Utilized for decades, ‘deniable’ militias are increasingly challenging the rule of law and undermining governments of elected leaders
Over the years, Afghanistan has played host to some 20 terrorist groups of various nationalities who will not be a part of any peace deals to end the war there—and could prove spoilers to future attempts to achieve peace and stability in the war-torn state.
Most notable among the terror groups still calling Afghanistan home is Al Qaeda, which continues to retain a presence in the country despite vows by the Taliban to not let Afghanistan’s soil be used by terrorist forces in future. Pakistan, in 2011, had to suffer an American attack over the presence of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Any peace deal inked with the Taliban automatically sidelines Al Qaeda, which is expected to emerge strengthened, as foreign fighters and Taliban hardliners who disagree with potential compromises from their central leadership could defect to its ranks.
Then there is Daesh or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), based close to Pakistan in southern and eastern Afghanistan. In the south, a disgruntled Taliban commander and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Mullah Abdul Raoof Khadim, is sworn to leading Daesh; while in the east, six Pakistani Taliban commanders led by Hafiz Sayed Khan have raised the black flag of Daesh. Despite recent reversals, the group has shown spectacular resilience, managing to replace and regain lost manpower and increase the number and intensity of its operations. It also operates in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan.
Origin of the non-state actor
Initially, states used “non-state actors” to fight undeclared, deniable wars. This initiative fell to the wayside, as they gained autonomy through funding from the Arab Gulf. How did the phenomenon of the “non-state actor” start and who launched it? Author Mehran Kamrava, in Inside the Arab State (2018), lays out the history.
Early hopes that the 2011 uprisings, optimistically called the Arab Spring, would usher in an era of democracy across the Arab world and the rest of the Middle East did not come to fruition. A direct result of the 2011 uprisings has been the rise in the use of militias by some Arab armed forces. In Lebanon the state has been chronically weak from its start in 1945. Not surprisingly, the country has had a history of having active and armed non-state actors, most notably in the form of Phalangists in the 1980s and Hezbollah since then.
Elsewhere in the region, in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the 2011 uprisings led to a weakening or implosion of state institutions and opened up opportunities for non-state actors to pursue their goals through taking up arms. The same thing had occurred earlier in Iraq. In 2003 the U.S. invasion brought the country to the verge of disintegration and led to a proliferation of armed militias and localized forms of authority.
How Daesh was born
In all these cases, armed militias have been supported and sustained by external actors, most of them in the form of foreign patrons, and in Daesh’s case, in the form of recruits and volunteers also. Daesh and its affiliated groups represent anti-state militias in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In all these cases, there are also militia groups that operate in conjunction with the official military institutions of what remains of the state. In fact, in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, militias play important roles in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism.
These militias are more flexible than the regular security forces, and they often commit violence against civilian populations with greater impunity. In Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, in the absence of central state authority, there has also been a “militia-ization” of policing, especially at the community level. In many instances, this “militia-ization” has been welcomed by local communities, which prefer militias to state-connected local sheikhs and clan leaders.
Decay of state authority
Despite their prevalence and short-term utility, reliance on armed militias can prove risky for state leaders. Militias have the potential to undermine government control, especially as few are willing to give up their arms voluntarily. Moreover, militias are more prone to use violence against civilians, settle scores, and ignore the rules of war. The deeply-held culture of impunity by official security agencies extends to non-state actors as well, making violence a common political currency.
Finally, militias facilitate and open foreign intrusion into domestic affairs and can serve as instruments of foreign influence in war-torn and authority-deficient communities. In Libya, for example, the U.A.E. has been supporting the renegade General Khalifa Haftar and his militia force. In addition to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran has been supporting the Syrian Shabiha, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthis in Yemen. Qatar’s connections with the Al Qaeda-affiliated group calling itself al-Nusra Front have been well-documented, and, not to be left behind, Saudi Arabia has been funding and directing its own militias in Syria.
Non-state actors and Pakistan
Muhammad Amir Rana, writing in daily Dawn, notes: “The situation in Afghanistan is changing the character of terrorist groups sheltering there. For instance, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud said in a recent interview with CNN that his group aimed to make the tribal districts of Pakistan (along the Afghan border) independent. He also claimed that the TTP could take back control of the Pakistani tribal areas if forced to leave Afghanistan.
“Apparently, this is a new position of the group; the previous one was to establish an Islamic order in the entire country. Mehsud has elaborated the new strategy of the group in his manifesto Inqilab-e-Mehsud, and the notion of an independent state in the tribal region is being shaped. In an ideological context, it shows that Al Qaeda’s influence over the group is weakening. One of the key goals of Al Qaeda has been the restoration of the caliphate system in the world, which was repeatedly echoed in the statements of TTP leaders. But it seems that in recent years, the TTP has sought more inspiration from its chief mentors, the Afghan Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, which has apparently helped develop the TTP’s nationalist credentials.”
Not too long ago, the non-state actors in Pakistan proliferated as religious warriors apparently working for Pakistan but linked to their Al Qaeda and Daesh “senior colleagues” in Afghanistan. From South Punjab, Pakistani non-state actors too have gone to Balochistan to “purify” the province of its “Shia curse” of the Hazaras of Quetta already under attack from foreign non-state actors operating from Afghanistan.
National Action Plan and non-state actors
Pakistani activist Marvi Sirmed, writing in Indian Express in 2016, backed the “mainstreaming” of non-state actors:
“Despite the government’s claims of effectively implementing the National Action Plan for counter-terrorism, the activity of some organizations keeps baffling the people of Pakistan as well as the international community. Why, the dissenters within Pakistan ask, certain groups manage to keep working while the Army is fighting an expensive Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the restive tribal areas, and the government is busy implementing NAP whereby actions are being taken against the terrorist organizations in the settled areas of the country?
“The answer is not an easy one. There might be an element of voyeurism in letting some of these organizations work for the damage they do to the ones we are not so fond of. There are also some rational choices and real-world hitches that might be responsible for the way the state of Pakistan behaves vis-a-vis terrorist organizations on its soil. However irrational its rational choices appear to be, the madness still has a method to it.”
History has taught us that a majority of non-state actors—if not all—inevitably break away from their patrons and exert greater autonomy, challenging the state’s writ once their goals diverge. Pakistan has, infamously, utilized non-state actors for decades. The incumbent government—as well as senior military officials—claims this practice has now come to an end. However, without concrete and all-encompassing action against groups officially unaffiliated with the government, it is unlikely to convince the world of its sincerity. The Taliban’s victory has emboldened militant Islamist groups globally; there is little evidence the miscreants plaguing Pakistan would not be feel any different.