Ten Rules for Building Militias in an Era of Terrorism and Persistent Conflict


Iraq stands on the precipice. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has taken control of vast stretches of territory in the north and west of the country and is now poised at the gates of Baghdad—for the time being held at bay by Iranian-backed Shia militias and U.S. air power.  When ISIL swept through Sunni-dominated areas of northern Iraq in June, it faced little resistance from the Iraqi army, which had been hollowed out by years of corrosive sectarian policies and corruption. Now, the U.S. and Iraqi governments are pinning their hopes on Sunni tribes, ostensibly tired of ISIL rule, joining forces with the Iraqi security forces against the militants occupying their lands. With support from the U.S., Iraqi officials are considering establishing a National Guard force to organize tribal militias into coordinated provincial defense forces.

This isn’t the first time the United States has turned to tribal militias to defeat a Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The National Guard initiative echoes a similar program launched by U.S. forces in late 2007 to turn local tribesmen, many of them former-insurgents, against al-Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor organization to ISIL). The Sons of Iraq (SOI), as the program was dubbed, had its origins in the 2006 tribal revolt in Al Anbar province, but quickly expanded throughout the country, eventually incorporating over 100,000 mostly Sunni volunteers. Security in Iraq improved virtually overnight.

However, efforts to secure a lasting peace through reconciliation with these Sunni fighters collapsed when the Iraqi government took control of the program from the United States. When only half of the SOI were transitioned to the permanent government positions they were originally promised, and when several SOI leaders were imprisoned, many Sunnis concluded that the government had used and then betrayed them. Hundreds of SOI fighters rejoined rebel movements, and thousands covertly aided the insurgency. In part, the Iraqi government’s inability to successfully demobilize the tribal fighters it had so heavily depended on drove a wedge between the Sunni community and the government, and helped build support for the eventual takeover by ISIL.

As Iraq and the United States seek to once again to partner with the tribes to dislodge ISIL, it is crucial that both learn from the mistakes of the past. The skillful employment of irregular auxiliaries will not only ensure tactical success against ISIL but could also help promote long term stability in Iraq by building habits of cooperation between Sunnis and Shia. Moreover, lessons learned from this experience could also be of tremendous value in places such as Yemen, the Egyptian Sinai and Nigeria, where state governments hold little sway and depend on local irregulars to help combat insurgents and terrorist groups.

In this vein, the CNA Corporation recently conducted a study which derived insights on the use of similar ‘civil defense forces’ (CDFs), and developed recommendations for their safe and effective use. Our report, “Risky Business: The Future of Civil Defense Forces and Counterterrorism in an Era of Persistent Conflict” identifies the prospects and pitfalls of utilizing CDFs as part of a “by, with, and through” strategy to combat terrorist, insurgent, or transnational criminal groups by examining historical cases in twelve countries which have faced serious and sustained internal armed opposition: Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Oman, Nigeria, the Philippines, Thailand, South Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What follows is a summary of our most pertinent findings.

The debate over the use of CDFs

Non-state security actors are a common feature of societies experiencing extended conflict. According to a recent study by USIP, over the last thirty years, governments in 88 countries have established or supported more than 300 non-statutory armed groups to provide security to local communities. Nevertheless, despite their pervasiveness on the global security landscape, the creation or co-option of less-than-official local defense forces remains extraordinarily controversial. As Mark Sedra has rightly noted, Western security and development experts have tended to eschew their use as “anachronistic” and “uncongenial to international norms and best practices for security sector reform.” Many scholars and policy-makers conflate CDFs with warlordism and associate them with lawlessness and the decay of a state’s monopoly on coercive power.

However, there is growing recognition that applying purely state-centric stabilization strategies or providing traditional partner capacity assistance to failed or failing states is too time- and resource-intensive and may not be altogether effective. As experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali show, there are a number of limitations to partnering with state forces which can severely hamper the effectiveness of this approach. In many cases, regular security forces in post-colonial nation states are not designed to promote civil order, and exist mainly to protect the interest of a narrow political elite. Official security forces in these countries have at times been a major source of insecurity and corruption. Thus, according to scholars such as Ariel Ahram, the assumption that building up government security forces correlates to increased security and the rule of law is often wrong and has led to “ineffective interventions fraught with contradictions.” In fact, the international community’s reliance on state security forces has at times undermined public security by empowering illegitimate, predatory, and self-interested regimes.

While there is no question that security assistance to friendly militaries and police forces will remain a cornerstone of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy, the inherent limitations of this approach has led to increased attention on pre-existing, organic, bottom-up security solutions. The U.S. military’s tentative successes with pro-government civil defense forces in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that under the right set of circumstances, locally recruited irregulars—alongside air strikes and drones, special operations forces, and intelligence operatives—could play a significant role in achieving U.S. counterterrorism objectives in the future.

Prospects and Pitfalls

According to the cases we examined, CDFs offer several benefits, as shown in the table below. In many circumstances, CDFs were able to provide better local security than a failing or weak state could offer—at least in the short term. By raising forces from local communities, the host government or third party intervener undermines the ability of hard-core insurgents to mobilize resources and infiltrate from neighboring safe havens, while increasing the ability of pro-government forces to collect intelligence and focus on hunting down bad actors. Moreover, as these groups are beholden to their communities, they tend to be more motivated and less corrupt than many state security forces. In several cases, self-defense groups provided channels through which states could introduce public services into isolated areas where they previously had little presence.


The case studies also revealed several pitfalls. CDFs contributed to human rights abuses, predation, and crime. CDFs were also shown to be characteristically difficult to control, and if unsupervised, eventually presented a challenge to the state’s authority. Last but not least, the CDFs examined were vulnerable to defeat and hedging behavior when they were not properly integrated with or supported by regular state forces.

