paraphrased as ‘you are either with me or against me’.

The Omani state and its British allies managed the firqat forces so that they could never be sufficiently strong enough to rebel against the Sultan, and also carefully monitored them for their loyalty. In other conflicts the government side has been less successful in controlling its own militiamen.

Thirdly, an excessive reliance on militias can weaken the state’s own regular armed forces and police. In Afghanistan from the late 1980s to 1992 the Najibullah regime became increasingly dependent on the aid of auxiliaries (including ex-mujahidin) to fight the insurgents, particularly after the withdrawal of Soviet combat troops in February 1989. During the war against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from 1991-2000 the government of Sierra Leone regarded the Civil Defence Forces (including its kamajor tribal fighters) as the mainstay of its support, rather than the increasingly discredited army with its ill-disciplined ‘sobels’ (‘soldiers by day, rebels by night’). The consequences in both cases were grave. When Najibullah ran out of funds his militias went over to the mujahidin, precipitating his regime’s collapse in April 1992. Five years later the Sierra Leonean government was overthrown by a military coup launched in conjunction with the RUF.

Fourthly, the raising of militias carries with it the risk of provoking internecine violence, and also faction-fighting. IS’s own barbaric atrocities against Shiites and Yazidis has provoked reprisal killings of Sunni Arab Iraqis by auxiliaries from both communities. Aid to the Kurds carries with it the risk of reigniting the civil war between the PUK and KDP (which afflicted Iraqi Kurdistan twenty years ago), and also of destabilising the already tense relationship between the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Northern Syria. Given the PYD’s own ties with the PKK – and Turkish hostility towards it – and Kurdish-Arab feuding over Kirkuk and other disputed territory in Northern Iraq, the US and its allies may well find themselves in the embarrassing situation where its local partners may end up fighting a NATO ally, or forces loyal to the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Clearly, some states do not concern themselves with the long-term consequences of enlisting militias. There is no sign that the Iranians care whether the Hashid al-Shabhi further alienate Sunni Arabs from the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, or if the National Defence Forces they have raised and trained in Syria serve only to exacerbate the increasingly brutal sectarian civil war in that country. But if our objective and that of other Western states is to both defeat insurgencies that threaten allied powers, but also to provide a basis for long-term conflict resolution and stability, then we are obliged to consider the strategic as well as the ethical implications of simply arming surrogates, and of encouraging them to fight the battles that public opinion currently shies away from.

3 thoughts on “Militias, Weak States, and Contemporary Warfare

  1. The role of state sponsored and state condoned militias is of considerable interest and as yet poorly understood. I suspect that more focus will be brought to bear on this area if the West (and others) continues to seek to fight through proxies as is the case in the Middle East currently.
    In looking at the role of these militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as the role of external powers in supporting them the strategic context needs to be clearly understood. So for example with the Iranian support for Hashid al-Shabhi I would contend that Iran is clearly following a strategy designed to promote its National Interests which may be coincident to a degree with Iraqi government interests now, but are not the same. Iran gains considerable political influence through its sponsorship of these militias and I doubt that Iran sees a strong cohesive Iraq as being in its national interests.
    The West’s support for the Kurdish forces is less indicative of a long term strategy and more of a pressing operational requirement. Considerable political pressure was brought to bear to prevent the onslaught of ISIS against the Yazedi and only the Kurds were in a position to bring effective force to bear – albeit only with the support of large amounts of Coalition airpower. Western support for the Kurds should be seen then as a case of events on the ground driving the operational approach but it is clear to me that overall policy has not changed. Support to Kurds seem limited in both type and quantity (there is no evidence of a push to give them either an armoured or a more sophisticated combined arms capability) in much the same way that assistance to the Omani firqats was limited.
    The problem with the raising of these forces is that they break the state’s monopoly of force. This is clearly the case in Iraq with both Kurdish forces and the Hashid al-Shabhi. The problem for the Iraqi government is that it is neither strong enough militarily or politically to resist the use of these militias. The issue for the future is how to either integrate these forces with state forces or develop a political solution that sees their disbandment.


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