From the dreaded shabiha (apparition) forces that have committed massacres and mass rapes during Syria’s civil war to the Mexican vigilantes that emerged to protect villages and towns against narco-traffickers, states increasingly seem to share the prerogative to use violence with various militias and paramilitary groups. Unlike rebels or criminals, whose actions are necessarily illegal and opposed by the state, these groups enjoy semi-official or informal ties with the government. Scholars and policymakers are alarmed by the role of these pro-government militias in atrocities. But are militias always a menace?

New research suggests that they are. Using a painstakingly generated cross-national dataset (funded by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council and the Peace Research Institute-Oslo), Sabine Carey, Neil Mitchell and their collaborators offer perhaps the most comprehensive picture of pro-government militias. They show that these militias were active in as many as 55 countries between 1981 and 2007. Sixty-four percent of countries that experienced civil wars during that time had pro-government militias, although most militia activity overall was not during wartime. Their statistical findings (published here and summarized here) show that the appearance of militias is strongly correlated with violations of human rights, particularly when governments want to maximize harm to civilians while minimizing blame for the action of armed groups that are, ostensibly, “free agents.” Moreover, these militia agents typically lack training and discipline and harbor ulterior motives to use violence for criminal or other purposes.

Yet researchers of counterinsurgency draw a different picture – often describing such militias as an invaluable tool. Using his own dataset, Goran Peic finds that recruiting militias increases the likelihood of government victory in civil war by more than 50 percent. Jason Lyall argues that locally raised militias, as opposed to regular Russian troops, were better positioned to identify insurgents within the population and to issue credible threats against civilians for noncooperation during Russia’s highly effective – albeit brutal – counterinsurgent campaign in Chechnya.

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Most directly related to the U.S. experience are the Sunni militias that took part in the Awakening movement in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Importantly, both the United States and Baghdad rebuffed earlier offers from Sunni clan leaders for security cooperation in return for the ability to self-police in Sunni areas. As violence worsened, though, new approaches had to be found. Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman and Jacob Shapiro show that standing up the Sons of Iraq militia, coupled with the surge in U.S. troop levels, was crucial in stemming the tide against the insurgency. The militia gave Sunnis an incentive to defect from their alliances with al-Qaeda in Iraq in return for guarantees of substantial autonomy and self-governance in their home districts. While today some revisionists claim that the Awakening movement backfired because ex-militiamen eventually gravitated to the Islamic State, in many ways it was the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that welched on the bargain. The government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reneged on pledges to find new positions for former militiamen and systematically persecuted the Sunni population, in effect driving them back into the arms of the insurgency. One of the most promising plans to combat the Islamic State under the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is to recreate the Awakening movement by establishing new Iraqi national guard militias that would again invite Sunnis to work with – instead of against – the state under the promise of greater devolution of power to the provinces.

Military practitioners have taken examples of the potential utility of militias to heart. David Kilcullen, former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and doyen of contemporary counterinsurgency theory, emphasizes the need “to develop solid partnerships with reliable local allies.” The latest edition of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5) captures the paradoxical role of militias when it observes that:

If militias are outside the host-nation government’s control, they can often be obstacles to ending an insurgency. Militias may become more powerful than the host-nation government, particularly at the local level. They may also fuel the insurgency and precipitate a downward spiral into a full-scale civil war. However, they can also play a constructive role and provide local security. While this can undermine the host nation’s government, it can also be a building block to help build legitimacy at the local level. (5-47, 5-48)

So what makes a “good” militia? Why do some armed groups seek to ensure stability and peace while others become predatory and destructive? A number of studies of rebel groups, such as books by Jeremy Weinstein and Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, suggest that rebel groups are more disposed to treat civilians well and more responsive to humanitarian needs when they rely on those same communities for recruits and funding. A comparable logic appears to hold for pro-government militias. The more firmly grounded a militia group is in the local community, the more its leadership reflects indigenous norms and values, the more likely it is to act responsibly. In a study of the Arrow Boys, a militia that emerged in South Sudan to protect villages and towns from both government and rebel attacks, Carlo Koos shows how the group was oriented to self-defense so long as it depended on traditional clan and tribal leadership for equipment, food and general legitimacy. Once the government began offering arms and supplies, the incentive to protect diminished so that the Arrow Boys became more brutal. Cases in Indonesia and Peru, among others, evince a similar story.

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For states mobilizing militia forces in counterinsurgency, then, the crucial lesson is to do more by doing less. Instead of showering militias with resources and training  to ensure their dependence on the state and compliance with directives, it is often better to encourage self-sufficiency and preserve and deepen local roots as much as possible. Of course, as Kimberly Marten argues, relying on tribal networks and clan-based norms to check the behavior of armed groups is far from perfect. Instead of fostering egalitarian and inclusive notions of national citizenship, it reinforces patterns of male dominance and exclusivist kinship relationships. Yet, in the crucible of war and insurgencies, these relationships and the discipline they produce may be the best that can be hoped for. What Stephen Krasner and Merilee Grindle call “good enough” governance of security by armed non-state actors is a worthy goal when the alternative is continued bloodshed. My own research suggests that militias tend to emerge when states lack the coercive and administrative capacity to centralize power and instead must co-opt local powerbrokers, tribal leaders and warlords. Dependence on militias, then, becomes a self-perpetuating cycle; institutional weakness begets more weakness, necessitating continuing commitments to militia mobilization. Learning to work with those that are actually capable of providing security and protection to local communities is better than waiting in vain for strong and responsive states to arrive.

Ariel I. Ahram (@ariel_ahram) is an assistant professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s School of Public & International Affairs in Alexandria, Va. He is the author of “Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias” (Stanford University Press, 2011).

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