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Why Are Communal Factions Advancing and Armies Retreating?

Why Are Communal Factions Advancing and Armies Retreating?

Monday, 16 August, 2021 - 09:15

Communal armies, those of sects, ethnicities and clans, always defeat the state’s army.

This is a fact we find its latest and clearest manifestation in Afghanistan, which had previously been home to similar scenes twice, in 1992 and 1996. Despite American training, as well as armament and funding, which had been provided uninterrupted for 20 consecutive years, the Taliban proceeded with its military advance and annexation of territory immediately after the US and NATO announced their withdrawal: today, it controls the country.

Nothing has hindered the Taliban’s advance. The exacerbating pains of residents, especially women and children, that accompanied this advance have not hindered it. The population’s fears and the thousands of them fleeing have only hindered it to the same extent as the world’s fears and condemnations of this barbaric organization.

The major reason is that the communities’ armies are communities’ armies, while the states’ armies are not state armies. The only thing that remains of the latter is the folklore that it is surrounded with: signs, symbols, glorifications, expressions of attachment to it, and songs being sung to it. None of this has any impact, neither positive nor negative, on the battlefield. The Lebanese, to take one of many examples, are very familiar with this. They keep declaring the need to “protect our army,” which is supposed to be their protector.

It seems that national armies don’t become state armies because of the states themselves; they do not become states. For this reason, they fail to entice their citizens to grant them an allegiance that surpasses their allegiance to their communities. Besides corruption and weak economies, which constrain their ability to provide services to the people, another problem is that the states are built on clientelism, which is inspired by communal relations and imitates them. So: let us band with those who are “authentic” and “intimate”, “our brothers,” instead of the unreliable delegate, who is also mysterious and unfamiliar, and who resides in the distant capital. Loyalty to the state and homeland, in this case, becomes mere loyalty to a stranger who is often ineffective, arrogant and selfish!

We saw something along these lines manifest in Iraq in 2014, when ISIS, with a blitz attack, took over Mosul. At the time, the army collapsed swiftly, and local militias, either sectarian like the Popular Mobilization Forces or ethnic like the Kurdish Peshmerga, alongside foreign countries like the United States and Iran, took up the task of fighting it off.

In Syria, the national army was not capable of defending the regime. Countries like Iran and Russia and Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias took up the task. The army itself became dominated by a militia’s bent that also shaped how it went about killing its people.

As for Lebanon, its national army splits whenever sectarian schisms and clashes erupt. The soldiers, in these cases, take their weapons and carry them to their sects. After the 1982 invasion, while the state’s army was debilitated and divided, the Lebanese state sought the help of multinational forces, American, French, British and Italian, to bring an end to the chaos. Those forces themselves failed and left the country.

Lebanese army retired officers’ appearances on television stations take our bewilderment to its peak: as the decades they served in the military, during which they heard lecture after lecture about national unity, perhaps giving lectures about loyalty to the army and the homeland themselves, have not deterred them from joining their sectarian militia and echoing its morbid narrative.

National armies’ ineffectiveness as compared to those communities is strongest when the community is strong as a community and the state and its army are weak as states and armies. Times of civil war or of preparation for civil war are ideal settings for demonstrating this formula.

During the Yugoslav war in the early 1990s, one of the earliest sparks was the Croatian forces’ revolt against the “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” and its army the “Yugoslav People’s Army,” which had been led by Serbs. Just very recently, as Addis Ababa was talking about its control of the city of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, the Tigrayans talked about a potential split in the Ethiopian army along ethnic grounds, with Tigrayans defecting to join the forces of their region.

Beyond this, of the 140 civil wars witnessed around the world between 1945 and 1999, only 18 percent ended with an accord establishing peace. However, despite these accords, some of those conflicts did not fully evade renewed violence, either because the larger community with the most control over the state apparatus walked back on the commitments it had made when signing the settlement or because the weaker and smaller group broke the terms of the settlement, hoping to obtain, through violence, better terms.

Decades ago, there emerged those who spoke of “nations in the process of formation.” Decades since, we urgently need brave voices to say that those nations were not formed and that their collapsing armies’ state of affairs mirrors this failure more clearly than anything else. However, this is the last thing we would like to admit, not only because national unity and the army’s strength are reinforced by many poems and songs, but also because affirming this fact leaves us facing an existential question, trapped naked in a jungle. Many peoples, including ours, take shelter, in this jungle, only with a nakedness awaited by the dragon’s mouth.

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