Armies, Militias and (Re)-Integration in Fractured States


Efforts to reconstitute and rebuild state security institutions in post-conflict states will require not just technical and organizational fixes, but will hinge upon a range of sweeping steps and reforms with generational scope.

The collapse of state authority across the Arab world and the devolution of power to local security actors have overturned long-held norms of sovereignty and civil-military relations. While non-state actors have long been a feature of the Arab system, what distinguishes contemporary conflict and post-conflict states like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is the profusion of sub-state security actors receiving varying degrees of support from weak or fractured central authorities, as well as from foreign patrons. Faced with this complexity, governments in these countries confront a number of options moving forward: traditional models of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR), combined with security sector reform; attempts to harness and co-opt the armed groups for the maintenance of local security, what some observers have called “hybrid security”; and relatedly, the formalizing of local security actors into regionally-constituted, national-guard type militaries that are tethered to a central or regional command authorities creating, in effect, a dual-military structure. None of these is ideal and each is fraught with varying degrees of risks and drawbacks, in terms of furthering or reconfiguring armed conflict, contributing to fragmentation, or bolstering authoritarian consolidation.


Various DDR schemes in fractured Arab states have failed and it is important to examine why. A principal reason has been the persistence of internal political conflict: as the literature on conflict termination and elite bargains now recognizes, a political compact and security is a prerequisite for DDR, rather than the reverse.1 DDR processes are often highly political and require concurrent progress on economic development, rule-of-law, and transitional justice. Ideally, they are state-led, although civil society can and should play a role. The absence of these preconditions creates a “security dilemma” in which no armed group is willing to disarm out of the fear that it will cede the advantage to rivals.

Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.

DDR in the Arab context is especially complicated by the confluence of local and external obstacles. Among these is the fact that in many war-torn Arab states today, service in a militia has acquired a day-to-day normalcy, becoming an entrenched culture and a source of meaning, to say nothing of a means of livelihood. On the latter, the role of militias as a mode of distributing oil rents to a population segment bereft of other employment opportunities should not be underestimated. Thus, as is especially evident in the case of Libya, DDR is tied to the challenge of bolstering the private sector economy and creating jobs for the young men in militias, through vocational training, higher education, small business loans and other strategies.

DDR is further obstructed by the support that many armed groups receive from foreign patrons, including lavish funds and weapons, which dis-incentivizes the militias from disbanding. For example in Yemen, the salaries of Emirati-backed militias in the semi-autonomous south far exceeds that of the regular army.2 Western countries also carry the blame. In their efforts to combat a range of transnational challenges, mainly terrorism but also irregular migration (in the case of Italian support to counter-smuggling militias in Libya), European and American militaries have engaged with, trained, and supplied sub-state militias for a spectrum of activities.3 Even if there is no transfer of funds and weapons, the attention lavished on these groups increases their autonomy and perpetuates their raison d’etre.

Beyond these external influences, whether and how armed groups will disarm and reintegrate depends on their internal structures. As a matter of fact, how information is disseminated to the rank-and-file will affect the use of incentives and also whether pressures can be brought to bear on the leadership. How permeable is the group to external influences and how embedded is it within local communities? Is the armed group’s leadership de-centralized and informal or formal and centralized? Is its funding based on capture of resources, support from local communities, or foreign patronage?4

These questions are also pertinent when considering the development of so-called hybrid security models for security governance.


Increasingly, scholars, governments, and international organizations are recognizing that the line between official and unofficial security providers is increasingly blurred in conflict and post-conflict countries marked by a diffusion of political and military actors, each with competing claims to a monopoly of force. In such “hybrid orders”,5 according to the World Bank, the “state has to work through and with non-state actors, councils, customary courts, and local warlords”.6 Echoing this, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) notes that the “dominant focus on state providers of security also overlooks the existence of alternative forms of security provision”.7 Proponents of hybridity point to the “good enough governance” model:  rather than hold out for a coherent and capable government, governance involving non-state armed actors is viewed as the next best thing.8 Yet much of this hinges on militias acting “good,” which, in turn, depends on their social links to local communities: such links, some scholars argue, will temper their behavior and enable them to work productively with social mediators like tribes, local councils, civil society and the like.9

