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Fighting for the Enemy

European powers sought to colonise the world. They could not do so without the support of indigenous peoples.

Soldiers of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 1908. © National Army Museum/Bridgeman Images.
Despite having millions of dollars lavished upon it by the United States, the Iraqi army almost collapsed in 2014 when it was attacked by the enemy. Some Sunni personnel even defected to the Islamic State. The failure was attributed to a selfishly sectarian government in Baghdad. Today, with ISIS on the brink of defeat, attempts are being made to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces. This poses the question: is there a formula for building a resilient army and how should foreign powers assist the process?

There is a long historical precedent of partnership between western and local forces. At the height of European imperialism, indigenous troops were often used to compensate for the lack of European manpower in hostile environments. Local, or indigenous, forces were more effective when organised like European armies, which drove a trend towards the occupying powers establishing regularised, professional military personnel.

Appearances could be deceptive. Some Asian armies adopted the outward forms of European forces, with infantry, cavalry and artillery units in western-style uniforms, but failed to transform themselves doctrinally, institutionally and tactically. As a result, they were often defeated when tested in war. Forces in China, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, for example, superficially resembled European armies, but did not adhere to the requirements of internal cohesion, prowess through training and the willingness to sustain substantial losses in the pursuit of their military objectives.

In the 19th century, the West’s ideological confidence allowed occupying forces to categorise their colonial subjects as an apolitical resource. This changed with the development of nationalism and other liberationist ideologies after 1945. But in the colonial era, western perceptions of the gap between European modernity and the pre-modern societies they occupied led to racial categorisations pertaining to the degree of martial prowess different groups possessed. In broad terms, mountain dwellers and rural populations from harsh environments were considered more ‘warlike’ than pastoral agriculturalists, who had become accustomed to the relative tranquillity of colonial rule. These assumptions became self-reinforcing.

European powers made use of a variety of cultural factors to draw people from indigenous societies into the imperial system. They were eager to exploit distinct regional identities – such as the Hausa in West Africa or the Gurkhas in South Asia – to ensure martial loyalty. Recruitment policy was an amalgam of race theory imported from the West, combined with a practical desire to exploit existing local prejudices, juxtaposed with a desire to maintain ethnic balance in the composition of regiments and corps. There was widespread praise for particular groups, such as Sikhs, Dogras or the Tirailleurs Senegalese, because they were considered hardy, biddable and courageous. Other groups were condemned for their disloyalty or alleged ‘criminal’ proclivities and excluded from military service.

For those who passed the westerners’ tests, regimental loyalty was constructed carefully, emphasising a dependence on selfless and courageous western leadership. The British made great efforts to encourage the practice of customs and rituals, to the extent that observance of religious ceremonies was in some ways conducted in a more ‘pure’ form than in civilian life. Rites and ceremonies, colours and uniforms could enhance separateness, while combining ethnic or class groups in single regiments fostered internal competition. In mixed Indian Army battalions, for example, a company of Sikhs might regard it as a matter of honour to outperform a company of Dogras or Hindus.

Imperial armies emphasised rewards, making military service in the empire a lucrative pursuit compared with civilian life. It was also a system that depended on local elites ‘buying in’ to the colonial state. Their patronage networks made it easier to acquire labour for military service. Local leaders, eager to retain prestige as favoured partners and to maintain a community’s honour, would encourage families to consider sons for military service. The transformation of society during the 20th century, however, rendered these systems increasingly redundant. Pressure grew not to serve in foreigners’ forces.

Men in uniform: Madras Sepoys in the East India Company's service, 1815. © Bridgeman Images.
Throughout history, recruits have enlisted for a variety of reasons. These include ‘push’ factors, such as poverty or local threats, and ‘pull’ factors, including the draw of allegiances, opportunism, socio-economic advancement or as a route to survival. Internal rivalries could be stoked by imperial military service while dominance in the armed forces could give a community or faction a significant advantage. For others, there was glamour in military service: Sita Ram, a Sepoy of the East India Company, confessed he was simply attracted to the uniform and its association with adventure and fortune.

There are evident advantages in the recruitment of local personnel for interventionist forces today. Indigenous soldiers may enjoy better relations with their civilian population, sharing language, customs and values. They invariably know the terrain and might prevent or even reverse the process of recruitment of marginalised groups by insurgents, such as ISIS. Local security forces have a vested interest in defending a nation, city, village or a development project which benefits them directly. Employment alone can represent a significant investment. Local forces can assist in governance-building from the bottom up, in the administration of justice and, ultimately, contribute to national security. Local forces, therefore, do not necessarily have to be proficient in combat; their role is often political.

There are nevertheless significant risks and objections to creating local forces. There is always a chance that arming men in stabilisation missions may cause them to become mutinous. The lower the level of training and investment, the less likely it is that local forces will prove reliable. They may pursue their own agendas, resulting in a mutiny, or perhaps turn their weapons on their former employers, to settle scores or seize opportunities for short-term gain. Yet, it is striking that when, in 1941, the British were compelled to invade Iraq to depose a pro-Nazi military cabal, the Iraqi forces, who had been trained by the British and knew what would happen if it came to a conflict, chose to stand on parade and welcome them. For the overstretched Middle East Command this was a fortunate outcome, revealing the bonds created during the previous decades.

Mutiny is evidence that a social contract has broken down, which explains the Iraqi army’s near collapse in 2014. No force, however professional, can be entirely immune to the concerns of the society from which it is drawn. It remains to be seen whether Iraq and its foreign partners can reconstruct the forces of that country with the same degree of resilience as their colonial predecessors did.

Robert Johnson is the author of True to Their Salt: Partnering Local Forces (Hurst, 2017).

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