International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012)


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It serves as an indication of popular support for the regime rather than the insurgents. India provides an example of this dynamic and the importance of the narrative behind delegation and alliances with irregular groups. Responding to the Maoist insurgency in India in , the government encouraged the formation of a village militia, the Salwa Judum.

The government fostered the belief that it was a popular response to the Maoist threat, but used a mix of coercion and inducement to create the militia. Impunity also characterized the operation of the Salwa Judum. Impunity is an incentive for violent collective and individual action that only the government can offer. For the militia and its members, the grant of sovereign authority lowers the expected costs of its private violence. Moving from the government and group incentives to the individual level, we know little about what motivates anyone to join a PGM.

Material incentives reportedly played a role with the Salwa Judum, and Hughes and Tripodi argue that individuals join if they expect to receive financial incentives or bribes, to carry out preemptive revenge, or because they have been threatened. Using survey data from the Colombian civil war, Arjona and Kalyvas compare individual and group-level reasons for joining a rebel or paramilitary group. They find that compared to former FARC members, former members of the paramilitary forces seem to be more materially motivated.

They also show that whoever controls a locality is likely to recruit members to its organization. Research on Algerians who sided with the French and Greeks who collaborated with the Germans suggests the motivations for ethnic defection include revenge, pressure, and coercion, in addition to material resources Evans, ; Kalyvas, If general incentives drive demand for these groups, and if the government subsidizes the creation of them, then militias will not be restricted to states at a particular point on the path to development or to a particular region of the world.

We note that some theoretical arguments point to the importance of specific historical trajectories Ahram, , but if we accept that militias can appear anywhere, we need to explain why PGMs might be more likely to be used in some types of conflicts compared to others, since they are not present in all conflicts and not at all times.

Governmental conflicts are about the government, e. The graph differentiates between informal PGMs, which have only a loose link to the government, and semi-official PGMs, which are officially recognized and often formally included within the structure of the security forces, while being separate from regular military or police Carey et al. In half of all governmental conflicts had both informal and semi-official PGMs. The increase in the proportion of conflicts with informal PGMs might reflect an artifact of the data and increasing media coverage of such forces over time.

Alternatively, it might reflect the increasing benefit of denying responsibility for violence since the end of the Cold War, which makes outsourcing to informal PGMs particularly attractive. Figure 2 plots the proportion of territorial conflicts with PGMs between and Again, the percentage of conflicts with informal PGMs sharply increases in the mids.

But throughout the period more conflicts feature semi-official PGMs compared to informal militias, suggesting that governments are less willing to rely on irregular forces that pose the most severe delegation and control problems. Additionally, semi-official PGMs allow the government to publicly demonstrate a local or ethnic component to counterinsurgency that can be useful in tackling the secessionist struggle.

For an alternative classification, Kalyvas uses the type of warfare between government and rebels. Conventional civil wars are conflicts with resource parity between the two actors at a high level of resources. Symmetrical non-conventional SNC civil wars also have parity between the actors but at a low level of resources.

Finally, irregular civil wars have high incumbent resources but low rebel resources. For each type of civil war—conventional, irregular, and symmetrical non-conventional —Figure 3 plots the percentage of the respective conflict type with PGMs. The unit of analysis is the conflict. The dark blue columns are the percentage of civil wars that had at least one PGM in the first year of that type of conflict, while the light blue columns represent the percentages with at least one PGM in the final year of the conflict.

The data range from to Conflicts ongoing in were excluded. The figure differentiates between informal and semi-official PGMs, although the patterns are very similar. A larger percentage of conventional civil wars have PGMs at the beginning rather than the end of the conflict. Informal PGMs are most likely found when an irregular civil war comes to an end. Governments that did not have links to irregular forces at the onset of the irregular conflict did so when the conflict ended.

This appears consistent with the finding that militias are usually not present at the beginning of the conflict but on average appear four years into the conflict Peic, , p. In irregular and particular SNC conflicts, the proportion of conflicts with informal PGMs is higher at the end than at the start of the conflict.

The sharp increase in informal PGMs across SNC civil wars when these types of conflict end could reflect the multiplication of irregular forces in weak states. Figure 4 plots the number of PGMs found in the different types of civil war, at conflict start and conflict end. What explains these patterns? Do governments actively merge or reduce the number of PGMs when fighting a guerrilla war, or do governments only get involved in or dragged into irregular warfare if they have distributed their authority to use violence across a large number of irregular forces?


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Future research has important questions to tackle on the life cycle of PGMs and the dynamics of civil war. While many conflicts feature pro-government militias, do they provide an advantage to governments and prevent an outright loss to the rebels, or can they turn a conflict into a government victory? What price do civilians have to pay when PGMs are involved? The literature provides a mixed picture of PGM violence against civilians.

