The army and militias

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 11 Jul 2023

The recent coup attempt in Russia led by the Wagner group has drawn renewed attention to the dangers of allowing private militias, writes Ahmed Mustafa

The recent insurrection in Russia reinforces an old lesson that one wonders how the world apparently so easily overlooked.


While the truth behind the attempted coup against the Kremlin by the leader of the private Russian security firm Wagner will probably never be known, the root of the issue is that militias are antagonists to regular armies in almost the same way that factional groups often act as the rivals of states.


Whether the leader of the Russian militia in this case was driven by an ambition for power or was helping to uproot some army general not loyal to the Kremlin, he was not clear in his criticism of the national army from day one.


Was it wrong for Russian President Vladimir Putin to use a private militia to fight his war in Ukraine? There is no clear answer here, but there is a simple conclusion to be drawn, which is that militias should not be entrusted with executing policies that pertain to the national interest.


It might be as well to be reminded of the difference between militias and regular armies. A national army emphasises inclusivity, with career staff and drafted recruits typically coming from all walks of life. Militias, by contrast, recruit a type of mercenary whose primary objective is to get paid, which means his allegiance is to the highest bidder rather than to a sense of national duty.


National armies are built around a military doctrine based on protecting the country and sustaining its security against major external threats. This is the case even though some armies are also used to preserve states against internal threats as well as external ones. But such patriotism means nothing to militia fighters, who fight for money regardless of aim, with this being true of militias linked to political groups as well as private security firms.


Mercenary soldiers who fight for militias do so for sectarian, racial, tribal, religious, and factional causes. National interest is not among their goals.


Both armies and militias are made up of disciplined professionals exhibiting loyalty and respect for the chain-of-command as a guiding principle of the structure of the institutions. Yet, the ultimate loyalty of any army is to its country and its people as a whole, while militias are loyal to personal interests even if they can sometimes collide with national ones.


Even the “forced integration” of militias into national armies does not work. The most recent example of this is what is going on in Sudan, where the existence of a militia is threatening to turn the country into a failed state. The regime of ousted former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir had brought the brutal Janjaweed militia into the mainstream for opportunistic reasons, and its attempted integration into the Sudanese Armed Forces and rebranding as the “Rapid Intervention Force” was a disaster in the making.


The failure of this experiment is now destroying what remains of an already war-torn state. The same thing can be said about experiments to integrate militias in Libya and other countries.


Some might think that militias and private security companies, in other words armed groups of mercenaries, were started by the Americans, who used them to execute “dirty” missions abroad that the regular army might balk at carrying out. Since then, many militias have found themselves under the spotlight for their involvement in various massacres and atrocities.


However, militias in fact date back to early human societies. Tribal fighters in such societies were also militias, and the followers of new religions and sects also had their own militias. All this took place before such nations developed into modern states.


Fast forward to modern times, and national armies have become the main defenders of the nation-state. But even so, in some cases militias have still maintained an important presence. If we cast our minds back to the Rwanda Genocide in the 1990s, for example, in this case there was no national army involved, but there was a split into rival Hutu and Tutsi militias.


Following the 9/11 attacks on the US at the turn of the century, the private security business ballooned. Countries, groups, and even major businesses started contracting mercenaries. While this practice had existed before, it had been on a much smaller scale and only in exceptional circumstances.


Socio-political changes in some countries today are diluting the role of national armies and risking turning them into something like private businesses. It is difficult to judge whether this is a natural development linked to the societal and economic development of humanity and crosscurrents affecting the traditional foundations of nation states.


In countries where terrorism is a real threat, and where in some cases even religious groups have their own militias, cases of militias coming into conflict with national armies have been more prominent. Some argue that in order for national armies to fight terrorist militias they need to be able to adapt and develop new tactics, with these shading into something like fighting a civil war.


However, this would be the beginning of a very slippery slope. Such tactics might be suitable for the security forces and paramilitary units, but they are not suitable for regular national armies. The latter can help because of their training and expertise, but they should not aim to become simply “opposing militias.”




The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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