America in the age of Arab militias

Over the phone, the Libyan battalion commander sounded shaken and fatigued.   Islamic State militants had seized a town about 120 miles away on the coastal highway.  His men were already taking casualties.  Could the United States help?  “We need satellite intelligence, night vision goggles, armored vehicles and mine detectors,” he pleaded. 

At first glance, the answer is clear.   Building the capabilities of allied armies through training and equipment has long been a part of U.S. counterterrorism policy.  But there was a problem.  This Libyan “battalion” was not part of any formal army and indeed, was not affiliated with any recognized government.   Rather, it was a militia from the powerful coastal city of Misrata, loosely aligned with Operation Dawn and the unrecognized Libyan General National Congress based in the Tripoli. 

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The request for assistance exemplified an increasingly common quandary for Washington as it confronts failing states and jihadism in the Arab world: should the U.S. use non-state militias to fight terrorists? 

Many Arab armies, notoriously bloated, dysfunctional, and riven by rivalries and distrust, are crumbling.  Enfeebled Arab regimes are building shaky alliances with local militia forces operating outside the boundary of law.  In Iraq, this process began when the U.S. dismantled the army in 2003.  Reliance on militias became more pronounced as Syria, Libya, and Yemen descended to civil war after 2011.  Militias often are adept at fighting insurgents and terrorists.  They know the local terrain better than regular security forces and can operate more cheaply and flexibly.  

But relying on militias is also risky.  These militias are largely unregulated and undisciplined, prone to abusing civilians, and motivated by narrow sectarian or ethnic affiliations.  They could turn on their erstwhile masters and are vulnerable to outside manipulation.  Iran in particular has gained influence through its relationship with militias like Hizbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen. 

These dilemmas are most evident in Iraq.   Washington has been wary of supporting the bevy of Shi’ite militias that have emerged to help fight the Islamic State.  These militias are closely tied to Iran and proved instrumental in retaking Tikrit this spring.  Many Sunnis, though, regarded them as instruments of sectarian domination, even ethnic cleansing.   Fear of the Shi’ite militias appears to drive Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State. 

In its effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces, the U.S. has tried to bypass the militias, or at least insist that they come under closer control by the Iraqi government.  With the Iraqi army once again routed and the Islamic State seizing control of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, though, the Iraqi government may have no choice but to redeploy these Shi’i militias in the Sunni heartland. 

Washington confronts a similarly confounding situation in Libya, where the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official arm of the internationally-recognized government, is largely composed of tribal and regional militia forces.  Washington has hesitated to support the LNA for fear of exacerbating the country’s civil war.   At the same time, though, U.S. officials privately conceded that the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State in Libya is born by the militias of the unrecognized Dawn coalition, with which the U.S. refuses to cooperate.  

Washington must tread carefully amongst the militias.  It must harness the power of militias to provide security and fight terrorism, but do so in a way that respects the rule-of-law.  It must avoid sowing the seeds for warlordism or communal strife that already destabilize Arab states. 

One strategy is to tether the militias to a unified national command structure as national guard forces.   With U.S. support, in 2014 Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq proposed just such a program to induce Sunni tribes to ‘flip’ and join the government’s campaign against the Islamic State.  A similar effort has been underway in Libya since 2013.   Both projects failed.  But that does not mean the national guard idea is without merit.  Our field research in Iraq and Libya highlights in their demise a number of important lessons. 

First, national guards must build trust among the population and other military institutions, especially the older officer class, who will see them as competitors or as ill-disciplined rabble.  Their creation must establish clear chains of command and separation of authority, between the guards, the army, and other security agencies. 

Second, national-guard initiatives must be accompanied by power-sharing arrangements between the central government and provincial, ethnic and religious leaders.  Since militias are often based built around geographic linkages—to town, municipality, or province—national guards may herald a turn to federalism.   

Finally, national guards must be built by inducting individuals, not incorporating whole militias.  This prevents the guard from simply becoming an official cover for the continued operation of independent militia.  Even so, governments must try to offer young men opportunities for work or education outside the security sector as part of the transition to peace. 

Engaging militias can seem distasteful, undermining the authority of the state and the “legitimate” military.  For many citizens of Arab states, though, this legitimacy is increasingly questioned. Legally-sanctioned security services are as much a threat to personal safety and security as any militia.  The gargantuan armies that once characterized the Arab world are increasingly slipping away—and are unlikely to be restored.  

For better or worse, America is facing an age of Arab militias.  What is needed now is a new political strategy that facilitates the orderly devolution of authority to the local level.   While no panacea, national guards are an important step in that direction.

Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focusing on security affairs in North Africa and the Gulf   He is a twenty-year veteran of the U.S. military with tours in Iraq, Libya and across in the Middle East and North Africa. Ahram is assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs.  He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford University Press, 2011).