Analyzing the conflict in Chechnya, Lyall shows the tactical effectiveness of using co-ethnic, locally informed militias in comparison to regular Russian troops. He uses Geographic Information System mapping GIS and news sources to collect data on the location and number of militia and on regular force operations and insurgent attacks in the Chechen conflict and a matching technique for the regression analyses. His findings suggest that these groups contributed to regime security.

It is less clear how to assess the comparative harm done to the local population by the different types of forces. While Lyall finds Russian forces killed and disappeared more individuals, the militias kidnapped greater numbers , p. Russia enlisted Chechen clans as paramilitary forces, but according to their account at the price of violent excesses. Using micro-level data from the Philippines between and , Felter compares the military effectiveness of elite forces, regular forces, and civil defense forces.

He evaluates effectiveness along four dimensions: striking targets effectively with minimum collateral damage, central monitoring with decentralized execution, access to local information, and signaling credibility in victory.

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He shows that the civilian defense forces, the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units, perform worse than the other types of forces across all categories. Local knowledge appears to lead to feuds and vendettas and makes them targets for rebel violence. As a result, they suffer much higher casualties than regular or elite forces, even controlling for their smaller size and possible differences in deployment strategies.

Additionally, Felter shows that the proportion of firearms that were lost is much higher among the indigenous forces compared to regular and elite forces. This finding highlights the risks of yielding a monopoly of violence. Felter explains these failures with poor leadership and supervision. When elite forces lead the indigenous forces, they become far more effective than either the elite forces or the regular forces Felter, , p.

These findings suggest that the qualities that irregular forces bring to COIN can be more fully exploited when problems of delegation are reduced by leading them with highly trained and specialized forces.

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But the wider evidence on civilian violence is mixed. The collaboration between the Awakening militias in Iraq and U. In their analysis of the success of the Iraq Surge, Biddle et al. Biddle et al. They argue that the militia forces the coalition created in that theater, the Afghan local police, was unable to recruit former rebels—which prevented a similarly successful outcome. Algeria under the French, Kenya under the British, or more recently in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Chechnya all saw former rebels organized to fight alongside regular forces to reverse rebel gains.

With some nuance depending on the type of militia involved, a body of research suggests that these militia forces put civilians at risk. In Mexico in the s, ruling party—based militias are reported to have been responsible for 15, murders in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion Mazzei, , p. Stanton argues that if militias and insurgents come from the same constituency, then militias are less likely to attack civilians. Comparing different types of militias in East Timor, Barter concludes that militias that were created by the government were more likely to attack civilians, while those that developed in self-defense against powerful rebels were more likely to behave defensively.

Using irregular forces thus carries significant risks. He analyzes five daily newspapers from the two largest cities in the Philippines during the late s to evaluate whether paramilitary groups in the Philippines corresponded more closely to the benevolent or the critical perspective.

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Across a large range of specific indicators, Kowalewski finds support for the critical view of paramilitaries , pp. Irregular armed groups are likely to be less well equipped to train recruits and inculcate codes of conduct. Furthermore, governments might be tempted to use these groups to shift blame and alleviate legal difficulties for controversial violence Carey et al.

Some studies suggest that civil defense forces contribute to effectiveness. Analyzing irregular civil wars between and , Peic , p. Analyzing 30 counterinsurgencies, Paul et al. These insights point at the core problems associated with delegation. Multiple agents complicate monitoring and likely increases discretion.

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This might result in the use of excessive violence, which some studies suggest is counterproductive in fighting insurgents e. Paul et al. The divergent literature on the impact of government militias on human rights and civilian welfare, on COIN success, or state failure suggests that investigating the consequences of these groups is an important component of the research agenda. So what happens to these groups? How do they affect post-conflict stability and security? Mueller argues that particularly in weak states, armed groups often engage in criminal activities during civil wars—even more so when irregular armed groups such as mercenary forces or death squads are used.


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  • Focusing on the disarmament and demobilization of militias in Afghanistan, Giustozzi points out how difficult it is to effectively disarm and delegitimize militias. PGMs may become the private armed forces of warlords Marten, Wehrey describes in Foreign Affairs the conundrum posed by militias in Libya. After the elections in June , militias were used as hired guns while disarmament processes were underway. The failure to disarm these forces seriously affected the stability not just of that country, but of the whole region.

    This might be particularly difficult at the end of a civil war fought by a diversified security sector. Furthermore, we know that some militias have an ethnic membership and the ethnic basis of conflict is a theoretically important dimension for the duration of a conflict Wucherpfennig et al. Ethnically defined militias may polarize ethnic groups, which creates long-term mistrust that further complicates post-conflict reconciliation.

    As we know from the literature on rebel groups, having multiple actors likely makes it harder to achieve a peace agreement and end the fighting Bakke et al. If they benefit from ongoing conflict, militias might act as spoilers to peace agreements. In short, there are reasons to expect that the presence of pro-government militias will make a conflict last longer, produce increased levels of violence and abuse, and make the post-conflict period more volatile.

