The important role of militias (sometimes called paramilitaries or local defense forces) in counterinsurgency further illustrates the distinctive qualities of this form of warfare. In conventional wars, local militias are minor players at best, and usually don't appear at all. In counterinsurgency, militias are a central protagonist, frequently struggling with the guerrillas and the government at the same time.
As conventional warfare grew more sophisticated, militias had an increasingly smaller role to play. In the Thirty Years War, Europe's longest revolutionary and counterrevolutionary war during the Age of Reason, Protestant and Catholic armies contained a mix of regular and militia units. Over a century later, the colonists in the American War of Independence fielded both militia and regular units, but the tensions between them became a defining trait of that conflict. Almost another full century later, during the first year of the American Civil War, newly-created regiments in both the Union and Confederate armies had characteristics of local militias. These recruits—who frequently had no military experience—happened to have volunteered from the same state, and often from the same town or county. While Civil War regiments never lost their regional affiliations, they did, over time, become more professional.
However, Civil War regiments never stayed within the geographic confines of the state from which they came. While there were still fears, particularly early in the war, that soldiers would return to their homes once their original terms of service had ended, the Union and Confederate governments used the draft and other measures to keep their standing armies from evaporating as soon as planting or harvest season arrived. In short, by the 1860s, modern warfare was already too demanding for modern armies to depend on locally-recruited and locally-deployed militias.
At the beginning of World War II, when cavalry divisions and other relics endured in the face of the blitzkrieg, militias had disappeared from military tables of organization altogether. They reappeared purely by accident, as the partisan forces that resisted Axis occupation in Europe and Asia. However, as soon as conventional armies liberated a region, the local partisans' term of service effectively ended.
While militias have vanished from conventional warfare, they remain an important part of counterinsurgency through modern times. In fact, the most sophisticated practitioners of counterinsurgency argue for giving these atavistic echoes of pre-modern warfare an important and sometimes central role. In the Vietnam War, militias took a variety of forms, from the ethnically distinct Montagnard units to the more generic Regional Forces (RF) and Popular Forces (PF). In Malaya, the British colonial government rightly insisted on creating Chinese and Malay militias to fight the MRLA insurgents. During the 1980s, the US government worked at various times (and with varied success) with its Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Colombian allies to, on the one hand, dismantle right-wing death squads, while on the other, arm and train new local defense forces.
Militias are a persistent feature of counterinsurgency because they provide a critical lever for separating the guerrillas from the population. Militia commanders know their own community better than any outsider, so they may already have the names of local guerrilla political cadres and fighters. Even if they don't know who the guerrillas are right away, they can build local intelligence networks from the social contacts they already have. Militia commanders also know the local problems and the local community well enough to judge which anti-guerrilla measures will work, and which won't. If the militia commander is already a local notable, he may be able to use his status, authority, favors, money, or connections to work against the guerrillas. The militia plays its part in local counterinsurgency efforts far longer than any other part of the government, from the first day that the regime begins to focus on a particular "enclave," to long after the regular army has left the "liberated" zone behind. More important perhaps than any of these other factors is the stake that the local militia members have in the fate of their own community, something that no regular army unit or national politician can hope to match.
At the same time, the other participants in the counterinsurgency war have reasons to mistrust the militias. A government anxious about its lack of control over major parts of the country usually feels uncomfortable arming independent-minded local militias. Guerrillas may infiltrate the militias, reinforcing any worries that these local forces cannot be trusted. Guerrilla infiltrators or raiders may steal the militias' caches of weapons, ammunitions, and other supplies, sometimes making the militias the inadvertent material supporters of the guerrillas. Young militiamen newly armed with guns and a mandate for killing can easily abuse their positions, particularly when there are already antipathies within the community. In poor, remote regions of the country, where people are not used to receiving any material attention from the central government, the military and economic assistance flowing through into the community can be an irresistible source of graft, corruption, and theft. Integrating the militias into national military, intelligence, or police efforts can be difficult: local and national organizations may not trust each other; and regular military units usually look down on the less "professional" militias.
Taking all these problems into account, militias remain a critical part of counterinsurgency strategy, an expression of the old adage that, "All politics is local." They can be the most important test of a regime's ability to understand how the guerrillas operate, build the political and military tools to fight them, and make the hard choices needed to win. Militias pose the challenge for any great power or other foreign government involved in the war. These outsiders have no smaller obligation to embrace the frequently ragged, parochial, stubborn, under-equipped, and underappreciated militiaman than the regime does.
Militias are important parts of US counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once again, the story is mixed in both cases, but the situation is somewhat better in Afghanistan than Iraq.
During the first days of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, American CIA operatives and Special Forces troops had no choice but to work with local militias, who often operated in strategic areas that the Northern Alliance had yet to penetrate. That "militia-friendly" mentality has persisted in the four years since the fall of the Taliban, in spite of distrust and outright hostility that some leaders in Kabul and Washington have occasionally displayed toward these groups.
In contrast, the conventional doctrine and organization responsible for the swift conquest of Iraq now bedevils the occupation. Since dissolving the existing military and security forces, which might have been a foundation for new regular and militia forces, the US effort to build a new Iraqi army has downplayed or dismissed the role that local militias have to play. For example, this State Department report from March 2005 relegates "irregular forces" to a single paragraph at the end of the document. While the police may assume some intelligence-gathering responsibilities, they lack the military training and equipment needed to defend a community from a determined guerrilla attack. That void remains unfilled: the bulk of the new military—purely national, not local, in character—is unready to assume on its own any offensive or defensive role, including local defense.
Meanwhile, the Kurds—who had been effectively governing themselves since the 1990s—kept their independent peshmerga units, many of which, largely intact, now appear within the new Iraqi military's organizational chart. This wholesale incorporation of the peshmerga is not necessarily a bad thing for counterinsurgency—at least in predominantly Kurdish provinces. However, the Kurds will be protecting themselves, not the rest of the country, including the heart of the insurgency, the Sunni Triangle.
One barometer of how well things may be going in Iraq will be the role that militias play in the wider conflict. The longer we hear almost nothing about them, the harder it is to believe that top leaders in Baghdad and Washington are fighting the right war.