Small Wars Journal

The Dangers of Using Pro-Government Militias as a Tool in Counterinsurgency Campaigns

Fri, 04/08/2022 - 11:06am

The Dangers of Using Pro-Government Militias as a Tool in Counterinsurgency Campaigns

By Dale Pankhurst

During periods of conflict and civil war, states often use pro-government militias (PGMs) as mechanisms within their counterinsurgent strategy when combatting rebel forces. Justification for using PGMs are grounded in several factors: these pro-government non-state actors can act as force multipliers for fledging states, bolstering state security forces under pressure from an insurgent threat. They often exhibit high levels of localised knowledge which proves beneficial in combatting rebel insurgencies, and they offer a low-cost counterinsurgency force. In some cases, weak states will delegate power and authority to PGMs to conduct violence on behalf of the state.

From Colombia and Nicaragua in Latin America to the Balkans and Ukraine in Europe, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Philippines in Asia, PGMs have been found active in many intra-state and inter-state conflicts. Between 1981 and 2007, there were no less than 336 pro-government militias active across the world.  Contrary to the popular belief that PGMs are associated with state fragility, they are commonly used by both strong and weak states. Yet despite a credence by some governments that PGMs are somewhat effective tools in counterinsurgency warfare, evidence from both past and present conflicts suggest otherwise.

Quantitative studies have shown that the use of PGMs as force multipliers by states across the world increases the level of terroristic violence perpetrated by non-state rebel groups against both civilian and state targets. The use of PGMs by the Government in Pakistan encouraged a higher level of domestic terrorism from radical Islamist groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Al-Qaeda against both state and civilian targets. These attacks included a suicide bombing in October 2008 against the Federally Administered Tribal Area’s Orakazi agency that killed over 100 people. Rather than increasing levels of security against terrorist groups in war-torn states, PGMs act as a catalyst for further and more lethal terrorist attacks.

As well as increasing the likelihood of domestic terrorism, PGMs are also associated with lengthening rather than shortening the duration of conflict and civil wars. The inclusion of these extra-dyadic actors within the dynamics of a conflict also further complicates and adds additional complexities to any prospect of successful conflict resolution. This increases the violent interactions between various non-state and state groups, strengthening both civil war longevity and the prospect of higher conflict-related deaths.

In conflicts where PGMs accumulate additional power, resources and wealth, state-induced demobilisation processes are much more difficult as local and national militia commanders may wish to pursue a political agenda due to the power accumulated through combating insurgents and taking control of both land and economic space. Contestations with the state may then emerge, leading to a further fracturing and weakening of state power and control. In Colombia, the proliferation of right-wing paramilitaries battling the Marxist insurgencies of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) led to the accumulation of land and resources for the right-wing paramilitary umbrella group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). State-led peace processes were complicated by an absence of some paramilitary factions refusing to take part in demobilisation and reintegration programmes due to a reluctance to give up their acquired power structures within Colombian communities. These paramilitary factions also morphed into semi-criminal organisations, increasing their power at a local level via Colombia’s illicit drugs trade. The initial cooperation and acquiescence between the Colombian State and right-wing paramilitaries in battling the FARC and other left-wing insurgent groups perhaps benefitted the paramilitaries more than the State in the longer term.

While strengthening conflict longevity and complicating conflict termination, PGMs are also associated with human rights violations and abuses against civilians including genocide. The presence of state-sponsored militias in war zones increases the likelihood of repression against civilian populations. From the Janjaweed militia in Sudan to Serbian paramilitaries in the former Yugoslavia, the actions of pro-government militias have resulted in the deaths and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Recently in Ukraine, far-right militias that oppose left-wing, anti-state rebel groups in the east of the country targeted Roma populations in and around Kyiv. These pro-government militias have often carried out human rights abuses due to either the delegation of state power to them or in the absence of any state power at all.

Some militias have enjoyed success in countering insurgencies, such as the Shia militias in Iraq in halting Islamic State’s rapid advance across Iraq in 2014, or the Rondas Campesinas in Peru in defending rural communities against the Maoist Shining Path insurgency. Though these strategic successes are often matched by the dangers outlined above. Despite Shia militias (such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces) proving crucial in the pushback against the Islamic State militant group following the partial collapse of the Iraqi Army in 2014, these armed groups soon gained political leverage consequently. They continue to hold a monopoly on power within some sections of Iraqi society, providing challenges for a weak government in Baghdad. Similar scenarios, both historic and contemporary, can be found elsewhere.

If governments choose to ally with pro-government militias due to a rebel or insurgent threat, they should equally be mindful of the pros and cons of doing so.

About the Author(s)

Dale Pankhurst is an ESRC NINE DTP Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University Belfast under the supervision of Dr Andrew Thomson and Dr Mike Bourne. He previously completed both his BA in International Politics and Conflict Studies and his MA in Politics at Queen's, receiving the Frank Wright Prize for excellence during postgraduate study. His PhD research project investigates complexity and variation in state-pro-government militia relationships.

Email: and Twitter handle: @DWHPankhurst