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  • Darren Lindeman

Arming militias, a tested way of defeating the Islamic State?

Updated: Dec 12, 2019







Defeating the Islamic State is a momentous enterprise in human and monetary terms. Although the Islamic State has lost the integrity of it's borders, according to The Institute for the Study of War it is a matter of time when the Islamic State can regain its lost infrastructure and capabilities. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Islamic State had as many as thirty thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria as of August 2018. Although conventionally defeated, the Islamic State continues to operate sizable pockets in Iraq and Syria.


The Islamic State as of 2019, still maintains elements of infrastructure it relies on for conducting insurgencies. These include encrypted financing, social networks, arms, economic resources and support from Sunni dissidents. Withdrawing from urban areas and territorial independence, the Islamic State is molding into what is called a mobile, rural insurgency. Instead of operating in urban areas, the Islamic State members may seek to integrate in areas where there are low presence of security forces.


The Islamic State's current form now is much akin to traditional rural insurgencies. These include for example the Columbian insurgency, the Malayan insurgency, the Afghani insurgency so on. Poor social civil administration and injustices, often creates a just cause for insurgencies to operate and recruit new members. Members are not only economically motivated, but also ideologically. The lack of mediation between rival parties in war creates a circumstance of resilience against the governing state's authority.


To defeat the Islamic State it is often quoted that military assistance by the United States is critical. However in counter insurgency campaigns, human terrain is often as important as the military one. Iraq and Syria requires a political social institution which offers its populace a sense of reliability. This is often easier said then done however, especially when economic resources are scarce in these areas. When the last U.S forces left Iraq in 2011, Iraqi politics immediately led to further sectarian scandals fueling the Sunni insurgency.

In many cases, the Iraqi Syrian populace often find themselves stuck in between two evils. On the one hand the Islamic State levy taxes, conducts policing and religious laws, while opposing forces would extort, steal and abuse their power against mostly Sunni people. Corruption is likely problematic in many areas, abuse of power, and the disregard of human rights is another issue. Many times villages and towns who opted to assist one political force under extortion, would be at the receiving end of retaliation by another force.


A particular strategy however when dealing with insurgencies and promoting civil trust is by arming local militias. This was one strategy opted by United States general David Patreus during the American surge in Iraq. This historic event was known as the Sunni Awakening. Arming local militias had been a consistently used strategy in military history. The United State has applied this strategy in the Vietnam War, the war in El Salvador and in recently in Afghanistan in 2018. Arming local militias at least in the Iraqi context, appears to be a viable strategy.


It can be quick to point out the potential negative impacts of arming local militias, such as the uncertainty of whether these forces would be politically and socially reliable. There are also the issues of whether these forces would extort their own population, conflict with other groups, sell their weapons and munitions to the ongoing insurgency or generally become un committed to the government's anti insurgency measures. However as shown in the Sunni Awakening, this appears to be a viable and tested strategy.


The actual issue of arming local militias against an insurgency is whether there would be a sufficiently effective government which can over see the activities of rural militias. In places where there are endemic corruption, such as in Mexico and Iraq, this problems become even more relevant. Government and policing institutions are often seen as corrupt, oppressive and inefficient. In Mexico in particular, the police are often seen as operating under the pockets of different drug lords.


In response a nation may have to deploy armed forces to conduct these initiates, as opposed to local civil authority. In the Iraqi context it is The Counter Terrorism Forces which may be at the helm of such an initiative. The Counter Terrorism Forces is often noted to have conducted major humanitarian operations during the Iraqi government's counter offensives between 2015 to 2019. The Counter Terrorism Forces are often seen as the United State's most capable security ally in the Iraqi state. It could be possible that Iraq's future Sunni social political future lies with the arming of militia's against the Islamic State.


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