21 May, 2012

On Counterinsurgency: Evaluating the role of Civil Militias

           Pic Courtesy: http://www.coha.org/from-cradle-to-conflict-latin-americas-child-soldiers-new-direction-to-drug-wars/

as accepted in the journal Scholar Warrior (CLAWS)


This article explores the various theoretical arguments regarding the role of
civil militias as put forward by scholars of counter-insurgency. In the process,
the article consummates the arrangement of civil militias with standard
counter-insurgency warfare. Instead of wholly rejecting the militias as an
exploitative mechanism of authoritative state structures, the author posits
examples from across the globe which indicates the efficacy of such militias.
However, the paper also discusses the realistic limitations on the rampant use of civil militias. The option of using such decentralised security apparatus in India – especially against the ongoing Maoist rebellion – remains an open

"A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often
does not have."

- Wallace Stevens

However, strategy and tactics in counterinsurgency warfare must be
meaningful and provide the necessary thrust to carry out successful
operations so as to bolster state structures, if at all they remain as
meaningful connotations in post-modern deconstructive narrations.
The population emerges as ‘the’ factor in insurgency and its counterpoise.
Seen through the panoptic structures of both insurgents as well as
counterinsurgents – seeking the support of the population or at least
neutralizing their effect appears as the significant breakthrough in a
counterinsurgency war.

Insurgencies abound since the Spanish Rebellion of the Napoleonic days.
Nevertheless, the praxis of counterinsurgency warfare still seems to lack a
perfectly unidirectional guideline. The central tendency however, is to rotate
about the British-American-French axis of ‘population-centric’

Most democracies, India included, adhere to such a doctrinaire; punctuated
with minor adjustments suitable to their local specificities. And with Edward
Luttwak’s prescription of ‘out-terrorising’ the insurgents[1] so as to deter them
from being ‘born’ out of the multitude appearing as insensibly brutal and
barbaric to modern democracies; the other option of ‘soft’ counterinsurgency
remains as the logical one.

On the contrary, deriving logic from Zambernardi’s trilemma[2] of
counterinsurgency – the very moment the counterinsurgent attempts for the
protection of its security personnel - it loses the war against the insurgents.
Indeterminacy hence creeps into the strategy of the counterinsurgent, and in
modern democracies – the counterinsurgent is in a quagmire – torn apart in
a contestation between winning the ‘unwinnable’ irregular war as well as
‘losing’, in the process, as few personnel as desirable under political
compulsions. Withstanding pressures from the civil society and media is
another hurdle.

Here comes the [Un] Civil Militia (?)

Very famously, German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as
“a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of
physical force within a given territory”.

However, as Ariel I. Ahram notes in Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of
State-sponsored militias, that few states have ever actually sought a
complete monopoly over military force, “much less possessed it.”
Ahram’s study actually contends that the devolution of state control over
violence to non-state actors; that is military decentralization is not a new
phenomenon of the post-modern world, and does not, according to the
author, necessarily presage a descent into chaos. Rather, as per Ahram, the
international community must learn to live with civil militias and not try,
somewhat in vain, to displace and uproot them.

Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy M. Weinstein have put forth some
alarming statistics[3]. Since 1945, civil wars have engulfed 73 countries and
caused deaths of more than 16 million people, combatants and noncombatants included. 

In fact, 25 per cent of civil wars since 1945 have lasted at least 12 years (Fearon 2004). Humphreys and Weinstein further argue that strategies of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction predict participation of combatants in defense of the state. 

To quote:

“……. the empirical results challenge standard interpretations of grievance-based accounts of participation, as poverty, a lack of access to education, and political alienation predict participation in both rebellion and counterrebellion.”

The authors analyse that individuals are more likely to participate in
rebellions if some or all of the following factors are satisfied:

1. They expect to receive selective incentives from the fighting groups

2. They believe that they could be safer inside a fighting faction than
outside it.

3. Members of their community are active in the movement.

4. Their community is characterized by strong social structures.

5. They are economically deprived

6. They are marginalized from political decision-making

7. They are alienated from mainstream political processes

Factually speaking, the necessity and effectiveness of irregular civilian
defence forces have been demonstrated numerous times in history. In that
regard, the following list may not be exhaustive[4]:

