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State formation and
regime consolidation, as any astute
reader of Charles Tilly could tell you, is an ugly business. Just as ugly, though, can be what its
absence brings. Since foreign aircraft, foreign arms, and local manpower toppled
the Gaddafi regime in Libya, a debate simmered between skeptics, who feared the
infiltration of al Qaeda, jihadists, and widespread instability, and optimists,
who saw potential in a new Arab-formed democracy forming in the wake of a
low-cost intervention against a brutal regime. Both sides have sought to wring
evidence for their positions out of a muddled state of affairs. While jihadist
groups appeared to increase their presence in Libya, relatively secular, even
so-called liberal and independent politicians and coalitions dominate the
Libyan government. Though Libya’s patchwork of legal and extralegal armed
groups remains, these myriad militias have not reduced the country into a new
Somalia on the Mediterranean shore.
The Weberian monopoly on force is a hallmark of political science and a historical analysis, but it is also an ideal-type. No state has a total monopoly on force, and many eke out a form of status quo where coercive instruments remain outside the state’s hands. In the U.S., militias were intended to be the last line of defense against the overlong extension of federal power, but when paramilitary groups overstepped an acceptable political threshold, as they did during the Reconstruction era, federal troops would intervene.
Libya’s recent shrine bulldozing crisis similarly reveals a tenuous equilibrium between Libya’s various coercive agents. Groups many suspect adhere to Salafist teachings demolished two shrines last weekend, prompting Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al to resign, and then reverse his resignation. Yet in doing so, he defended his refusal to use security forces to stop extremist groups demolishing shrines, claiming:
"If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons. We can't be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can't enter a losing battle (with them), to kill people over a grave," he told reporters.
It was up to the country's religious bodies to stop the desecration, he said.
"If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person (in clashes with security), then that is a price we are ready to pay," the minister added.
What is going on here is
certainly more complicated than simply state failure, but it also underlines
the difficulties for policymakers trying to navigate the interplay of
paramilitary groups and state-formation. Despite vigorous Western intervention,
support for favored NTC militias, and a government at least theoretically
opposed to violent extremist groups, Libya’s security forces remain incapable
or (perhaps worse) unwilling to exercise the political prerogative of a sovereign
government and prevent armed groups from acting unimpeded in Libya. It may be
that the Libyan government will not concern itself with the destruction of
religious property (though the assumption that desecration and death are
alternatives, rather than potential bedfellows, seems quite naive).
In many cases, states or political elites allow violent non-state groups to flourish so long as they pursue narrowed aims that do not threaten the sovereign government’s ideological, power-political or rentier interests. In some cases, sympathy, sanction, or outright support for these groups is a viable means for supplementing a political community’s capacity beyond conventional limits. Rightist paramilitary and terrorist groups performed this function in Latin America, while white supremacist paramilitaries and terrorists served much the same function for the parties, classes and interests opposed to Reconstruction in the U.S.
While the sheer volume of arms and weakness of state security forces in Libya suggest incapacity plays a significant role in this crisis, the Interior Minister’s acknowledgment that some members of the security forces (which arguably amount to the integrated, approved militia groups in Libya) may be sympathetic or active participants in the attacks suggests a lack of will is also at play. After all, if unfettered desecration is preferable to risking the lives of the state’s security forces, and then left to religious institutions to check, that is a tacit political sanction or concession in the evolving negotiations between Libya’s armed entities.
Such stories should make us skeptical, too, about the ability of arms provision to paramilitaries and proxy forces to reliably advance foreign political interests. In Syria, many arguments assert that a more vigorous role in arming the relatively secular or moderate opposition will undermine the position of al Qaeda and jihadist groups. Yet arms provision in Libya, and indeed the consolidation of the most favorable government the West could ask for, failed to create a force organized and coherent enough to actually stamp out local extremists. Aaron Zelin and Andrew Lebovich, in their earlier analysis, make a persuasive case that jihadist groups did not dominate the Libyan rebels. Nor, of course, do jihadist groups need to totally dominate a country’s territory or the composition of its militia groups to pose a significant concern. Yet today the new government supposedly faces groups better armed and organized than their own, or at least well enough such that the state forces cannot effectively suppress them. How could this come to pass?
Asessing combat power, political cohesion, and other factors vital to understanding the sorting-out that occurs of armed groups in a multi-faceted rebellion, requires recognizing qualitative elements. Radical groups are not always the largest or best-armed group initially, but they may be more organizationally coherent thanks to shared ideology. Additionally, unlike militias primarily focused on overthrowing a tyrannical regime, success at that aim does not lead to their dissolution. They may also have superior access to foreign advisors that allow them to tap into a well of experience and superior tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Further, arms remain instruments, and do not reliably alter the political agency of their users. In Syria, the fact that many rebels buy their arms from regime troops, or from Iraqi soldiers reselling U.S.-provided arms, should suggest that any foreign power that floods Syria with arms is likely to see those weapons used for undesired purposes in unexpected places. Not only that, but as Libya demonstrated, merely providing arms to rival groups does not preclude the existence of others.
Many Libyan militias appear to be seeking primarily to extract political and economic rent from access to state revenues and local control. Creating a monopoly on force could actually severely disrupt this process, and what benefits does it offer the militias? Similarly, in Syria, while foreign patrons can arm friendly militias, how can they exclude the wrong militias from being armed by other actors, their own proxies, or as a result of regime caches entering the market? The more likely scenario than undesirable groups fading away is a multiplicity of armed groups existing simultaneously. As Libya should now demonstrate, supporting a rebel group and new government does not guarantee it will be ready, willing, or even able to stamp out the armed undesirables. More extreme groups may choose to focus more on preserving and expanding their combat power and revolutionary agenda, while groups whose political aims mainly sought overthrow of a regime may, with their ideological objectives satisfied and primary threat extinguished, may face fewer incentives to enhance their combat readiness or mobilize politically.
The result, then, is that groups that may be a popular or political minority, and even outside the bounds of a new government’s security infrastructure, maintain a share of combat capability large enough to pursue their aims or at least hinder or deter the new regime’s attempts to extinguish it or curtail its influence. They may do this in spite of relative disfavor in foreign political ties and arms trade, and in spite of a failure to contest or undermine the popularity or non-coercive operations of the new regime. Warlords’ games are not so easily or durably won, which is why states approximating the Weberian ideal type will not play by their rules in the first place, and refuse to tolerate such groups’ existence.
State formation and the maintenance of state power involves tacit deals with potentially dangerous and undoubtedly unsavory actors as often as it does, whether by might or right, the imposition of a monopoly on force. Whether through a corrupt bargain that tolerates or legitimizes racial violence and disenfranchisement, a stable arrangement between a government and powerful narcotics traffickers, or the integration of gruesome paramilitary and its allies into an expanding state, we should be wary about letting Hobbesian anarchy color our metrics for success or failure. We should be even more wary about pursuing policies that seek to tame the complex and ugly business of finding a working distribution of political and violent power in a transitioning political community. Ultimately, the covert remedies so popular today must grapple with many of the problems of nation-building and state formation that supposedly belonged to the failed policies of the past.