Out of Control: Managing non-State Militias

            Recent conflicts in several failed states have emphasized the role of non-state actors and paramilitary groups. Militarily weak political organizations in Ukraine, Iraq, and Libya have all relied upon non-state forces beyond their control to advance their interests. While outsourcing military capabilities can buoy weak governments in the short term, the difficulty lies in transitioning control over these independent forces down the road. Ukraine and Libya both took very different routes, and both have seemed to be successful. However, looking to the disparate groups of non-state forces in Iraq, neither the tactics employed in Ukraine nor in Libya offer a viable strategy for Iraq. As such, the options available to the Iraqi government are far more constrained, and will complicate the centralized government’s ability to regain a monopoly on the use of force. By looking at the methods for managing powerful non-state actors in Ukraine, Libya and Iraq, we find that the available strategies for exerting control over these non-state forces are limited based on the identitive makeup of the population in question. In particular, the more fragmented the national political identity, the more constraints that governments face in reestablishing military control.

Below, I will first outline the tactics used by the weak Ukrainian and Libyan governments as a means of regaining control over non-state militia forces. I then argue that the variation in tactical behaviors pursued by weak governments can be explained by the constraints posed by differences in the perception of national identities. Finally, I examine why these options are unavailable to the Iraqi government, and contend that this may endanger Iraq’s long-term ability to integrate these sub-state forces under their sovereign umbrella. 

Ukraine: An Appeal to Authority

In Ukraine, the weak institutionalized military forces were insufficient to counter the pro-Russian separatists carving out territory in Eastern Ukraine. Scrambling, the Ukrainian government accepted the aid of volunteer self-defense battalions. As the separatist violence raged in the Donbas region, these private militia forces were instrumental in preventing the spread of separatist control to nearby Dnipropetrovsk and further west. The key orchestrator behind the Ukrainian nationalist defense was billionaire oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk governor, Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky spent “tens of millions of dollars” on volunteer battalions, in order to protect Dnipropetrovsk from becoming another separatist-controlled region. The volunteer Dnipro, Azov, and Donbas battalions fought for Ukrainian nationalism, but were funded by Kolomoisky, leading many to characterize the forces as the oligarch’s “private army.”

While Kolomoisky’s troops held the line against the separatists, they also exemplified the threat posed by paramilitary militias. When the Kiev-based parliament passed legislation aimed at undermining Kolomoisky’s energy influence, armed men allegedly linked to Kolomoisky occupied a state-owned oil firm in Kiev. According to Kyiv Post, “Kolomoisky dispatched dozens of private, armed security guards to block the entrance to the building of oil company Ukrnafta and erect an iron fence around it.” The government responded by accusing Kolomoisky’s deputies of participating in organized crime. President Poroshenko also threatened to disband Kolomoisky’s “pocket army.” With over 2,000 men answering to him, Kolomoisky had the opportunity to challenge Poroshenko. However, he did not leverage his militia force (thus avoiding a potential civil war), and Poroshenko dismissed Kolomoisky as governor of Dnipropetrovsk. In essence, Poroshenko chose a strategy of direct confrontation, and successfully relied on an appeal to authority as a means of co-opting the militia troops.

This near-escalation of violent conflict reflects the dangers of attempting to co-opt non-state actors on the basis of authority. Kolomoisky had the resources to pit himself against Kiev, particularly if he chose to entrench control over the Dnipropetrovsk region. However, by forcing Kolomoisky to back down, Poroshenko streamlined the process towards a centralization of state control over military force.

Libya: Coopting the Leadership

After the fall of Libyan strongman Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011, two groups emerged from the power vacuum: Libya Dawn, an Islamist coalition based out of Tripoli, and an internationally recognized government operating out of Tobruk. While the Tobruk-based government enjoys greater legitimacy abroad, the government is very weak from a military standpoint. In fact, since May 2014, a significant portion of anti-Islamist fighting was actually undertaken by an independent third party—by forces loyal to a retired general, the anti-Islamist Khalida Haftar. Recognizing their shared strategic objectives of combating Islamist forces, Tobruk’s international allies began covertly aiding Haftar’s campaign.

This left Tobruk in a bind—while the international representative body was nominally the sovereign power, Haftar’s militia was effectively serving as the nation’s military wing. In addition, Haftar’s military cooperation with foreign governments only further undermined Tobruk’s legitimacy. As such, Tobruk faced a similar situation as the Ukrainian Poroshenko: both had paramilitary groups aligned with their interests yet beyond the reach of the sovereign state.

Rather than force Haftar out of command, the Tobruk government brought him within the fold. In March 2015, Haftar was confirmed as commander of the armed forces loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. By confirming Haftar into a position of power, the Tobruk government legitimized Haftar’s campaign as a sovereign arm of the Libyan government. However, Haftar remained in military control; his “irregular” militia forces just became the official military wing. In effect, Tobruk ceded military power to Haftar, leaving the government largely defenseless against any future power plays. Thus, while Tobruk successfully brought Haftar’s militia within the government purview, it came at the cost of military command.

