In a previous post I commented on the increasing importance of militias in internal conflicts, particular with both the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq against so-called Islamic State. Scholars of Iraqi history can indeed draw parallels between the Kurdish peshmerga’s relevance to the US-led Coalition war effort and the British Empire’s reliance on the Iraq Levies (recruited mainly from the Assyrians and other minority groups) during the mandate era (1920-1932) and subsequently with its informal dominance over Iraq (1932-1958). The Levies guarded the RAF air-bases at Habbaniya and Shaibah, and also fought for the British during the Anglo-Iraqi war provoked by Rashid Ali Kailani’s attempt to align with Nazi Germany in May 1941. Likewise, the peshmerga have proved to be more competent fighters against IS than Iraq’s own army, although this is not to say that the Kurds haven’t suffered their own reverses in battle.

However, it is worth asking why the US and its allies – and for that matter the Iranians with reference to both Iraq and Syria – are so reliant upon irregular surrogates in the first place. It is my contention that part of the reason lies with pre-war political measures that have deliberately undermined the military effectiveness of the regular armed forces, as part of a process of ‘coup-proofing’.

Risa Brooks, Daniel Byman, Kenneth Pollack, and James Quinlivan have all examined the measures that Arab regimes have taken to pre-empt a military coup d’etat, while Robert Springborg argues persuasively that contrary to proponents of modernisation theory Arab armed forces have failed to act as agents of state-building and state-consolidation. Western analysts of military institutions take it for granted that governments develop and maintain professional armed forces that emphasise efficiency in war-fighting, so as to protect state and society from threats to their security. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a ruling elite may deliberately seek to undermine military effectiveness, but in Syria under the Assad dynasty, Iraq under both Saddam Hussain and Nuri al-Maliki, Libya under Muammar Qaddafi and Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh this has clearly happened.

In these four cases, promotion within the officer corps is based on loyalty and clan/sectarian ties to the regime rather than professional competence. The armed forces have also had deliberately divided and convoluted command structures imposed on them, and have been subjected to intensive and hostile surveillance by regime intelligence and security services. Exercises and manoeuvres which would be the norm for Western armed forces are deliberately curtailed – an armoured division issued with ammunition for live-fire practice could be used by its commanding general for a sneak attack on a presidential palace. As a further constraint, the ruling party or elite may well raise parallel military formations focussed on regime defence, which will often receive better weaponry and more generous funding than its ‘regular’ counterparts.

The effect on state security forces is invariably calamitous. ‘Coup-proofing’ institutionalises official corruption, undermines training and doctrine, and also ensures defeat in inter-state wars. Napoleon reportedly observed that there are no bad regiments, only bad colonels, and it has been repeatedly proved that poorly-trained soldiers will not fight well when led by a professionally incompetent officer corps. Syria suffered humiliating defeats against Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1982; Libya’s military adventures in Chad ended disastrously with the ‘Toyota War’ of 1987; and the Iraqi armed forces were crushed by their US-Coalition foes in 1991 and 2003.

Yet the regimes concerned have historically accepted combat ineffectiveness if it leaves them with a military and security force apparatus which can nip coups in the bud and crush insurgencies. For example, Saddam Hussein was more concerned with crushing the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions of March 1991 than he was with the losses Iraqi forces sustained in Kuwait, and up until the US-British invasion of March 2003 he remained far more preoccupied with the threat of coups and rebellions than with that of external regime change. Saddam miscalculated in underestimating the risks of conquest and occupation, but other leaders have accepted that institutionalised military incompetence is an acceptable price to pay provided that the regime has sufficient loyalist forces to destroy its domestic foes. Yet the implosion of the Libyan armed forces in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, the Yemeni civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s savage and ham-fisted attempt to suppress anti-Baathist protests, and the routing of the Iraqi Army by IS last year all demonstrate that ‘coup-proofing’ is no longer a guarantee against a major internal revolt.

Baghdad is now relying on Shiite Hashid al-Shabi militias because its regular forces have become decimated and demoralised. Iraq’s special forces – the ‘Golden Division’ – have been eroded by months of fighting against IS and finally broke in the defeat at Ramadi in May. The defection or desertion of Syrian Arab Army troops means that Assad’s regime is now dependent upon the National Defence Forces, Hezbollah, and the motley bands of Iraqi and Afghan Shia auxiliaries the Iranians are able to organise. The weaknesses of militia forces – that they can prey on the civilian population, become divided by internecine feuds, exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions within society, and weaken the cohesion of a state’s military and police forces – are such that the Iraqi and Syrian government’s dependence upon them could prove as counterproductive as it was for Najibullah’s regime in Afghanistan in the late 1980s or with Sierra Leone’s war against the Revolutionary United Front in the following decade.

The fate of the Syrian state is arguably beyond the international community’s collective control, but the USA, UK, and other allies have committed themselves to defeating IS in Iraq, and to help rebuild the Iraqi armed forces. However, it is important to remember that once US forces left Iraq in 2011 the military and security forces they and the British had raised and equipped ended up being hamstrung by the former Premier al-Maliki. His policies towards the armed forces and police – of dividing the command structure, placing elite units under his direct authority, and promoting officers for loyalty rather than competence – resembled those of the Baathist regime, and ultimately contributed to the Iraqi Army’s lamentable performance against IS last summer.

The sobering conclusion is that the USA and its coalition partners have no firm guarantee that any aid expended on training the Iraqi military will not simply be wasted for similar reasons, with the end result being a similar collapse in a future conflict. Ironically enough, the very characteristics of the Iraqi state which made it easy for the USA and Britain to conquer Iraq 12 years ago have undermined efforts made by the former occupiers to re-establish efficient and viable military and security forces in this state.

Image: A patrol from the paramilitary police Tactical Support Unit leaving a security force base in Basra, Iraq, September 2004. Property of the author, not to be reproduced without permission. 


    1. That is the $65,000 question. My personal impression is that much depends on governance. Armed forces are mirrors of their society, and the problems within them can often be political in nature. A regime that fears coups more than wars will not feel compelled to create professional armed forces.

      Caitlin Talmadge has written a very interesting book on this topic, which I link to below. Her argument is that authoritarian regimes that are (a) confident of military loyalty to the regime and (b) need forces capable of conventional warfare can combine political reliability with military effectiveness, as was the case with North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This is a subject that requires more research, but I think she has started to ask some important questions in this regard:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s