Rethink State-building in the Middle East and North Africa

To have any chance of success, post-conflict governance models for Iraq and Libya must acknowledge ‘hybrid’ armed groups and incorporate them in rebuilding the state, but focus on improving their accountability.

Expert comment Updated 14 October 2020 Published 12 June 2019 4 minute READ
A Muqtada al-Sadr mobile phone cover for sale in a Baghdad market. Photo: Getty Images.

A Muqtada al-Sadr mobile phone cover for sale in a Baghdad market. Photo: Getty Images.

State weakness and protracted conflict continue to plague Iraq and Libya. A breakdown of the unitary state, competition for power and influence, and the absence of a social contract all continue to drive conflict, while allowing a proliferation of local armed groups to flourish.

Yet while such groups in both countries are often viewed solely as security actors, many of them are better considered as ‘hybrid’ networks that also span the political, economic and social spheres. Western policies to mitigate the threats presented by these groups must therefore extend beyond security-based interventions to necessarily inclusive and political approaches focusing on accountability as a route to peace.

For the beginnings of a durable rules-based order to emerge, assumptions about the dynamics of state power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) must be reconsidered.

The encroachment of armed groups into civilian life in these countries is all too evident. In the absence of effective governance or public services, militias and paramilitaries in both Iraq and Libya are carving out niches and establishing their own social contracts with local populations.

Not only are they generating revenues from state and non-state sources in exchange for the promise of protection and, in some cases, services; they are also positioning themselves to be part of any political settlement, with the intention of cementing their presence in post-conflict governance structures via cadres in political and economic fields.

In response to this phenomenon, many Western peacekeeping and state-building initiatives continue to focus on either the demobilization of armed groups or their integration into official ‘state’ forces, in order to establish a monopoly over legitimate violence. However, such approaches have never worked in the region.

From Iran to Saudi Arabia, political settlements have incorporated armed groups into state structures but have never integrated them into unitary chains of command, or held them accountable to civilian governance structures.[1]

Why, then, is current Western policy on armed groups in Iraq and Libya still guided by this failed framework? The problem stems in part from the West’s normative stance on the Westphalian state system, wherein the existence of non-state or hybrid armed actors is seen as undesirable in and of itself.

Policymakers therefore focus on the crimes committed by these groups, without applying the same standards to de jure state armed groups. We contend that militias should not be considered a problem merely because they lack de jure recognition, but only where their actions result in negative outcomes for local populations, such as rights abuses, service delivery failures, and monopolistic economic and political approaches.

The primary miscalculation in the Western approach is to overemphasize the military dimension, defining groups by their armed status. In reality, many militias are hybrid actors that also serve state functions. Their membership includes politicians, businesspeople, engineers, doctors and other professionals.

One example is Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or al-hashd al-shaabi. The PMU emerged as a collection of defence forces in response to the rapid rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. In today’s post-ISIS context, the PMU forces have not gone home.

Instead, they have expanded their roles as political and economic actors. In national elections in mid-2018, the PMU electoral coalition, the Fateh Alliance, placed second. Beyond the PMU, and throughout Iraq, groups ranging from Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitaries to Sunni tribal and non-dominant ethnic community fighters compete (and at times cooperate) with the state for power, capability and legitimacy.[2]

In Libya, a large number of armed groups of different social and political complexions have developed since 2011. Most notably, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (still widely known as the LNA)[3] have grown from a limited set of actors in 2014 into a broad alliance that now generates revenue through parallel civilian institutions in the east of the country.

LNA forces have established a military investment authority, and have deposed elected civilian officials in order to wield political power directly. In April, the LNA launched a military offensive on the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The essence of the situations described above is that no military solution awaits that will bring lasting stability to Iraq or Libya or remove these groups. Integration, demobilization and kinetic military action appear unfeasible. So what should the goal of Western efforts be?

Here, we contend that greater emphasis should be placed on political approaches that demand accountability at multiple levels. The focus should not be on all armed groups, but specifically on those that are becoming hybrid actors yet negatively affecting local residents and the state in their countries.