1. Civic guards in 16th century Europe

2. In American War of Independence

3. Home guards of the Kenyan state Vs the Mau Mau guerrillas

4. Peru’s self defence committees (peasant groups) during the
Communist insurgency

5. Sons of Iraq programme as raised by the American forces

6. In Phillipines at the turn of the 20th century by the Americans

7. In the Indian Wars in America

8. During the Vietnam War

9. In North Caucasus (especially Chechnya) by Russia

10. Ghaziya raids in Sudan by the French Army

11. By Israel in Lebanon

12. By Indonesia in East Timor

13. By Nazi Germany in Greece

14. By NATO-ISAF in Afghanistan

The example of using the local Afghans against the Taliban insurgency may
be termed to be the latest addition in the list. Joe Quinn and Mario A.
Fumerton reports that the local populace stood up to the Taliban at Kamani-
Kalan, a town in the Kunduz province in March 2009.

Defining ‘counterinsurgency’ as a protracted political-military struggle to
deny the insurgent actor the opportunity to establish control over the
population. Quinn and Fumerton argue that ‘securing and protecting’ the
population is the key to winning the coveted prize of popular support.
However, counterinsurgents will find it difficult to gain the trust, confidence
and collaboration of the population if they are unable to sustain a constant
presence among the people. Moreover, the authors say that:

“although protecting civilians may seem intuitive to many of us who embrace a population-centric approach to counter-insurgency, putting the principle into practice has historically proven to be extremely challenging”.

The main reason cited by Quinn and Fumerton for this difficulty is because
counterinsurgent forces are almost never able to maintain a presence in all places at all times where the population might be in need of protection. They refer to this as the ‘ubiquity problem’.

The Sons of Iraq (SoI) programme was another local, bottom-up approach.
SoIs were paid with a three-months’ contract. The programme employed
former insurgents to provide local security. This process of reintegrating
former insurgents generally serves two purposes:

1. To discover moles in the insurgent ranks

2. Strengthening of the population-centric counterinsurgency.

Putting forth their arguments in this direction, the researchers posit
the following factors in favour of setting up a local-militia in

1. Locals resolve the identification problem – of how to separate the
Taliban guerrilla from the Pashtun villager (one of the factors of
Zambernardi’s trilemma)

2. Denies the insurgent his social sphere

3. Helps the counterinsurgent to get acquainted with the local culture

The ‘perfect’ counterinsurgent, if any, is to be found within the Afghan
population itself. And therein lie the logic of applying the Afghan Local
Police (ALP) programme.

Ethnicity in a Civil War

Stathis N. Kalyvas of the Yale University boldly asserts[5]:

“I hypothesize that a key determinant of the variation of the behavioural potential of ethnicity, is the willingness of incumbent states facing ethnic rebellions to recruit ethnic defectors……”

According to him, ‘ethnic defection’ is a key process to explain that ethnic
identity and civil war are consistent with constructivist approaches.
Three major observations crystallize out of Kalyvas’ theoretical perspective
toward civil wars. Those are enunciated as under:

1. Ethnic boundaries are cemented as the civil war progresses

2. In so far as civil wars shape ethnic identities, they do so by hardening

3. Actors such as strong states and foreign occupiers should be, with
other parameters being equal, more likely to seek out ethnic defection
compared to weaker actors, including poor post-colonial states.

In the paper, Kalyvas predicts a rise in ethnic defection in the latter
stages of the irregular war. He says that a mix of coercion and
financial inducement is needed to usher in insurgent defection.
Furthermore, revenge by former insurgents could be skillfully
maximized in the counterinsurgency warfare. 

He thus articluates:

“It is worth stressing that the process of ethnic defection is extremely consequential even when the numbers of defectors remain relatively small. This is so, because ethnic identity ceases to be a reliable indicator of pro-ethnic rebel behavior.”

Now, who represents the ‘will’ of the ethnic community? Kalyvas
presents an interesting analysis.

Ethnic rebels are forced to resort to violence against members of their own
ethnic group, so as to ‘deter’ further defection. The resulting intra-ethnic
violence against members of the same group, according to Kalyvas,
liquidates their claims to usurp the ‘actual will’ of the entire group.

In fact, ethnic defection destroys those elements that make ethnic identity
so important for collective action. As a result, many ethnic civil wars, namely
those where ethnic defection takes place, turn into contests for the loyalty of
the population and resemble non-ethnic civil wars.

