Low organisation armed forces

Just a thought based on what I've read about several militias / civil war parties / military forces:

It appears that in countries with a weak central government (or plain civil war), the armed forces often have a fundamentally different model of organization in comparison to the Western industrial age armed forces.

Quite often the only truly loyal and mobile forces are a hard core of a few thousand men, usually only a few per cent of the whole armed forces' size. These are sometimes labelled "shock troops", "elite troops" et cetera in reports. They're the only ones usable for offnsive action in the entire country instead of only in a home region and they're usually full time troops. Their lack of a regional limitation stems sometimes from them being foreigners (such as the few thousand AQ 'shock troops' of the Taleban up to 2001).

The bulk of the forces are different; local or regional warbands / militias. They're rooted in their region and largely useless beyond it.* Their loyalty belongs to their warlord and their local social organisation (village, clan, valley, city, ethnic group) and is often the result of diplomatic extortion: The aforementioned mobile reserves can turn one militia after another by showing up in force, negotiating and leaving some loyal liaison personnel behind. Their numbers may vary with seasons, degree of threat to their home region and pay.

Such an armed forces organisation is at times difficult to knock out for good, but it is vulnerable on both accounts:
Attrition of the mobile reserves drains power where it matters the most and the semi-loyal locally rooted armed forces can be turned if only the "offer" made to them is "irresistible".

This isn't about combat aircraft quality, tanks, gargantuan logistics, artillery, futuristic stealth warships. All these are quite irrelevant in such a context. What matters is instead how to deal with such a not very stable organisation of armed forces. 

I personally don't see much reason to develop an approach to defeat such armed forces, since they're unlikely to attack us and it's questionable whether I'd prefer the defeat of an insurgency in the West itself.

But it's telling how very much Western commentary and other attention was focused on a couple celebrity generals, military pundits, armoured vehicles, engineering stuff, demolition munitions, fancy drones, camouflage patterns, bulletproof vests, rifles, jamming equipment, precision guided munitions and combat aircraft whenever the West faced armed forces of the described pattern. Attention was on everything but what mattered; how to disconnect the established links so friendly armed forces can become the alpha power with their newly built-up brand of mobile reserves.
Instead, we obsessed about what matters in our high organisation armed forces, and expected the adoption of this model.
This isn't merely an obituary for ISAF; I suppose this pattern of behaviour will resurface again and again, no matter how much talk about "asymmetric warfare", "hybrid enemies" and the like willbe done.


*: This is a recipe for a long civil war; anti-governemnt forces largely incapable of a concentrated offensive.


  1. Nice, reminds me of the 19th century colonial wars, when a small European organized force was supported by numerous armed native volunteers, usually with less elaborate organization, who beat up the unpopular prior local bigwigs.
    If the conflict is about shock troops and sowing loyality, then the Western powers recently did something very wrong in a number of conflicts.
    Superior information, payment, training, numbers, mobility and armament of a compareable counter-elite force would be overall still dirt cheap in comparison to the occupation investments.
    The real "war" is waged in politics, finding an agreeable solution for all the regions of the occupied lands.

    A few questions come to my mind. If we waged war to enforce our interests in a number of places then:
    Is our war being waged uneconomical?
    Do we invest too much due to overblown aspirations?

  2. "Low Organization" is a bit of a misnomer, and perhaps an issue of translation, but the implication is incorrect, as we are discussing societies that often have profoundly complicated organization and loyalties that are completely opaque to westerners.


    1. I didn't want to use some of the more common descriptions because they could provoke an underestimation of the complexity of this kind of organisation.

  3. I read a really interesting article about a militia commander in Africa. I can't remember where it was. He was nominally in charge of (I think) a battalion level organization. Once the battle started, though, he generally didn't really have the necessary command and control to effectively administer his troops, which were pretty spread out. Their intelligence often wasn't good enough to have a good indication about the forces against them, so the plan was often fluid. As a result, all his subcommanders were given the general idea of what they were trying to accomplish and then pretty much cut loose. The commander stayed in reserve with a few trucks full of the best fighters and extra ammunition, and listened to what was going on on the radio. He would then head to where it looked like he needed to be to complete his mission, sometimes hitting two or three hot-spots per battle, if I remember correctly. I'm not sure why he couldn't take a more active hand if he had radio contact. Maybe it was unreliable contact. I just thought it was interesting that they were basically using dispersed command tactics that Germany made famous in the first half of the 20th century (that seem to have been forgotten by a lot of Western powers).

    1. There were studies about the span of command in warfare, and the results differ depending on what the study authors were thinking of.
      It appears that commanders rarely have more than two, often even but one subordinate element in combat at the same time, but given radio and maps as well as reliable navigation the total span of command may be up to five (just not five subordinate manoeuvre elements in combat at the same time).
      It's probably overoptimistic to assume a Western Bn CO would hve much more control than the guy in your example.
      There are indeed a couple 'German' elements in what you described:
      * recon pull / manoeuvre à posteriori was in the toolbox
      * Verfügungstruppen of the CO were common at all levels (commander's reserves; kind of descendants of Alexander's companions)
      * concentration fo the best assets for decisive actions
      * leading from the front
      * commander's intent as guidance instead of detailed or even written orders

  4. In other words, we are incapable of fighting third-rate non-materialistic feudal entities.