Between June 4th and 10th of 2014, Mosul one of the largest cities in Iraq fell to an invading army. These invaders weren’t domestic revolutionaries or soldiers of a neighboring power, but the militia of the terrorist organization ISIS that styled itself as a state. Mosul’s collapse shocked the world not the least the US, which had invested $25 billion dollars over several years to shore up the National Iraqi army only to see it collapse before a much smaller, but highly motivated force.
Since Mosul’s capture, Iraq has worked hard to fix the deficiencies in its armed forces, and has in recent weeks announced a series of victories over ISIS. However, the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, as well as the very existence of the Islamic State, shows a worrying trend in both warfare and international relations that has grown steadily since the middle of the last century. This trend is the rise of the militia as an effective military force eroding the long established monopoly of the sovereign state as the legitimate use of force. This trend has been enabled by three factors: the weakness of recognized states and the rise of quasi states, the technological equalization created by modern weapons, and the narrow but highly effective motivation of narrow ethnic and religious identities.
What is the State?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a number of polities, which fancy themselves states but aren’t recognized as such, have grown exponentially. These groups can sometimes take on all the functions of a state including the collection of taxes, policing, and the creation of a military force. Statelets can also range in size from small statelets like South Ossetia to areas equal to the size of countries such as ISIS. The militias created by these statelets have in several recent instances grown into serious threats that can challenge the dominance of the state. Despite this though, these quasi-states are not nations because they are not recognized as such by the international community. However, their proliferation is causing instability in the international system, and in the case of Russia they are becoming a tool of foreign policy.
To fully examine the origin of the Quasi-State and Militia phenomenon, a state first needs to be defined in the legal sense. In 1648, delegates from across Europe concluded the Peace of Westphalia, a treaty which in addition to ending the brutal Thirty Years’ War, had the enduring legacy of establishing what would be considered the norms for international relations for the next three and a half centuries. Among Westphalia’s accomplishments were that it codified once and for all the monopoly of the sovereign state on the legitimate use of force. The definition of that use of force was broad - encompassing both internal police powers and conflict with other states.
Over the following centuries, the states consolidated this monopoly and were helped by technological and military trends that culminated in WWII. Between 1700 and 1945, the ability for any non-state actor to challenge a state militarily became less and less practical. After centuries of feudalism, states centralized their militaries into citizen armies and maintained a monopoly on the production of weaponry, which could be considered military grade. States were also the only actors who had the logistical and financial means to support an armed force, and maintain the force multipliers that made it effective such as a logistical and communication network.
Starting in the 1960’s, however, the state began to lose its advantage as technological trends once more equalized the scales. Vietnam is often seen as the first instance in modern history of a victorious guerilla campaign as the South Vietnamese Communist Guerillas defeated first the French and then the Americans. The Vietcong, despite being a domestic organization of South Vietnam, were heavily assisted by the regular North Vietnamese army. Vietnam also forecast what would become a hallmark of the postcolonial era - the weak state.
American military analysis of the South Vietnamese Armed forces noted that despite a numerical and technological edge, poor leadership massively weakened the southern army. South Vietnam’s politicians deliberately promoted senior officers based on loyalty rather than effectiveness for fear of military coups. These fears turned out to be very legitimate as a series of coups further destabilized South Vietnam, and demotivated the average solider that were by in large conscripts.
The weak state become more pronounced throughout the 70’s-90’s across the world. Cambodia fell to the Khmer-Rouge that despite financial aide from other communist states was largely a rural militia. In Africa, warring political factions often destroyed what little economic and political infrastructure there was.
Militias in this era witnessed equalization with state forces. The Soviet Union manufactured few exports more in demand than its weapon systems. Simple, cheap units like the AK-47 and the RPG could turn an untrained, illiterate peasant into as much a threat as a solider with months of training. Armies no longer needed to capture cities, or maneuver in mass. Now, small and even individual groups became in many ways as effective as traditional massed armies. This was illustrated by the Vietnam conflict as massed American formations proved to be little better than targets for irregulars who could maintain the initiative. The decreasing cost and complexity of communication technology further enabled this trend. Where in WWI armies relied on miles of telegraph cable, radio now proved an effective means to coordinate highly decentralized irregular forces.