In fractured Arab states with weak or non-existent central governments -and where the prospect of inter-state war is diminishing- the hybrid model seems increasingly apparent. Yet whether it is sustainable and stabilizing over the long term is debatable. In highly sectarianized and fragmented contexts like Syria and Iraq, armed groups will coalesce around specific communal affiliations which may certainly bolster positive relations between security providers and local citizens but have an adverse effect on an inclusive national politics.10 In other instances, the theory of social ties mitigating militias’ bad behavior has not held at all: local vigilantes that mobilized to protect local communities against extremists have become predatory and heavy-handed. Examples abound, including the shabiha (ghost) paramilitaries that defended minority Alawite and Christians, the Popular Committees in Yemen’s Abyan province that fought al-Qaeda, and so-called Madkhali Salafist militias in Libya who defeated the Islamic State in Sirte but are now engaged in “morality policing”, as the enforcement of Islamic mores with no basis in codified law.11

Moreover, as critics of the hybrid model point out, community-level notions of legitimacy are often quite contested and the so-called “organic” origins of local security actors are often fictitious and constructed.12 In Iraq, for example, the miniscule Christian “community” is not represented by a single armed actor but several conflicting ones: some are affiliated with the Baghdad government and others with the Kurdistan Regional Government.13 Finally, as noted above, the influence of competing foreign patrons upon local militias and paramilitaries tends to induce further fragmentation and sectarianization, undercutting their ability to be potentially positive security providers.


Closely related to the hybrid model is the notion of harnessing sub-state militias into a parallel, locally constituted body that, ostensibly, answers to the same political authority as the regular forces. This concept of dual militaries has a long-pedigree in the Middle East (in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) though the majority of these structures were not intended to formalize sub-state militias but to co-opt powerful tribes or build ideologically-loyal forces as a counterweight to coup-prone regular armies.14

In the wake of the post-2011 wars and especially in the aftermath of the counter-Islamic State campaign, the idea has gained new traction, from within and without the region. In 2014, President Obama publicly mentioned an Iraqi national guard as a way for Iraq’s Sunnis to “secure their own freedom” from the Islamic State, an idea that essentially reconfigured American support to the Sunni “Awakening” councils against al-Qaeda in 2006-7. 15 In Libya, building on local initiatives to deputize regional militias under the Ministry of Defense and Interior, the United Nations in 2012 proposed a national-guard type structure called the Libyan Territorial Army that would enlist three “revolutionary brigades” for stabilizing and policing duties while a regular army was being trained. Libyan proponents of the plan specifically drew parallels with the U.S. experience with militia integration after the Civil War, Britain’s Territorial Army, and Denmark’s Home Guard.16

In both Iraq and Libya, these plans foundered against local realities. In Iraq, the national guard bill was opposed by Shia blocs in parliament because it was seen as a vehicle for Sunni autonomy. More importantly, it was overtaken by the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), dominated by Shia militias, which has presented new challenges of integration, foreign proxy support from Iran, internal factionalism, and politicization. 17 In Libya, the national guard and similar configurations were similarly seen as being the preserve of narrow factional and armed group interests -from the powerful town of Misrata and from the Islamists- and were opposed by rival towns, formerly loyalist tribes, and the regular officer corps.

The lessons of these failures highlights the pitfalls of dual militaries and should guide any future attempts to integrate these auxiliary militias. Setting up a national guard structure as a transitory body must be informed by a broader roadmap that enjoys political and institutional buy-in, especially from the regular corps, and clearly delineate roles and chains-of-command. It should be accompanied by broader political initiatives of de-centralization, to include municipal-level empowerment and equitable resource distribution, enshrined in a constitution. Most crucially, as noted by Renad Mansour and Faleh Abdul Jabar in the case of the PMF, militiamen should be integrated as individuals rather than as units, to avoid preserving militias’ separate loyalties and group cohesion.18


Each of the options discussed above will depend upon local contexts and none alone is likely to guarantee lasting human security. As the articles of this publication make clear, the new security order in fragmented states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is complex, dynamic, and still hard to discern. Terms like “security pluralism” or “heterarchic zones of limited statehood”, can be partially helpful for theorizing but fall short of capturing the enormity of the problem, or its human costs.19

Efforts to reconstitute and rebuild state security institutions will therefore require not just technical and organizational fixes, but will hinge upon a range of sweeping steps and reforms with generational scope: enduring reconciliation and an end to internal conflict, structural governance reforms like decentralization, reforms and diversification of oil-rent-based economies, and an end to or diminution of foreign military support to local proxies and surrogates, to name a few.

