This article explores the security and political effects of militia forces in Afghanistan and Mexico. From these case studies, it draws lessons for how to engage with militia forces more effectively and presents broader implications for U.S. foreign policy. In Afghanistan, building up militia forces has long been an important element of U.S security policy. In Mexico, anti-crime militias emerged spontaneously. Eventually, the behavior and visibility of the militias forced the government of Mexico to react to them, but the United States has not been involved with them in any way. Along many dimensions, the two cases are very different, and that is one reason why I chose such a compare-and-contrast pairing. Mexico is a middle-power country with a relatively strong economy, even though the state has been historically weak or absent in large areas, including those where militias are currently strong. In contrast, for several decades, Afghanistan has been a failed state or hovered on the verge of failure. For decades, Afghanistan has been caught up in insurgencies, civil wars, and foreign interventions. Only over the past decade has Mexico experienced highly violent crime. In Afghanistan, the United States and the Afghan government at least assumed that they could control some of the militias, such as those they actively recruited, including the Afghan Local Police, and steer some of the others that had existed, metamorphosed, and sometimes outright metastasized in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. At the same time, the Afghan government, the United Nations, and the United States have sought to disarm and dismantle other militia forces that came to be seen as particularly problematic. In Mexico, the anti-crime self-defense forces emerged spontaneously without a direct and formal state effort to recruit them and without any nominal state control. Historically, of course, the Mexican government and military often recruited militias to fight insurgencies such as in Guerrero and Chiapas.
The key assumptions of U.S. external assistance for such internal defense policies is that there is a sufficiently strong overlap between U.S. interests and those of the selected external partners to design and conduct anti-militancy efforts in a way that is consistent with U.S. objectives, and that such an overlap of interests can be sustained for a sufficient period. In other words, through internal defense assistance, the United States hopes to motivate external actors to deliver U.S. objectives without the United States being extensively sucked into difficult internal conflicts abroad and without having to sacrifice U.S. blood and treasure on a large scale.Building partner capacity and assisting in internal defense are concepts much broader than simply standing up militia or proxy forces. Indeed, ideally, internal defense or partner-capacity-building efforts would focus on state military and police forces only and be fully integrated into an official strategy of the host country to undertake security sector reform (SSR). The ideal conditions and design for such an undertaking include a post-conflict setting, without the presence of low-intensity conflict still simmering or increasing, and with U.S. security-aid programming focused on creating a legitimate monopoly of force for the state. Such an assistance program would be a comprehensive systematic effort easily lasting a decade or more.
Paper | July 21, 2015