    Putting civilian defense under the leadership of regular forces might provide a way of harnessing the advantages of irregular armed forces while reducing the risk associated with them. Research focusing on the actors involved in conflict, instead of simply the structural conditions, and abandoning the assumption of unified forces on either side provides us with a richer understanding of the dynamics of civil war. Initial insights into the role of irregular forces aligned with the government, piecing together evidence from a disparate case literature and some quantitative cross-national studies, opens up new questions for future research.

    As in other research fields, an important first step is to sort out meaningful dimensions for classifying these organizations. While militias are found in conflicts around the world, they vary in their ties to governments or particular leaders, in their visible or clandestine activities, in their recruitment and connections to other societal, political, or economic organizations, in their size, and in national or local presence.

    What explains these different characteristics of PGMs, and how do these characteristics influence the effectiveness and long-term consequences of these groups on stability and peace? Also, in what types of conflicts are militias likely to develop over the course of fighting, and when are PGMs likely to escalate a conflictual situation to civil war?

    While case studies have provided us with important insights into these topics, more research using different approaches and covering different areas across time and space is needed for a deeper understanding of the roles of PGMs in conflict. We need to know the lines of communication between groups and government. Is there a functional equivalent of the chain of command found in regular forces?

    When are militia members most likely to shirk? Thomson describes the Paris Declaration by which the major powers agreed to end their use of letters of marque authorizing pirates to fight and loot on behalf of the state. There appears to be little progress in that direction for state authorization of irregular forces that fight on land. A better understanding of when these groups enter and exit a conflict is highly relevant for policymakers. Given the risks entailed, the expectation is that these groups are a desperate measure Downes, or last resort Peic, When do governments turn to these groups?

    What role does loyalty, ideology, revenge, material gain, desperation, and coercion play in their recruitment and type of membership Staniland, ; Weinstein, ? Furthermore, the contract is likely to entail some post-conflict expectations on all sides. As parties are added to a conflict, the conflict may become more difficult to settle.

    The impact of these groups on conflict duration, and more specifically on the outcome of negotiations where these groups have been involved, requires investigation. Do additional actors on the government side have the same impact on the conflict as increasing actors on the rebel side?

    And what does the exit of these groups entail? Are they re-integrated? Does their violence shift to criminality? What is their legacy? An innovative subnational study of post-conflict violence in Guatemala suggests these groups live on long after their wartime organization Bateson, Survey and interview evidence from Colombia suggests that the local or community-based nature of these groups contributes to their longevity Daly, Ties to a community, which from a principal-agent perspective may make monitoring and control easier, can help us understand their behavior during and after conflicts.

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    Irregular forces fighting on the side of governments may evoke images of a bygone era, of Lawrence of Arabia. Our theories of the state suggest they are a thing of the past and that security is a sovereign task. But sovereign tasks are less preciously held than anticipated. On ill-defined battlegrounds around the world, these groups continue to offer services to governments. They cheapen the material and political costs of conflict.

    While the short-term advantages to a particular government may be apparent, researchers need to gather the data and develop our theoretical and empirical understanding of how public—private collaboration in the security area contributes to core public goods. Ahram, A. Proxy warriors: The rise and fall of state-sponsored militias. Find this resource:. The role of state-sponsored militias in genocide. Terrorism and Political Violence , 26 3 , — Alvarez, A.

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    New York: Cambridge University Press. Bateson, R. Order and violence in postwar Guatemala Unpublished PhD diss. Biberman, Y. Violence by proxy: State-sponsored rebels and criminals in Chechnya. Koch Ed. Wiesbaden: Springer. Biddle, S. Testing the surge: Why did violence decline in Iraq in ?

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    International Studies Perspectives , 14 2 , — Evans, M. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Felter, J. Taking guns to a knife fight: Effective military support to counterinsurgency. West Point: U. Military Academy. Fumerton, M. Rondas Campesinas in the Peruvian civil war: Peasant self-defence organisazions in Ayacucho. Bulletin of Latin American Research , 20 4 , — Giustozzi, A. Gleditsch, N.

    Armed conflict — A new dataset. Journal of Peace Research , 39 5 , — Grant, R. Accountability and abuses of power in world politics. American Political Science Review , 99 1 , 29— Telling the difference: Guerrillas and paramilitaries in the Colombian war. Hills, A. Hughes, G. Anatomy of a surrogate: Historical precedents and implications for contemporary counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Janowitz, M. Military institutions and coercion in the developing nations expanded ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Jentzsch, C. Militias and the dynamics of civil war Unpublished PhD diss.

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    • Beyond Naxalbari: A comparative analysis of Maoist insurgency and counterinsurgency in independent India. Comparative Studies in Society and History , 54 04 , — Kilcullen, D. Counter-insurgency Redux. Survival , 48 4 , — Kirschke, L. Rosato ], Summer , pp.

      Lambeth, Benjamin S. Lindsay, Jon R. Long, Austin G. McCourt, David M. Monten, Jonathan, see Downes, Alexander B. Mueller, John, and Mark G. Pape, Robert A. Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide.

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