This article was originally published on the Italian Institute for International Political Studies website.


1 Christine Cheng, Jonathan Goodhand, Patrick Meehan, “Elite Bargains and Political Deals Project Synthesis Paper: Securing and Sustaining Elite Bargains that Reduce Violent Conflict,” United Kingdom Stabilisation Unit, April 2018, p. 62.

2 One of the mostly widely cited examples is the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces, which plays a dominant role in policing the southern port town of Mukalla, newly-liberated from al-Qaeda, but whose members have been implicated in torture and other abuses. Karim Fahim, “U.S. approach to Yemen is challenged as country splinters and government vanishes,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2018.

3 On this, the new American doctrine of special operations forces working “by, with, and through” local sub-state proxies, rather than trying to stand-up regular military institutions, is especially culpable. Much of this can be traced to the counter-ISIS fight in Iraq, when, in May 2015, the U.S. Congress authorized the Defense Department to provide direct support for Sunni and Kurdish fighters, bypassing the Baghdad government. See Frederic Wehrey and Ariel Ahram, “Harnessing Militia Power—Lessons of the Iraqi National Guard,” Lawfare, May 24, 2015. Also, Paul Staniland, “The U.S. military is trying to manage foreign conflicts — not resolve them. Here’s why,” The Washington Post Monkey Cage Blog, July 16, 2018.

4 See Brian McQuinn, “DDR and the Internal Organization of Non-State Armed Groups”, in Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 5, 1, 2016. Available online at Also, Staniland

5 The “hybrid model” as described by Mark Sedra, envisions “co-governance arrangements between state and non-state authority,” recognizing that the “Weberian state is out of place in most settings.” Mark Sedra, Security Sector Reform in Conflict-Affected Countries: The Evolution of a Model, New York, Routledge, 2016, pp. 10-11

6 World Bank Development Report 2011, “Service Delivery in Fragile and Conflict Affected States,” March 15, 2010.

7 Lisa Denney and Craig Valters, Evidence Synthesis: Security Sector Reform and Organisational Capacity Building, London, Department for International Development, 2015.

8 Stephen Krasner, “Seeking ‘Good Enough Governance’–Not Democracy,” Reuters, September 23, 2013.

9 According to scholar Ariel Ahram: “The more firmly grounded a militia group is in the local community, the more its leadership reflects indigenous norms and values, the more likely it is to act responsibly” Ariel Ahram, “Are militias a menace?” The Washington Post Monkey Cage Blog, January 5, 2015.

10 Erica Gaate Gaston and Andras Derzsi-Horvath, “Iraq After ISIL: Sub-State Actors, Local Forces and the Micro-Politics of Control,” Global Public Policy Institute, March 2018.

11 Frederic Wehrey and Ariel Ahram, “Taming the Militias: Building National Guards in Fractured Arab States,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2015. On Libya’s Madkhali militias, see Frederic Wehrey, “Quiet No More,” Diwan blog, Carnegie Middle East Center, October 13, 2016

12 See Franzisca Zanker, “Moving Beyond Hybridity: the Multi-Scalar Adaptation of Community Policing in Liberia”, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding Vol. 11, Issue 2, 2017.

13 Gaston and Horvath, p. 61.

14 For an overview, see Nora Bensahel and Dan Byman (eds.), The Future Security Environment in the Middle East: Conflict, Stability and Political Change, Santa Monica, CA, RAND Corporation, 2004, pp. 136-138.

15 Frederic Wehrey and Ariel Ahram, “Harnessing Militia Power: The Lessons of the Iraqi National Guard,” Lawfare, May 24, 2015.

16 Frederic Wehrey and Ariel Ahram, “Taming the Militias: Building National Guards in Fractured Arab States” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2015.

17 Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2017.

18 Renad Mansour and Faleh A. Jabar, “The Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraq’s Future” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2017.

19 For these concepts, refer to Megan Price and Michael Warren, “Reimagining SSR in Contexts of Security Pluralism”, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 6, 1, 2017; Abel Polese and Ruth Hanau Santini, “Limited Statehood and its Security Implications on the Fragmentation Political Order in the Middle East and North Africa”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29, 3, 2018, pp. 379-390.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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