These trends of technological equalization and the erosion of the traditional state have continued, and in some ways accelerated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR flooded the international black markets with cheap and effective weapons systems. This abundance has not abated with the stabilization of Russia. Corruption and the weakness of several former soviet states means many formerly state owned factories are producing ammunition and armaments that are being distributed by black market arms dealers. Russia hasn’t helped this issue as it sees the export of armaments both as a way to help boost its admittedly clunky economy, and as a way to curry favor with other nations.
The issue of logistics and communications, once two factors that only the resources of the state could adequately address, has also been solved by the evolution of the global economy. Just as radios once worked as a force multiplier for guerillas in Asia and Africa, cell phones now put sophisticated communications system at the fingertips of any one who wants one. ISIS has leveraged this advantage to a greater extent than any previous organization. Aside from battlefield communications and IED detonators, cellphones serve as the organization’s main means of propaganda and recruitment, allowing it to draw recruits from all over the world.
What’s more, thanks to the paranoia of western consumers following the Snowden revelations, cellphones are becoming a more secure means of communication for militias. Data in many phone models is now encoded and secure means of communications are available through programs like telegram. Edward Snowden’s actions provided groups like ISIS with a detailed breakdown of how intelligent agencies leverage signals intelligence, allowing them to devise countermeasures.
On the aspect of logistics, Militias and Quasi-states have found a solution in the globalized market. Avenues that are used to transport legitimate goods can easily be re-purposed as a means of smuggling. Globalization has prompted such a high volume of goods being moved across borders by so many different means it’s impossible to track all of it. Even when barriers are erected, lowly paid customs officials are usually easy to bribe or intimidate. The old maximum of ‘Plata o Polmo’ silver or lead is not confined to Latin America. Local officials who won’t work with smugglers are murdered and the replacements are more willing to look the other way. The economics of this logistical parity is creating some worrying partnerships such as drug cartels using the Sahara as a pipeline to Europe, and at the same time partnering with local militias who have ties to terrorism.
It’s All About Motivation
Militias aren’t just gaining power because of technological parity, and the weakness of central governments. Ultimately, militia fighters whether they be ISIS Islamic extremists, members of Hezbollah, or Ukrainian rebels are often more motivated than the state security forces they face. When ISIS captured Mosul, it reportedly used roughly 2,000 men to defeat close to ten times that number. This is even allowing for the high number of so called ‘ghost soldiers’ on the Iraqi army rolls - fictitious soldiers created on paper to allow officers to pocket their pay. It is undeniable that the Iraqi Army had ISIS heavily outnumbered, and yet the Iraqi army was routed. The motivation of Militias is a force that threatens the authority of the state both from without and within.
To counter ISIS and other armed groups both Iraq and Syria have embraced their own militias. These are called the Popular Mobilization movements in Iraq and National Defense Forces in Syria. These militias are practically identical as are their motivations, both are volunteer armies of Shia organized and financed by Iran. This phenomenon is not unique to the Middle East. When the Ukrainian conflict began in 2014, it wasn’t the long, neglected Ukrainian army that held back Pro-Russian militias, but the newly created National Guard organized out of volunteer militia groups.
Militias fighting for the state though can be as threating as Militias fighting against it. Both Libya and Ukraine paint a frightening picture of the destabilizing influence Militias can have on a weak state. After the fall of Gadhafi, Libya’s various militia brigades turned on each other, and the new national government. The end result was a multi-sided civil war, which is dragging the North African country further into chaos. In Ukraine, militia battalions supported financially by various oligarchs have been used as means to protect those oligarchs from corruption probes. The end result is a weak and divided Ukraine. Even though the guns have stopped, the Militias, by their very existence, are helping to further weaken the state they once defended.
In Iraq and Syria, it is worth pondering if the Militia now fighting for the state will turn on it when the war is concluded. In by gone eras, the ultimate dominance of the state was assured. The current course of things looks to thrust parts of the world into a situation not unlike the one that the Peace of Westphalia was suppose to end. The image of a war-torn Middle East with various Militias and foreign armies fighting for scraps of influence, resources and religious dogma, is not unlike what happened in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.
Militias have long been defined as ‘irregular formations’ inferior to the regular army of the state. Yet the growing power of what was once considered irregular forces could be seen as another sign that the world is inching toward a post-Westphalia era. This should be a concern for all because despite all their faults states can usually be considered, at least marginally, rational actors. When groups like ISIS, whose sole goal is to kill infidels and prepare for a battle against the ‘Armies of Rome’ that will herald the end times, can challenge the sovereignty of states -it’s is time to worry.
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