The first layer of accountability should come from the people living under such groups. Many hybrid actors depend on an element of legitimacy and popularity to maintain a social contract with local residents: displaying images of martyrs, providing social services, and mimicking state functions.[4]

In Libya, the LNA has leveraged its nationalist credentials, purporting to base its military expansion upon the guarantee of stability, state function and a crackdown on ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’. Restoring stability and functioning governance is a popular and effective means of generating local support.

However, over time these groups typically fall victim to failed governance and begin to lose popularity. Corruption and an inability to deliver services are already clear shortcomings of the PMU, and in 2018 protests in the southern Iraqi province of Basra began targeting PMU offices.

Meanwhile, the LNA’s expanding role in civilian governance has come under question as military operations in areas under its control have largely been concluded. Civilian authorities question why the LNA should take a role in services such as rubbish collection and the granting of visas to migrant workers.[5]

Politically targeting the groups that negatively affect local welfare and undermine the state means picking away at their legitimacy and weakening their links to the civilian population. This process requires supporting local initiatives that can be relied upon when incumbent armed groups prove unable or unwilling to uphold the social contract.

For now, however, independent civil society organizations and protests remain two of the only channels through which citizens can voice concerns about the dominance of such groups.

Another layer of accountability is to state institutions and the rule of law. Many armed groups claim to be officially recognized actors seeking to build the state.[6] The LNA presents itself as the legitimate army of the state, although this is contested by elements not aligned with its leader, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The replacement of elected mayors with military governors in eastern Libya has also illustrated the LNA’s expansion into politics and civilian life. While such approaches may be acceptable to local populations during conflict, the role of the LNA’s interventions in governance in places such as Benghazi, where wide-scale violence has come to an end, is more controversial.

Armed groups’ ability to sustain their legitimacy is likely to be further undermined over time by human rights abuses – an accusation constantly levelled, for example, against the PMU.[7] Many locals across southern Iraq allege that PMU forces act with impunity, beyond the control of the police and courts.

In Libya, meanwhile, civilian leaders claim that whatever the LNA cannot obtain through legal means it will obtain through others. The group is similarly accused of widespread human rights violations. Mahmoud al-Warfalli, an LNA officer, has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Given the above, Western efforts to challenge armed groups’ state-building narratives need to include several elements. One is to call groups out on violations of the rule of law and human rights. A bigger role for Western interlocutors, however, is to support independent legal institutions – local and federal – in becoming more effective.

The laws in Iraq and Libya exist, and the armed groups claim to be interested in upholding them. The gap, then, is the absence of a body in either country that can hold the groups to account. Such a body could take the form of an empowered integrity commission or audit bureau, which would monitor and investigate abuses of power and rights violations.

In sum, we propose to shift the conversation on state-building and armed actors in MENA away from the failed Westphalian notion of integration towards accountability. A new approach should reflect the reality that armed groups in the region operate in a zone where the distinctions between political, economic, societal and military networks are blurred, and that focusing solely on the latter will not end conflict.

What needs to happen

  • Western policymakers must abandon narrowly securitized approaches to tackling conflict-related instability in Iraq and Libya.
  • New approaches must acknowledge the de facto legitimacy of non-state and hybrid armed groups, give them a qualified role in state-building, but emphasize accountability.
  • Support should prioritize helping independent legal institutions – local and federal – to become more effective.
  • Where militias continue to create instability, policy must weaken their legitimacy by challenging their narrative of state-building and essential service provision.


[1] Sayigh, Y. (2018), ‘Hybridizing Security: Armies, Militias and Constrained Sovereignty’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30 October 2018,… .

[2] Mansour, R. (2018), ‘The Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Balancing of Formal and Informal Power’, Middle East Centre Blog, London School of Economics and Political Science, 15 March 2018,….

[3] Libyan National Army.

[4] El-Ghobashy, T. and Salim, M. (2018), ‘Iraqi election seen as a contest between Iran’s challenger and America’s incumbent’, Washington Post, 11 May 2018,….

[5] Eaton, T. and Eljarh, M. (2019), ‘Will Economic Instability Undermine Khalifa Haftar’s Offensive in Libya?’, Chatham House Expert Comment, 16 April 2019,….

[6] El-Ghobashy and Salim (2018), ‘Iraqi election seen as a contest between Iran’s challenger and America’s incumbent’.

[7] Amnesty International (2017), Iraq: Turning a Blind Eye: The Arming of the Popular Mobilization Units,

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.