In the cases examined where third party interveners created or co-opted CDFs, units experienced reduced effectiveness or increased defections after being transitioned to the host nation’s control.

Rules of Thumb

A comparative analysis of the case studies resulted in the following ten “rules of thumb” for the successful employment of CDFs:

1. Ensure that adequate government support exists for them and is sustainable. As the cases illustrate, where CDFs are aptly controlled and supported by the state, they tend to be positive contributors to local security and other government functions. When this is not the case, CDFs often evolve into net detractors from security and stability. Given that the populations from which CDFs are formed are often the same at-risk populations that produce members of insurgent and terrorist groups, ensuring that sustained political support exists for the establishment, employment, and transition of CDF members is critical to reaping the short-term improvements to security that these groups can bring, while mitigating possible long-term drivers of instability.

2. Ensure community buy-in for them. Whether the CDF was co-opted or created, the government or third-party intervener must ensure community buy-in. There must be a will to fight. Forced conscription will result in reduced popular support for the program and for the national government. Additionally, it will likely result in desertions and defections from the CDF, which can stem the flow of information and intelligence to government forces and provide threat groups with critical government information.

3. Keep them small and expand slowly. CDFs are often difficult to manage and control, and require the supervision and support of competent regular forces. If they become too big too quickly, regular forces will have a difficult time vetting them and providing them with training and logistics. Given the risks associated with CDFs, quality is more important than quantity. Moreover, keeping them small ensures that they do not later present a threat to the government. The employment of local security forces has been most successful when the central government has had a preponderance of power and could use regular forces to put down revolts and mediate disputes at the local level.

4. Keep them local. CDFs are most effective on their own turf, where they know the geography, understand the human terrain, and receive support and intelligence from their community. Moreover, CDFs are most likely to serve as a source of protection when they operate in their home territories. CDFs whose members are subject to control by social institutions are often less corrupt and predatory than other forces because they are held accountable by local leaders and remain largely dependent on community members for information and material support. When CDF members are moved to areas of operation outside their own communities, the ties that encourage proper behavior may be lost.

5. Employ them as irregulars. CDFs are most effective during irregular operations in remote villages and less strategic areas and as enablers to regular forces. Their role should be as auxiliaries performing relatively static tasks to provide an interface with the population and to free regular forces for more complex operations. They should only be used in local defense, small-scale raids, and as scouts and intelligence collectors as part of a broader campaign. They should not be used as “trip-wires” or as part of frontline conventional military operations.

6. Monitor them closely. CDFs by nature are semi-autonomous. They need to be closely monitored by competent formal security forces that are either embedded in their communities or stationed close by.

7. Lead them by example. CDFs often mimic regular forces in terms of abuse and self-serving behavior. Well-behaved security forces promote better behaved CDFs and set standards for what is acceptable. Corrupt or abusive security forces establish a climate antithetical to the rule of law, which CDFs can use to further local political or criminal interests.

8. Support and protect them as part of a larger state security plan. CDFs by their nature are extraordinarily vulnerable to enemy attacks and intimidation. Regular forces must ensure that they are supported, protected, and incorporated into a comprehensive plan. CDFs are most effective in a security architecture that provides quick-response forces to back them up as necessary. Moreover, because they are most effective as local defenders and as providers of information and intelligence, they should be closely linked to conventional forces in order to capitalize on intelligence collection.

9. Restrict their armaments. In order to limit inter-village violence and prevent future threats to the government, the numbers and types of weapons that CDFs can obtain should be limited and detailed registers of the firearms and ammunition in their possession should be kept by the government.

10. Have a plan to demobilize them. CDFs are notoriously difficult to get rid of. Before even proceeding with their stand-up, a plan to demobilize them through inducements or through integration into regular security forces or “national guard” type units should be created. Alternatively, vocational, educational, or employment and entrepreneurial programs to transition them out of the security sector and into other areas of civilian life should be planned.

The Future of CDFs in U.S. Counterterrorism Operations

Over the course of the last decade the United States has become highly effective at killing terrorist groups’ leaders and disrupting their operations through small raids and airstrikes, sometimes working alongside foreign security forces to do so. However, efforts to further degrade and permanently dismantle these organizations and their support networks have been less successful. Given the continued use of under-governed areas by terrorist groups as safe havens, and the shortcomings of many state counterterrorism partners, it is increasingly clear that in some instances, the United States will require new kinds of partnerships on the ground.

Where terrorist groups operate locally and depend to some degree on the population—for sanctuary, subsistence, safe transit, recruits, or weapons and other materiel— a cogent argument exists for the use of CDFs in future U.S. counterterrorism operations. However, in today’s era of reduced resources and small-footprint operations the United States has much less ability to unilaterally mitigate the risks involved in utilizing CDFs identified in our study. Future U.S. counterterrorism and small-footprint stability operations will most likely involve small numbers of special operations and paramilitary intelligence teams and few, if any, conventional forces or civilian advisors. Therefore, in the future, the Unites States should only employ CDFs in counterterrorism and stability operations when it has a reliable host nation government that is willing to, or can be convinced to, abide by the fundamental CDF best practices identified in our report.

While our analysis suggests CDFs can initially be an effective tool against asymmetric groups which embed themselves in local populations, their autonomous nature and myriad vulnerabilities often make them difficult to employ and then demobilize successfully. However, this does not mean they should not be utilized, particularly when alternatives are few and when the dangers of state collapse and extreme lawlessness outweigh the risks posed by CDFs themselves.


Patricio Asfura-Heim has been working in conflict zones for close to a decade. He is currently a senior analyst with the CNA Corporation’s Center for Stability and Development. His areas of expertise include irregular warfare, community self-defense groups, and partner capacity building.


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