In a micro-comparative test of the determinants of ethnic defection,
Kalyvas concentrates on a study conducted in southern Greece under the
occupation of Nazi Germany. And the results of the data analysis could be
outlined as under:

1. Localities that experienced insurgent violence supplied recruits to the
civil defence militia which fought alongside the Nazis

2. More recruits flowed from regions where there was more rigid control
of the occupation [Nazi] forces

3. Incidentally, there appeared to be a geographical factor embedded in
the counterinsurgency; viz, there was a positive correlation between
recruitment in the German-backed militia and higher elevations from the
sea level

Once a conflict begins, military action has the potential of generating new
political dynamics; including ethnic defection. Ethnic boundaries are fluid,
as Kalyvas shows through his piercing analysis.

The ‘Other’ side of the coin

Irregular war could be delineated as some sort of a social process. And
many individuals enter the war long after it has started – driven by
incentives and constraints. A particularly strong incentive is revenge;
which may be ‘deftly’ used by the state actor to bolster civil militias.
Matthew P Dearing writes along similar lines:

“Historical and exogenous lessons abound of state-led initiatives to devolve security to the local level.”

He cites the additional examples of the counterinsurgency initiatives of
Japan, Thailand and Sudan. The Janjaweed militia in Sudan is described
to be ‘rapacious’ and ‘brutal’. Combining these ‘lesser known examples’,
as the author terms them, the following lessons seem to have been learnt
as far as civil militias in counterinsurgency warfare is concerned [6]:

1. The ends of counterinsurgency justifies the means. The state acted as
a supervisor and supporter of local capacity-building initiatives.

2. Placing ‘inciters’ of violence under institutional state structures serves
to build social capital as citizens begin to trust the capability of the state
to secure them.

For instance, rural Afghans historically have sought the protection of
tanzim and other political or military alliances.

Usman A. Tar, however, is quite critical of the Janjaweed. In the paper, “The
perverse manifestations of civil militias in Africa: Evidence from Western
Sudan”, Tar investigated whether the Janjaweed militia in western Sudan
acted as informal units of the regular Sudanese Army or were ‘merely’
ethnically-motivated with no connection with the state whatsoever.
In the process, he argues with evidences that Janjaweed militias were
formidably entwined with the state structures.
In fact, Tar is extremely apt as he writes[7]:

“The dilemmas posed to Africa by such phenomena as civil wars, civil militias,
‘warlordism’, (counter)insurgencies, child soldiers, and violence against noncombatants – especially vulnerable social categories (elderly, children, disabled and women) – are perhaps comparable to the on-going ‘global’ war on terror”

However, like most state authorities, the Sudanese government denies
links to the Janjaweed.

Treading along the expected path, Will Clegg says that effective
counterinsurgency requires a strategy aimed at securing control of civilian
populations. Historically, irregular forces recruited from local communities
have helped generate, sustain and manage collaboration between
civilians and counterinsurgent forces.

However, according to Clegg, irregular forces do not necessarily promote
the success of the counterinsurgent[8]. For instance, if the civil militias are
poorly managed, then private interests may be pursued using the means
of violence at their disposal, thereby undermining the broader campaign
of counterinsurgency. Hence, man-management has to be done skillfully
by the state actors.

Due to the ratio of hard-core insurgents to local recruits, the threat to state
survival posed by an insurgency can be dramatically reduced by severing an
insurgency’s hard-core members from civilian populations [viz. the ‘good’
Taliban and ‘bad’ Taliban theorization]. Even if a residual terrorist threat
remains, the survival of the state will not be threatened unless the hard-core
militants gather a large number of people.

When the number of insurgents goes down, and the strength of the
incumbent government is made clear to local communities, insurgents are
often compelled to rely on dramatic acts of indiscriminate violence.
Nevertheless, such an act could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
However, more the insurgents rely on terror; the deeper it undermines their
attempts to gain popular support.

Thus, in general terms an insurgency can be said to be defeated if and when
it is largely separated from civilian populations.

The ‘logic of violence’ in counterinsurgency war is such that the prospects of
the counterinsurgents to separate insurgent cadres from civilians are low
unless they can first impose control the communities in which civilians live.
Furthermore, gathering intelligence is crucial.

Divide and Rule

Sometimes, irregularity could be a source of strength. It may so happen
persuading an insurgent to defect and support the government is more
effective than killing him[her], as it contributes to the size of government
forces while depleting the enemies’ material strength and morale.

