Huseyn Aliyev

To understand why some civil wars are more lethal, author Huseyn Aliyev investigates the role of pro-government militias (PGMs) in intrastate conflicts and their impact on conflict lethality.

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

Why some civil wars are more lethal than others? Previous studies have focused almost exclusively either on structural factors, such as the role of ethnicity and religion, or specific qualities (i.e. military strength and organisational capacity) of the key conflict protagonists, governments and rebels. Few efforts were made to examine what effect do extra-state actors – militias, paramilitaries, warlords, and criminal organisations – have on civil war lethality. The bulk of quantitative studies on conflict dynamics and conflict intensity have focused heavy on the dyadic aspect of conflicts, exploring strengths and weaknesses of governments and rebels. Not much is known on whether the presence of other armed actors in the conflict zone affects such conflict dynamics as battlefield lethality.

To answer this question, I have focused on the role of pro-government militias (PGMs) in intrastate conflicts and their impact on conflict lethality. Bearing in mind that PGMs were present in nearly 80% of all civil wars since the end of Cold War, it is hard to disregard their effect on civil war dynamics. Previous studies present militias as violent conflict stakeholders, actively engaged in genocide, civilian persecution, and human rights violations. All of the above suggests that PGMs could as well be expected to have a notable impact on battlefield lethality.

In order to account for the effect of PGMs on battlefield lethality in civil wars worldwide, I introduce a new quantitative dataset which controls for the global presence of 240 PGMs engaged in 88 civil wars between 1981 and 2014. This key theoretical argument of this study is that PGMs serve not only as “force-multipliers” increasing the total number of armed combatants on the ground, but also, and most importantly, by attacking rebels’ civilian support bases and therefore exposing them to deadly government attacks. Keeping in mind that the success of most rebel organisations closely depends on civilian support, engendered in both material assistance and human resources, the PGMs’ attacks on civilians pose existential threat to rebels and force them to intensify violence. In an effort to protect their civilian supporters from militias, rebels expose themselves to more violent confrontations with government forces and suffer higher casualties than they would otherwise. Increased levels of violence also cause government and militia casualties.  

Statistical analyses demonstrate that civil wars with militia presence have much higher likelihood to produce more battlefield lethality amongst conflict participants than civil wars with no militia presence. Descriptive statistics of the dataset provide further support to these results, indicating that nearly all high-lethality conflicts over the past two decades – including the Colombian civil war, conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, as well as numerous civil conflicts in Myanmar – had PGMs present on the battlefield.

These findings have important implications both for future research and conflict resolution and peace-making practice. Firstly, the focus on extra-state actors such as PGMs improves our understanding of micro-dynamics of civil wars, particularly the role of extra-dyad actors, which often remain in the shadows. Secondly, few peace-making and peace-keeping initiatives take into account the presence of extra-state actors, which are commonly excluded from peace talks and demobilisation agreements. Accounting for the presence of militias – as significant contributors to conflict violence – could improve international conflict resolution practice.


Huseyn Aliyev is a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith (LKAS) Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Huseyn earned his PhD in Politics from the University of Otago. He was working as post-doc and lecturer at the University of Bremen, as well as research fellow at the University of Oxford. His most recent publications have appeared in Comparative Political Studies (2019), Political Studies (2019), Third World Quarterly (2018), Terrorism & Political Violence (2018), Cooperation & Conflict (2018), Security Dialogue (2016), and International Security (2015).