The Promises and Perils of Pro-Government Militias in Armed Conflicts

15 April 2021   ·   Sabine Carey

Pro-government militias are frequently involved in armed conflict. While they offer certain advantages such as localized knowledge, they often become agents of violence and spoil peace processes. The German government should be aware of these risks in its crisis engagement and support efforts that aim at ensuring accountability and creating targeted disarmament programs.

Armed forces are often more complex and diverse than a simple distinction between a country’s formal security forces and potentially multiple rebel forces. A recent data collection effort identifies over 500 armed groups between 1981 and 2014 that are aligned with and linked to the government of the territory they operate in, but are not part of the formal security apparatus. Such pro-government militias are not just a phenomenon of weak or failed states, but are found across the globe. Most governments embroiled in counterinsurgencies and armed conflicts create or collaborate with such irregular forces. Recent examples include the Shabbiha in Syria, Awakening groups in Iraq, Village Defense Committees in Kashmir, and Volunteer Battalions in Ukraine.

While members of regular police and military by no means always fulfill their goal to protect, rather than harm civilians, pro-government militias pose a particularly severe risk for stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. Once irregular groups have been equipped with arms, even under good intentions, they become extremely difficult to constrain and pose a security risk for years to come. Policy makers should be aware of these risks in their crisis management.

Locally Embedded: Militias Are Attractive Proxy Forces

Why are pro-government militias so common in civil wars? They emerge from the demands of local, national or foreign governments as well as from citizens’ incentives to form and participate in such groups. For example, citizens may form civil defence forces to protect their communities against insurgent violence while receiving support, including weapons, from the state. This way, the Civilian Joint Task Force emerged in northern Nigeria to fight Boko Haram, and the Rondas Campesinas formed in response to the violence perpetrated by Sendero Luminoso in Peru. 

Such informal local forces provide the government with enormous benefits: because they emerge from within their communities, they are familiar with local customs, language and networks. They provide the government with crucial information about the identity and location of insurgents. Local knowledge is essential in irregular warfare, but usually inaccessible for centralized and formal security forces. The local embeddedness of these informal forces also fosters trust with civilians, wins “hearts and minds” and increases the legitimacy of the national government that supports them. Additionally, they are a cheap force multiplier and highly mobile because they are not constrained by long chains of command. These advantages have not escaped foreign powers. For example, training and arming Awakening Groups and the Afghan Local Police formed a key element in the U.S. strategy in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Informal Pro-Government Forces Are Associated With Increasing Levels of Violence

But despite their advantages, pro-government militias threaten stability, security and human rights. They attract retaliatory violence from insurgents, thus endangering the lives of their combatants. They can entrench ethnic cleavages, escalate local disputes and often turn into predatory forces that harm those they are meant to protect. Whether pro-government militias operate within or outside the context of civil wars: they are associated with more extensive repression. Militia members, oftentimes unemployed young men, know that they can act with relative impunity. They use their privileged status to pursue violence for their own goals, leading to widespread suffering among the civilian population. 

The missing formalized link between militias and the government hampers accountability mechanisms. Cases where arrest warrants are issued, such as for Libyan militia leader Mahmour al-Werfalli, are extremely rare. This has important ramifications for security and human rights: it encourages governments to use these groups to commit gross human rights violations, including genocide, while denying responsibility for the militias and their crimes.

Militias Can Act as Spoilers of Peace

Pro-government militias also complicate peacebuilding efforts and the prevention of renewed armed conflict. Civil wars in which such forces fight rebel groups are more likely to re-escalate than civil wars without them. Militias are rarely integrated in peace talks and sometimes have strong ideological convictions that make them unwilling to compromise. Their members usually have limited alternatives to secure a living, while their link to the government and possession of weapons give them status and power they are unlikely to find outside the armed group. In short, pro-government militias have many reasons to spoil peace agreements and much to gain from renewed conflict.

Those collaborating with such groups need to be aware of their destructive impact on post-war security. Wartime militias initially persist in almost half of all post-conflict periods, and stay for a whole decade after the war in about one quarter of cases, where they continue to harm civilians. Research on wartime militias globally suggests that the multitude of irregular armed forces that fight for Assad in Syria pose a massive threat not only for efforts to end the conflict. They will likely continue endangering the lives of civilians and the stability of the country for many years to come even after a resolution of the current war.    

This pattern highlights the difficulty of disarming or integrating them into regular forces. The special and independent status that militias enjoy means that disarmament programs rarely include these groups or are not successfully implemented. Additionally, governments have an incentive to keep these irregular forces after the war, because they bring strategic advantages at low cost: They can intimidate voters and help deliver votes, they can identify political opponents with their superior local knowledge and continue to commit acts of atrocity for which the government can deny responsibility. 

Governments also create new militias in the post-war period, though unlike their wartime counterparts, they do not seem to be associated with an increase in systematic and widespread repression. But they still endanger the path to stability and democracy, as the state usually uses them specifically to target political opponents of the government. Examples include the Bangladesh Chhatra League, village defense committees in Thailand and the militias in Côte d’Ivoire that President Gbagbo created after the civil war ended in 2004.

Germany Should Focus on Accountability and Give Militias a Stake in Peace Processes

What lessons can be learned from the long history of pro-government militias in armed conflicts?  

First, while national and international forces aim to harness the local knowledge these armed groups can contribute to counterinsurgency campaigns, they should be aware of the potential negative consequences of creating or supporting these groups – and prepare to minimize them. To constrain the risks these forces pose for stability, security and human rights, the international community should insist on clear lines of accountability and push governments to take last responsibility for the atrocities committed by any group or actor within their territory that is not explicitly in opposition to the government. This would discourage local, regional and national leaders to use vigilantes and militias to carry out violence without being held accountable. It would instead incentivize clear monitoring and accountability structures for these irregular forces. They should receive a minimum level of training, including proper code of conduct in line with the Geneva Convention.

Second, international conflict mediators should be aware of the interests and concerns of pro-government militias and ideally include them in peace negotiations, so that these forces have a stake in the peace process. War-torn countries need to develop clear and effective disarmament programs that are accompanied with feasible strategies to integrate (former) militia members into society or the formal security sector so they can see realistic perspectives for themselves in the post-war period. Germany and other international or regional actors can help strengthen the commitment to these programs, and therefore their credibility and effectiveness, by overseeing their implementation as third-party observers.

While extremely common in civil wars, government militias are generally found in countries that depend on aid from democratic donors. Where governments have an incentive to repress their people, but worry about their public image because it could cost them valuable foreign aid, they outsource the use of violence to irregular forces for which they can deny responsibility – particularly if they think that their connection to the militias might go unnoticed. Therefore, Germany and the EU should be sensitive to the conditions that encourage the formation of pro-government militias.

Menschenrechte Frieden & Sicherheit Peacebuilding

Sabine Carey

Sabine Carey is Chair of Political Science/International Relations at the University of Mannheim. She researches causes and consequences of pro-government militias and repression more generally. @Sabine_Carey