Paramilitaries on the March

Sunil Dasgupta
Sunil Dasgupta Former Brookings Expert, Director - University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

April 6, 2003

Paramilitary forces are linked to some of the deadliest crimes of recent history. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo was largely carried out by Serb paramilitary forces, not the regular military. Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe, were responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In Indonesia, West Timorese paramilitaries and government-organized youth squads ledthe “dirty wars” against the separatists of East Timor.

In the first two weeks of the war in Iraq, Iraqi paramilitary fighters, not Republican Guards or other formal military units, were responsible for most of the coalition casualties in combat.

These groups, the Saddam Fedayeen and Baath Party militias, like paramilitary forces everywhere, operate outside the regular military structures and serve to provide internal security for the regime that allowed their formation.

While Pentagon officials dismiss paramilitaries as a nuisance and a perversion of the rules of war, paramilitary forces are increasing the world over and will continue to pose challenges to American interests.

In 2002, from one-third to one-half of the total military manpower in China, Russia and India—the largest non-Western military powers in the world—was in paramilitary organizations. A report on the internal use of force by the East West Center, a research organization, found that, from 1975 to 1996, the ratio of government troops to the population rose 29 percent in Thailand, 42 percent in Burma, 63 percent in China, 64 percent in Pakistan and 71 percent in India.

Though paramilitaries are smaller than regular armies, their rapid growth and rising status make them more important than the sum of their numbers. The countries with the largest paramilitaries—including China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, North Korea and Algeria—have doubled and tripled their relative importance (as a percentage of total military strength) in the last 30 years.

Paramilitaries, which grew out of the security and economic conditions in the developing world, were in many cases intended to be parallel military forces outside the military or police command to protect regimes from internal threats like separatist rebellions. They include constabulary forces, like the People’s Armed Police of China, a large, uniformed group developed as the first line of defense against civil unrest like that in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In some cases, paramilitaries are fighting the government, as in Colombia, where the United Self-Defense Forces emerged as local militias to guard farmers against leftist guerrillas but now control much of the drug trade.

Unlike regular militaries, which are built by training diverse recruits to work together, paramilitaries are drawn from politically reliable groups, creating ethnically or tribally based units. For example, the Saddam Fedayeen drew primarily on Sunnis from central Iraq.

The most dangerous type of paramilitary organization is the security intelligence agency, in which power is concentrated in few hands. Death squads, for example, are usually located within a country’s security intelligence agencies. In Egypt, the General Intelligence Agency conducted a brutal campaign against Islamists in that country, eventually forcing many of them to move to Sudan and Afghanistan.

Since their primary function is internal security, paramilitaries are adaptable. The fedayeen in Iraq, for example, have discarded uniforms, hidden among the civilian population, attacked the rear or ambushed coalition troops, sometimes luring them with white flags of surrender. As dispersed forces, the fedayeen could survive long after the lines of Iraqi military command have been disrupted.

Though many paramilitary forces resemble guerrilla warriors, they are more potent than guerrillas because of their access to the state’s resources. This also links their fate directly to the regime’s. The independence of East Timor, for example, was most forcefully resisted by paramilitaries in the former Indonesian province.

Under dictatorships, paramilitaries are often so identified with the government’s oppressive actions that the chances of clemency under a new government are likely limited. This can often undermine plans of a peaceful change.

In Brazil, for example, attempts to democratize in 1981 were undermined by the actions of the security intelligence agency, which had controlled many members of death squads in the 1970’s. By contrast, South Africa, under the leadership of the African National Congress, agreed not to prosecute members of the apartheid regime’s “dirty warriors” to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

The ruthless effectiveness, tactical agility and continued survival of paramilitaries contrast with the weak militaries in many developing nations.

The effectiveness of paramilitaries also comes from the changed world in which wars are waged. New constraints on some shaky regimes—like human rights requirements—have driven the use of force underground.

In Iraq, the fedayeen and other paramilitary troops will eventually be defeated, but not without cost. If they inflict enough casualties and cause enough trouble, the Americans in charge of occupying Iraq might be lured into establishing truces with defecting elements of the regime. In Afghanistan, the effort to reduce fighting through local truces with warlords is one obstacle to stabilizing the country.

Clearly, disarming paramilitary forces is as much a political task as a military one.