Armed militias are endemic features of many contested frontier regions, whether it’s turf wars in the informal settlements of Rio de Janeiro, the control of poppy fields in the steep uplands of Shan State in Myanmar, or self-defence units currently mobilizing against Russian forces in the Ukrainian war.
States turn to militias in places and moments where they cannot (or are unwilling to) govern directly. Militias are often ‘stood up’ or mobilized by state actors as a short-term measure to deal with urgent security imperatives – but in addressing one set of problems, they often create new ones which leave baleful legacies that are difficult to handle.
There is a growing awareness amongst policy makers in the security sector that Security Sector Reform (SSR) and Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programmes need to engage politically with informal and semi-formal security actors like militias. If they do not, policies can fail to capture local, short-term outcomes (e.g., inter-militia conflict or human rights violations, as seen in the Colombian conflict) or misjudge long-term impacts (e.g., the extent of political influence of armed militias, as seen in Libya).
What role do militias play?
Our studies – of state–militia power and governance in the borderlands of Afghanistan (Koelher, Bhatia and Mosakhel, 2022), urban militias in Brazil (Pope 2022), ethnonationalist militias in Myanmar (Meehan, forthcoming), and pro-government paramilitaries (understood as ‘militias’) in Colombia (Gutiérrez Sanín 2019) – show that militias can become permanent, political features of post-war frontiers, central to how national-level states and markets function in these zones.
We also show that although militias may create short-term stability in a particular region or moment, if not managed well, they may create long-term instabilities or more violence, with unproductive, irreversible consequences for states and markets.
We understand militias as ‘coercive brokers’– actors who have access to the means of violence; a symbiotic relationship with the state; and points of connection between national and local, centre and periphery, and state and society (Gutiérrez Sanín 2019). Rather than being part of a transitional phase in state-building, they may become an enduring feature of post-war landscapes. In spite of popular representations of militias as self-serving, free-floating and predatory actors, our studies provide a more complex picture of militiamen with political ambitions and agency, and with roots in local society and a degree of domestic support from marginalised populations or those traumatised by war.
Our research also reveals that state elites share power with militias, not only to stabilise and reduce conflict, but also because militias can shape the economic marketplace, by controlling and directing illicit activities and flows – something that state actors find difficult to do, at least directly. Whilst this often involves a great deal of violence and growing inequalities, militia involvement in illicit markets may also have developmental outcomes by generating local revenues in lieu of state-funded welfare and resources.
Current policy options towards militias in post-war periods tend to overlook these complex dynamics in contested regions and during moments of rupture as they work towards an ideal that formal institutions should be the only source of governance. This has led to two key strategies for managing militias.
First, formal state security apparatuses understand militias as transient and temporary. They assume militias will fragment or wither away when financing or strategic direction from the state is withdrawn (e.g., state-sponsored militias), or when states no longer tolerate them (e.g., community self-defence militias).
Second, policy makers propose integration of militias into state institutions by promising them benefits, such as impunity and salaries. In theory, a successful integration strategy would mean that states benefit from militia authority in marginal regions, at the same time as strengthening the state’s armoury.
But militias rarely give up political support or their ability to make more money than they would earn on state salaries, and they rarely fragment without resistance (e.g., Ba‘thist Iraq, Voller 2021). Integration also has its problems. When states do attempt it (e.g., South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, Strachan 2018) they lose legitimacy from segments of populations who see them legitimising human rights abuses.
Reflections for security policymakers
Our research points towards at least three reflections for security policymakers:
1. Militias are political actors
The types of stakeholder mapping typically conducted by policymakers – through a ‘state lens’ – may not fully capture the political nature of militias and there is a risk that policies and interventions – such as withdrawing finance – will generate more violence and conflict. Political economy analysis can map militia power in more nuanced ways.It can reveal from where militias generate their money, who of the population supports them and why, and what influence they have at different levels of politics.
2. Militias are not transitional phenomena
Rather than being temporary features of war, militias tend to persist throughout and beyond war-to-peace transitions. State-led security policies that reconceptualise state–militia relations, and which help states ‘learn to live’ with militias, can simultaneously bring them out of their shadowy, illicit worlds and stimulate more accountable militia practices with less violent outcomes. This may also have the effect of making visible their relationships with political and business elites, and improving accountability.
3. Integrate borderland perspectives into policy-making processes
Whilst domestic security policymakers in capital cities may aspire to establish national-level benefits when designing policy to ‘deal with’ militias, policies that do not incorporate evidence and insights from the regions where militias govern may have unintended consequences. Inputs from multi-stakeholder consultations with intended beneficiaries may strengthen policies by pre-empting unintended policy impacts and outcomes.
Gutiérrez Sanín, F.G. (2019) Clientelistic Warfare: Paramilitaries and the state in Colombia (1982-2007). Peter Lang.
Koelher, J., Bhatia, J. and Mosakhel, G.R. (2022) ‘Modes of governance and the everyday lives of illicit drug producers in Afghanistan’, Third World Quarterly
Meehan, P. (forthcoming) ‘Brokered rule: Militias, drugs, and borderland governance in the Myanmar-China borderlands’, Journal of Contemporary Asia
Pope, N. (2022) ‘Militias going rogue: social dilemmas and coercive brokerage in Rio de Janeiro’s urban frontier’, Journal of International Development, 1-17.
Strachan, A.L. (2018) Integrating militias. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies
Voller, Y. (2021) ‘Militias as a tool for encouraging ethnic defection: Evidence from Iraq and Sudan’, Terrorism and Political Violence, pp.1-18.