Book Review: Demobilizing Irregular Forces

By Reviewed by Mabel González Bustelo - 28 August 2014
Book Review: Demobilizing Irregular Forces

Demobilizing Irregular Forces, by Eric Y. Shibuya. Cambridge / Malden MA: Polity Press, 2012. 167 pp, £45/€54 hardcover 978-0-7456-4885-9, £13.99/€16.80 paperback 978-0-7456-4886-6, £11.99/€13.99 e-book 978-0-7456-6096-7

How to deal with members of irregular forces that have been involved in violence and armed conflict, and facilitate their (re)integration into civilian life in a post-war society is one of the main dilemmas affecting countries in transition from war to peace. The fate of former combatants is inextricably linked to wider efforts to build sustainable security institutions and, in more general terms, to build peace after war.

Since the end of the Cold War, the framework of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) has been the main approach by international institutions and donors to address an issue that has become a critical component of peacekeeping operations and of international involvement in peacebuilding and/or stabilization missions.

Eric Y. Shibuya, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at US Marine Corps Command and Staff College, provides in this volume a comprehensive overview of the state-of-the-art of DDR processes throughout the world, drawing upon case studies from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone and from East Timor to the Great Lakes region. Written in an accessible and concise style, this book addresses the what, how, why and by whom, and raises important questions about factors associated with the success and failure of DDR programs.

At the most basic level, a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration means convincing the former combatants of the opportunity and advantages of relinquishing weapons and returning to civilian life. This is easier said than done, as current events from Libya to Iraq and other countries show. The process often encounters practical problems, with former combatants and civilians resisting to disarm; problems in the identification of combatants and the design of appropriate packages for reintegration while addressing societal and community factors; the specific situation of women and children in irregular forces; or the issue of (lack of) funding. This is not to mention the deeper question of what is the state of the post-conflict society into which they are supposed to reintegrate. In more general terms, programmes can be undertaken during or after conflict; as unilateral, bilateral or multilateral endeavours; as part of a wider process of Security Sector Reform (SSR) or not…

As happens in general with peacebuilding affairs, there are different schools of thought with regard to DDR. With critiques placing it as part of liberal peace responses to conflict, more conventional approaches often deal with the associated practical problems and how to solve them. A remarkable aspect of this book is that Shibuya implicitly places his analysis in the latter approach, while his emphasis on contextual factors and local appropriation is far-reaching and challenging of conventional wisdom. On a more conceptual basis, the author captures and uses the arguments of the so-called minimalist (DDR for security) and maximalist (DDR for development) frameworks.

Valuable lessons about what has worked (and what not) can be drawn from the analysis of specific cases. But Shibuya makes a strong argument against the temptation to conceptualize and implement general models or “blueprints” for DDR irrespective of local socio-political context and actors. Warnings are also issued about strict conceptualizations of DDR in successive and closed phases (disarmament-demobilization-reintegration) although, for practical reasons, this book is divided in chapters that specifically address those elements as well as the links among them and the opportunities for mutual reinforcement.

Chapter 2 provides insights into the history and evolution of DDR and the definitions used. The author considers “irregular forces” all non-State armed actors irrespective of their position vis-à-vis the State, thus including rebel groups and pro-government militias. And he understands DDR as a process situated within the larger framework of building a stable post-conflict peace, under an approach of human security: “Disarmament and the rest of the DDR process is a confidence-building measure that both enhances and is enhanced by the coordination and relationship with other programs building long-term peace after conflict” (p. 19).

Chapter 3 follows the UN methodology on disarmament to identify the basics (and the problems) associated with the collection and management of information about weapons, including the regional environment; the collection of weapons; the management of stockpiles and the options for weapons destruction. High visibility makes disarmament one of the preferred options for those donors eager to show support for a peace process, despite the fact that it is only a first step and that complete disarmament is rarely possible (or even desirable, depending on cultural norms).

Recommending an adequate and balanced understanding of what disarmament is, Chapter 4 addresses demobilization. Shibuya calls it the “real heart of the matter” as he points out that the removal of command systems and the “reduction of the psychological state of combat is more important in establishing the foundations for long-term peace” (p. 55). Combining examples from Mozambique to Sierra Leone and Colombia, it is argued that disarmament must be understood as the physical manifestation of an ongoing psychological demobilization process. Critical questions are also addressed such as the survival of organizations under other forms; the relations between DDR and Security Sector Reform (SSR); and the situation of children and women combatants.

Finally, Chapter 5 deals with reintegration: a long-term social and economic process during which former combatants return to civilian status and acquire means of employment and income. This is often the least funded part in a DDR process as it takes a long time and happens later in the peace process, when “the international community losses interest in the project” (p. 86). A critical question is raised that allows us to dig deeper into the complexities of reintegration and shift from the individual to the community (and society) level: “Reintegration into what?” (p. 87). Reintegration encompasses important social, economic and political factors, and specific dilemmas – explained by the author as “sins of commission” (child soldiers) and “sins of omission” (pro-government militias).

The book’s final Chapter captures the depth of the dilemmas affecting policy-makers, scholars and practitioners involved in DDR. Despite the accumulated experience, a number of critical debates remain open. Is DDR effective? How can we measure its effectiveness? Should it be based on security or development? And implemented through integration or phasing? With international or domestic leadership? With a focus on community or on individuals? Shibuya argues strongly that “the problem is not identifying the problem” (p. 110), but how to provide (at least) partial solutions to the identified issues.

Whether you formally call it DDR or not, the question of what happens with former combatants after conflict is critical for the all-encompassing mission of building peace. Issues range from the micro-level of obtaining employment to the macro-level of the survival of armed (political or criminal) organizations, political processes, justice and social reconciliation. The survey provided in this well-written book is a welcome contribution to the literature, enriched with the use of important references and an updated bibliography.


Mabel González Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant, specializing in peace and security, with a focus on non-state actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding. She is also a contributing analyst to Wikistrat.

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