Analysis: Strategies in Ukraine and Libya

At the risk of indulging in counterfactuals, I would argue that the Ukrainian and Libyan leadership took different approaches to reasserting control over non-state militia due to differing structural constraints. In particular, variation in the non-state actors’ national identities allowed for more leeway with the Ukrainian leadership than with the Libyan (Tobruk) leadership. Unlike Poroshenko, the Tobruk government in Libya did not have the option to co-opt Haftar on the basis of an appeal to authority. A successful appeal to authority would have required a shared national identity—on the basis of a shared constructed political in-group—that Libya does not have.

Poroshenko’s appeal to authority relied on the political identity that he shared with Kolomoisky. He succeeded because Kolomoisky and the militia forces fundamentally identified with the Ukrainian government. The non-state actors in Ukraine believed that the government in power would protect the interests of their shared Ukrainian-nationalist group. Thus, Poroshenko was able to envelop Kolomoisky’s paramilitary forces by leaning on an authority structure that reflected this preexisting political relationship. Personal losses aside, Kolomoisky was less ceding power to an outside entity than sacrificing his interests for the good of the greater whole.

On the other hand, Libya does not enjoy the same unified political identity as does Ukraine. While Ukraine’s in-group operates on a national level, Libya’s political identitive unit sits on a tribal level. Therefore, an appeal to national order would not work. Haftar represented “the old guard”, who had come to power with Ghaddafi. Releasing control over his troops would leave Haftar vulnerable to retaliation by the perceived out-group running the Tobruk government. Therefore, the only way to assuage Haftar that the government would not turn the military against his interests was to allow him to maintain military command.

An alternative explanation to the difference in co-opting tactics focuses on the military strength of the two governments. Poroshenko’s Ukraine was stronger militarily than the split government in Tobruk. As such Haftar would have greater bargaining power than Kolomoisky. This makes sense intuitively: the weaker the parent state, the more difficulty it will have regaining control over paramilitary forces.

However, while the military strength may help facilitate compliance, it does not fully explain Kolomoisky’s lack of resistance. After all, Kolomoisky did not even attempt to maintain control, at least within his stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk. Moreover, with the instability of the separatist border, Kolomoiksy should have had significant bargaining leverage—his forces were critical to holding back the separatists.

One possible explanation for his lack of resistance may lie in the fact that he could not credibly threaten to undermine government interests. Kolomoisky’s militia was composed of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists; so defection to Russian interests was not a viable option. This explanation offers a secondary causal mechanism for the impact of ethnic identity: not only does identity affect the willingness of the non-state leadership to hand over control, but identity can also dictate constraints on the capabilities of the non-state group.

Alternative Strategy: Disbanding the Militia

In both Ukraine and Libya, the parent government was able to establish control over the non-state militias by conjoining the militia forces with the regular government forces. As we saw above, the government can pursue strategies of control by replacing the prior militia leadership or by co-opting the leadership to the government cause. However, governments have another option for reasserting their monopoly over the use of force—disbanding the non-state forces. This can occur through two ways: 1) Governments can convince the non-state forces to disarm 2) Governments can forcibly reduce the group.

Disarming groups requires a higher degree of faith in the government. Essentially, the government must be able to convince the non-state militia that they can rely on the government for protection, and do not need to defend themselves. In such cases, the government is far more likely to co-opt these similarly motivated fighters into its own military ranks. As such, disarmament strategies are far more common in situations where the non-state militias had previously been fighting against the parent government. Thus, while disarmament exists as a possible strategy, our scenario makes it unlikely that governments would disarm rather than co-opt the groups in question.

Nonetheless, disarmament reinforces the importance of constructed political identity in defining state options. Clearly, a disarmament agreement requires an assurance that the government will look after the disarmed militia’s in-group interests. Thus, the level of identitive fractionalization will determine the viability of a disarmament initiative. In situations of political identities build upon ethnic divisions, an unwillingness to trust an empowered out-group will hinder successful disarmament agreements.

Last, governments may turn against the non-state militia forces and forcibly disarm the militia, through imprisonment, expulsion, or even violence. Due to the high cost and uncertainty of success, one would expect the use of force to serve as a last resort; primarily in cases where strategies of co-option and disarmament are impossible. Moreover, an incomplete or unsuccessful attempt to disarm the militia would probably result in retaliatory violence, potentially leading to a rebellion or full-blown civil war.

What Does This Mean for Iraq

The Iraqi military crumbled in the face of the ISIL onslaught during the summer of 2014, exposing the weakness of the post-Saddam government. After losing large swaths of land to the Islamic militants, the Iraqi sought help both domestically and abroad. With their official military force in shambles, Iraq needed a stop-gap solution to halt the Islamic State advance. While an international coalition has provided critical air support, paramilitary forces have played a central role in the ground fighting.

