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The new U.S. plan in Afghanistan may add a local militia. That might be a bad idea.

Soldiers of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission train Afghan soldiers during military exercises at Sohrab camp in Helmand province on Nov. 19. (Watan Yar/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Is mobilizing local community militias in Afghanistan an effective solution to an insurgency? U.S. military policymakers in Afghanistan recently proposed a “new” Afghan National Army Territorial Force to supplement U.S. and Afghan forces. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is considering the plan.

In the short term, recruiting local forces to defend their own community can be a low-cost way to sustain control of disputed territory. In particular, local militias can provide valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of insurgents, and therefore help prevent the state from committing indiscriminate violence against civilians.

But our research suggests that using civilians to identify insurgents typically provokes a response from rebel groups — and actually increases their use of violence against civilians. This means local militias pose serious risks to their own members, to the communities in which they reside, and to the Afghan government’s ability to consolidate power into the official Armed Forces and police.

Why delegate security to civilians?

In comparison to the conventional military, militias require minimal training, equipment and infrastructure. As some scholars point out, a militia can offer “a relatively low cost and flexible force.” It’s an attractive option, particularly for weak states facing domestic threats, but governments have other uses for auxiliary forces.

Militia can take various forms. The proposed new militia in Afghanistan would be a civilian defense force (CDF), made up of civilians who typically live in their own homes and undertake security or limited combat tasks to defend their communities from insurgents. These are sedentary and largely defensive forces — unlike mobile militia groups, such as the Janjaweed in Sudan, or death squads in Latin America, which pursue and engage opponents across large areas.

Building on a new Pro-Government Militia data set, we found evidence of 50 CDFs operating between 1981 and 2007, operating in conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Guatemala, Peru and the Philippines.

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Since CDFs recruit from local civilian populations, they know the local topography, language and people within the communities where insurgents and their sympathizers hide. This makes CDFs well positioned, and sometimes more committed, to resisting insurgent attempts to reestablish control in their locale.

CDFs reduce state violence against civilians

Identifying insurgents is one of the primary challenges during a counter-insurgent campaign. State forces often do not know who the insurgents are or where they hide. CDFs can use their detailed local knowledge to help the state more selectively target insurgents. This means states may be less inclined to indiscriminately use violence against civilians, as a way to defeat insurgents who may be hiding among the population.

For example, between 2005 and 2009, coalition forces in Iraq recruited Sunni tribal members, some of whom had defected from the insurgency, to undertake security and limited combat operations against insurgents living in their villages, towns and neighborhoods. The Sons of Iraq militia program helped the coalition identify insurgents, locate hidden weapons caches and ultimately reduced coalition violence against civilians.

In our recently published article in International Studies Quarterly, we find that civilian militias reduce state violence against civilians by approximately 67 percent. A complementary study found that “a state is 53 percent more likely to vanquish a guerrilla threat if the incumbent deploys CDFs,” as they produce an “influx of tactical intelligence as well as isolate insurgents from non-combatant populations physically as well as politically.”

But rebel violence against civilians can intensify

CDFs undermine local support for insurgents, such as the Taliban or the Islamic State, as they reduce their ability to evade detection and maintain (or gain) control of a population. In this way, the militias drive a wedge between the rebels and civilian populations from which the CDFs hail, in effect helping to align the civilians with the state. This is one of the reasons states deploy these groups.

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Here’s the downside: Insurgents normally respond to this threat by targeting actual and potential defectors within their organizations and the supporting populations. The process can polarize communities as people are forced to side either with the insurgents or the militias. Our statistical analysis of all civil wars from 1981 to 2007 revealed that the deployment of CDFs, of the type proposed in Afghanistan, increased insurgent killings of civilians by 143 percent, and overall conflict fatalities by 241 percent. So CDFs may be associated with a reduction in state violence against civilians, but this effect is overshadowed by the significant upturn in other forms of violence.

This was the case in Iraq, for example. The formation of the Sons of Iraq provoked a response from insurgents, who retaliated against local communities that had adopted the program, seeking to punish defectors and regain control. In the short term, the resulting defections and fragmentation within the insurgency seriously intensified civilian suffering.

This probably will be the case in Afghanistan if this current proposal is implemented. Afghanistan has a history of competing warlord factions. Consolidating civilians and warlord or strongmen groups into anti-insurgent forces probably will provoke sustained retribution from insurgent forces.

Militia also often are associated with grave human rights violations

Weak states often lack the ability to prevent militias from exploiting and abusing civilians. Militias also provide actors a means to offload “dirty work” and plausibly deny extreme methods used to target opponents and civilians.

On other occasions, official forces and militias combine to commit atrocities. This is a real concern in Afghanistan, where militias have a long history of perpetrating abuses, and has led the United Nations and Human Rights Watch to condemn the plan to create the new militia.

Holding on to territory continues to be the primary challenge facing the Afghan government and its U.S. sponsors. Recruiting local citizens is a low-cost option that might strengthen the struggling military, in particular by reducing its reliance on counterproductive civilian targeting.

However, research suggests that unleashing armed actors with minimal oversight, in a context with a history of competing power struggles, is very likely to increase human rights abuses and insurgent violence against civilians.

Govinda Clayton (@GovClayton) is a senior researcher in peace processes in the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, and executive director of the Conflict Research Society.

Andrew Thomson is a lecturer in conflict studies and terrorism at Queen’s University Belfast and a fellow at the Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.