It has to be kept in mind that counterinsurgency belongs to fourth
generation warfare. Hence, psychological warfare is a critical component of

Clegg’s view-points were grossly similar to the above, while analyzing the
counterinsurgency operations of the Sultan of Oman between 1970 and

Not along very dissimilar lines, Humphreys and Weinstein tested the existing
theories pertaining to the determinants of participation in armed
insurgencies. As micro-level survey data, they focused on the civil war in
Sierra Leone (from 1991 to 2002). Their findings regarding the behaviour of
the combatants in defense of the state could be enumerated as under:

1. Those in a relatively better economic position will have a stake in
defending the political status quo [the dreaded caste-based militia called
Ranvir Sena in erstwhile Bihar, India against the Naxalites is an example of
this order]

2. Members of ethnic groups that benefit from political power have stronger
incentives to prevent a successful rebellion.

3. Individuals active and engaged in mainstream political processes will
mobilize to defend the existing political system. [the tussle of the Marxist
and conservative party cadres with the ultra-left wingers in the erstwhile
Naxalite movement and present Maoist movement in India, is a pertinent
case in point]

In sum, it could be said that as state structures melt away, local defense
militias become a major bulwark against brutal insurgent attacks in rural
[urban] areas

This policy of inserting militias into the populace is certainly the [in]famous
‘Divide and Rule’. Howsoever unethical it may sound in modern democratic
parlance; the policy still remains as a convenient instrument in weakening
the camp of the belligerent rebels. In this regard, Alexander B. Downes of
the Duke University may be quoted at length[9]:

“States in today’s world that are beset by civil conflict face conflicting pressures: the international community favors negotiations and power sharing, but governments also want to make as few concessions as possible to rebels. Using negotiations to create spoilers provides one way out of this dilemma: the government can co-opt certain groups into signing a superficial peace accord and then tar those who refuse to agree as intransigent dead-enders. 

The trick is to offer just enough in the way of concessions to peel away opportunistic or moderate rebel factions. In exchange for
perks and material rewards, these groups can be enlisted to provide intelligence or additional combat power against their former comrades.”

Latin America - like Africa and Asia - if not somewhat more, had
suffered and still suffers from chronic insurgencies. During the last two
decades of the twentieth century - in El Salvador, Columbia and
Mexico, the acting regimes faced growing opposition from leftwing
militant groups.

To decapitate the insurgencies, the state-actors sometimes relied on
the infamously termed ‘death squads’ – which at times did not remain
under the control of the military and the ruling elite. As Ralph Rozema
of the Utrecht University contends[10] that though the squads were
under authoritative control in El Salvador and Mexico, they operated
more independently in Colombia. In fact, in the former two countries,
the squads ceased to exist when the government reached a peace
agreement with the left ultras.

Whereas, in Colombia, as Rozema reports, the militias were heavily
involved in the illicit drug trade and developed into a powerful force
with whom the government had to negotiate to reach an agreement
for their demobilization. Interestingly and expectedly, at Chiapas
(Mexico), existence of death squads were denied by the state.
Nevertheless, in 1996, when the Mexican government could chart out
a peace agreement with the EZLN group or the Zapatistas, the death
squads disappeared.

In Columbia, on the other hand, as pointed out by Rozema,
paramilitary militias, seized the properties of peasants they had
evicted from their land, a development characterized as
contrarreforma agraria.

In 2003, the civil militias signed an agreement with the government
for their disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Since then,
many of them have successfully reintegrated in the society, but others
have resorted to criminal groups - mainly involved in drug trafficking.
Nevertheless, the role of civil militias in counterinsurgency warfare
tends to receive a fillip when even Usman A. Tar – a vehement critic of
the Janjaweed, posits the logic behind using them. Apart from the lone
factor that civil militias like Janjaweed obscures state violence, Tar is
razor-sharp to indicate that civil militias could be used as an advance
party to penetrate the rebel strongholds. Moreover, as per Tar, civil
militias are extremely useful in providing human intelligence to state

However, it is needless to mention that the viral offshoots of using civil
militias are:

1. Atrocities and human rights abuses committed by such irregular
armies stand to degrade the legitimacy of the state. Hence, for most of
the times, the state structures do not officially attest to the use of civil
militias [the case of Salwa Judum, which has been disgraced by India’s
Apex Court is evident here]