The fighters with the greatest affinity towards the current Iraqi government operate under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), volunteer and local militia battalions primarily made up of Shi’ite Iraqis. The core of these forces come from volunteers responding to a fatwa issued by Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and many harbor close ties to Iran. However, the PMU units also contain the Sadrist units, who identify most clearly with the Iraqi state government. The Sadrists have encouraged the disbanding of the militia forces in favor of a unified military force under the Prime Minister’s leadership. However, the fragmented PMU forces have proven effective in the war effort against the Islamic State: they were responsible for the recent recapture of Tikrit.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki legitimized these diverse PMU forces as representative militia of the Iraqi government. By doing so, Maliki took a leaf out of the Libyan playbook: coopt the leadership of the militia forces fighting your enemies. However, while Libya’s Haftar took over control of military operations for the Tobruk government, the PMU in Iraq is fragmented into several militias with no clear commander. In turn, this will inhibit cooptation efforts. While Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the powerful Badr Battalion, has taken a prominent role in PMU leadership, he cannot claim to speak for the greater force. Moreover, Haftar’s forces did not have preexisting alliance constraints. In contrast, much of the PMU was trained and equipped by the Iranian military. Many report that the Iranian connection is so strong that the head of the Revolutionary Guard Qasem Soleimani has been fighting beside PMU forces, although Prime Minister Abadi denies these claims and insists that “only Iraqis are fighting on the Iraqi land.” As such, the potential risks of coopting the foreign-tied militia in Iraq were far higher than the Libyan move to incorporate Haftar.

However, the PMU aren’t the only paramilitary problem: Iraq has several other independent militia forces fighting against ISIS that do not have any ties to the PMU. In particular, Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and local armed Sunni forces are both heavily involved in the battle against the Islamic State. The forces don’t share much other than a lack of a political allegiance to the Baghdad government.

For the Peshmerga, the Iraqi government as the main obstacle towards independence. The KRG Peshmerga were critical to halting the Islamic State’s advance through Iraqi territory, and since the collapse of the Iraqi military in June 2014, KRG has operated as a de facto sovereign state. Iraq’s heavy reliance on Peshmerga strength has given the KRG leverage in forcing Iraqi government economic concessions. While Kurdistan will not demand sovereign recognition, the autonomous KRG has no intention of submitting to the Iraqi government, and an internationally-recognized independent Kurdistan is only a matter of time. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s visit to Iraq in July 2015 typifies this trend: Carter met with the Iraqi government in Baghdad before meeting with the Kurdish government in Arbil during the following day. Thus, while the Peshmerga challenge Iraqi territorial integrity, they do not challenge the government’s long-term military control: the Peshmerga are happy to recede into Kurdistan and leave the rest of Iraq to the Iraqi government.

Strategies for coopting the Sunni militia are also quite limited. In a post-Saddam Iraq, sectarian tensions have only risen between Sunni and Shiites. The Sunnis are willing to fight with the government against the Islamic State, but have minimal shared national self-identification. As a Sunni commander puts characterizes the joint military efforts, “We are ready to ally with the devil if this would mean getting rid of Daesh (the Arabic synonym of Islamic State).” While the Sunni militias cannot fight the Islamic State on their own, they do not trust the Iraqi government to protect their interests. This distrust has only been amplified by PMU “reprisals” against Sunni civilians as a response to violence perpetrated by Islamic State fighters, who are also Sunni. The sectarian nature of the violence is also responsible for the decision of many Sunni tribes to thrown in their lot with the Islamic State against the Iraqi government, an alliance that Iraq and its Western allies are working to undermine. Thus, without a monumental shift away from sectarian polity identity within the Iraqi state, it is extremely unlikely that non-violent tactics will succeed in eliminating the Sunni militias dotting the Iraqi landscape.


The above essay seeks to examine ways in which national political identity influences government strategies towards coopting non-state militias. The unified political identity in Ukraine allowed Poroshenko to regain control over non-state militia forces through an appeal to authority. The more fragmented political identity in Libya led the Tobruk government to cede power and subsume paramilitary leadership under the government capacity. In Iraq, the stark ethnic and religious divisions between paramilitary groups will complicate efforts to reestablish a monopoly over the use of force in Iraq. While the Kurdish problem will solve itself through KRG autonomy, sectarian Iraq will likely face a torturous road to consolidation of power even after the eventual dissolution of the Islamic State.

Without an improbable shift in political identity, a sovereign Iraq lacks the strategic options to avoid a bloody confrontation with its non-state militias. Finally, plagued by a weak military infrastructure, there will be no guarantee that Iraq will have even the unsavory strategic option of strong-arming its militias into submission, which may lead to collapse of the state institution all together. In short, modern day Iraq has lost control of military force with no easy way to regain control. Iraq sits on the brink of state failure, and its divisive political identity may be the force that pushes it over the edge.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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