2. Demobilisation of these irregular forces in a post-insurgency clime
could be a formidable task [in the case of Colombia, as discussed by

3. Inconsiderate and rampant use of civil militias always have the
possibility of inflaming the insurgency

4. A projected environ of an ethnically-driven civil war could be
another fallout

In a ‘hot’ revolutionary war, as David Galula argues, the
counterinsurgent may delve on the following possibilities[11]:

1. Act directly against the insurgent leaders

2. Act indirectly on the conditions of insurgency

3. May ‘infiltrate’ the insurgent movement

4. Build up the political machine so as to politically defeat the

By ‘infiltration’, Galula meant intelligence operations which may
internally wreck the insurgent organisation. He cites the case of
Okhrama or Czar’s Police which had crept into the organisation of
the Bolshevik Party.

Interestingly, in his second law of counterinsurgency, Galula too,
seeks support through an active minority in the population on which
the insurgents base themselves.


Deriving on the theoretical literature about the usage of civil
militias, the following arguments seem to crystallize:

1. For modern democracies like India, it would be pragmatic enough if it
proceeds with the population-centric approach to counterinsurgency.

2. Human intelligence could be best gathered in environs where the state
could ‘secure’ the affected population.

3. Since democracies cannot altogether do away with the parameter of
‘force protection’, the option of erecting civil militias seem to be a
safer option.

4. However, legitimization of the civil militias is required. Hence, local
ethnic youths need to be provided jobs in the constabulary. It suffices
three purposes.

One, this reduces the ambience of unemployment. Thus it leads to a
better economy and consequent satiation of the belligerent population.

Two, it helps in gathering viable intelligence. And three, it sucks the
water for the guerrilla fish as one youth with job to 4 to 5 satisfied
locals; especially in densely populated territories.

Such a methodology has recently been applied by the state in the
provinces of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal after the Salwa Judum had
been struck down in India as illegal.

Definitely, a word of caution lies here. Vsevolod Gunitskiy in The National
Interest despises[12] the system of arbitrary terror imposed by state forces
in the name of counterinsurgency. He writes with literary impunity while
putting forth the example of Russian troops in Chechnya:

“One consequence of Russian conduct in Chechnya has been the radicalization of the population.”

It may be inferred that whether civil militias provide the necessary
succour to the counterinsurgent or not, the implementation of such an
instrument of state policy has to be rare and under careful analysis.
Further empirical and theoretical work needs to be done in so far as civil
militias are concerned. Case studies in active areas of insurgency –
especially in democracies which were former colonies [like India] – needs
to be taken up for obtaining incisive results.


1: Edward Luttwak, “Dead End: Counterinsurgency warfare as military malpractice”, Harper’s Magazine, February 2007, http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081384

2: Lorenzo Zambernardi, “Counterinsurgency’s Impossible Trilemma”, The
Washington Quarterly, July 2010,

3: Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy M. Weinstein, “Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War”, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 52, No. 2, April 2008, Pp. 436–455

4: A part of the list may be gleaned in “Counterinsurgency from below: the Afghan local police in theoretical and comparative perspective” by Joe Quinn and Mario A. Fumerton (November 2010)

5: Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Ethnic Defection in Civil War”, Comparative Political Studies, Volume 41, Number 8, August 2008, pp. 1043-1068 © 2008 Sage Publications, 10.1177/0010414008317949 http://cps.sagepub.com, hosted at http://online.sagepub.com

6: Matthew P. Dearing, “Formalizing the Informal: Historical Lessons on Local
Defense in Counterinsurgency”

7: Usman A. Tar, Peace, Conflict and Development: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 7, July 2005

8: Will Clegg, “Irregular Forces in CounterinsurgencyWarfare”, Security Challenges, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 1-25

9: Alexander B. Downes, “MODERN INSURGENCY AND COUNTERINSURGENCY IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE”, Civil Wars 9, no. 4 (December 2007): 313-323

10: Ralph Rozema “Death Squads in Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico compared”, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring 2010, 506-512 www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente

11: David Galula, “Counter-insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice”, FREDERICK A. PRAEGER, Publisher New York · London, 1964

12: Vsevolod Gunitskiy, “The Lessons of Chechnya in Iraq: A Realist Approach to Civilian Warfare”, The National Interest, November 19, 2003


  1. Inspiring story there. What occurred after? Thanks!

    Here is my web site; help quit smoking