Organizational Structures (M-Form and U-Form)

This Yesterday morning (still working on being actually efficient) I read about organizational structures in the context of insurgencies. (Hat tip to Sam for providing me with some papers on the subject.) I first got wind of scholarship on the interaction between organizational theory and insurgency from Seth Jones’ book, In the Graveyard of Empires. In the book, Jones describes al-Qaeda as a ‘complex adaptive network’ (Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 224-227). Such networks are flexible and ‘adaptive’. This flexibility gives that group, and others based on similar setups, a great deal of robustness. It is able to cope effectively with seemingly ‘catastrophic’ losses.

Patrick Johnston’s 2008 paper, “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone,” discusses two main organizational principles for insurgencies: U-form and M-form. (U-form designates groups with ‘U’nitary leadership; M-form applies to groups with ‘M’ultidivisional leadership.)

Considering insurgent groups from an organizational theory point of view is helpful, because it allows us to differentiate between types of insurgent groups, and—more importantly—to be more specific when discussing the aims and objectives, activities and operations of different groups, and how they change over time (See Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies”). In 1997, Kristian Berg Harpviken published a similar study of some of the main groups operating in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s, called “Trascending Traditionalism”. Three groups come under scrutiny: the Pashtuns, the Hazaras and the Taliban. He suggests that the Pashtun tribes were slow to react to the Soviet invasion: “The Islamist activists who triggered early uproar elsewhere were lacking in the tribal areas.” (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism,” 276)

Berg points out that different organizational structures ‘defined’ different groups. This led to them pursuing and achieving different ends, employing different means. They were unable to work together. They were divergent. (Berg, “Transcending Traditionalism.”) Sanín and Guistozzi argue that, leaders of rebel groups “have to decide which organizational techniques they will utilize” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 849). However, these choices are not conscious; Mullah Omar did not sit down and decide to create an ‘M-form’ movement. By a process of co-evolution, based on rules of thumb and responses to outside pressures, the Taliban movement developed into an ‘M-form’ institution, with its own benefits and drawbacks. Despite this caveat, Sanín and Guistozzi also argue that “organizational trajectories strongly ‘trap’ and ‘enable’ actors that operate within them” (Sanín and Guistozzi, “Networks and Armies,” 850). This suggestion implies that, once an organization makes the ‘choice’ to be either M-form or U-form, certain fundamental emergent principles of those forms ‘guide’ and ‘constrain’ those actors.

(At the risk of over-extension, we might also posit this as a reason why democracies function in the way they do. A strongly ‘U-form’ structure, coupled with—in most cases—decent government ‘penetration’, endears democratic states to certain courses of action.)

Another weakness of M-form organizations is that they are prone to opportunism. Their dispersed nature—in which information is necessarily atomized and not available to all members of the group (importantly the leaders) at all time—creates “[a]gents who enjoy greater autonomy from leadership and are [thus] able to pursue private objectives, often diverting the organization’s resources from their intended uses for their own.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 114, emphasis added) Problems also arise in terms of cooperation with ‘bandits’ and groups which, if the leadership had more direct control, would not be permitted to access the Movement. Because the Taliban is an M-form organization, local commanders (who may not have the same standards as the main leadership) are charged with recruitment, and thus, “there has been some contamination of the Taliban by bandit groups.” (Guistozzi and Gutiérrez Sanín, “Networks and Armies,” 847)

Johnston closes his paper with the notion that “[n]egotiations involving M-form organizations [are] likely to fail because the nature of M-form hierarchy makes it very difficult for top-level commanders to affect compliance from mid- and low-level subordinates.” (Johnston, “Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 136) This has serious implications for the recent peace talks in which ‘the Taliban’ has been engaged. The sheer chaos of Afghanistan makes it unamenable to that sort of organization. As Johnston points out of Liberia under the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s, Liberians living under Charles Taylor’s regime complained of “decrepit infrastructure and communications technology” that allowed Taylor’s “mid-level commanders to operate relatively autonomously from those in the Gbarnga capital.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 122)

Johnston posits the hypothesis that “insurgent groups that are ethnically homogeneous will be more effective.” (“Geography of Insurgent Organizations,” 118) This was a key strength of the Taliban in their early days. Their ability to mobilize the Pashtuns is what set them apart from other, better equipped, better organized, more coherent resistance groups in the early 1990s.* A big-picture view of Johnston’s thesis presents more evidence that (modern) insurgent groups are rarely homogeneous. Often divisions fall along ethnic or tribal lines.

In terms of notes for the future, I’m now looking into the Taliban’s organizational structure and how it has changed over time. I also need to start looking for information about how the drug trafficking groups are organized. I think I’ll re-read Seeds of Terror (although I’ll be a little more skeptical this time round).



* See Sinno, “The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews and Tarzi (eds), The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, 59-89; also Harpviken, “Transcending Traditionalism,” Journal of Peace Research, 34 (1997): 271-287.

Works Cited

Harpviken, Kristian Berg. “Trascending Traditionalism: The Emergence of Non-State Military Formations in Afghanistan.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 34 (1997): 271-287.

Sanín, Francisco Gutiérrez, and Antonio Guistozzi. “Networks and Armies: Structuring Rebellipn in Colombia and Afghanistan.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol. 33, No. 9 (2010): 836-853.

Johnston, Patrick. “The Geography of Insurgent Organizations and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone.” Security Studies. Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008): 107-137.

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. np: Norton, 2009.

Sinno, Abdulkader. “Explaining The Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns,” in Crews, Robert D. and Amin Tarzi (eds). The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 2008. 59-89.

Here We Go Again


I stopped blogging a while ago. The last post here was the one about that talk I went to about the Uighers. I’m not going to go into the wherefores of that here. What I’m going to talk about is why I am going to start writing here again. The reason is two-fold. First, as a place to enhance (or create) a status for myself as an academic (whatever one of those is). Second, I’m going to use it as a place to put all of the research that I find mind-bogglingly interesting into one place, so that I can come back to it again, and so that it doesn’t end up in my dissertation, adding fluff to an already-unbearably-cute thesis.

In an effort to tighten up the thesis, improve my writing, and not have to worry about not telling people about the awesome stuff I’m finding out, I’ll use the blog to write about things that are not directly relevant, but still seriously interesting. There are many of these things. In meetings with my supervisor, he describes me as a distracted (and distractable) puppy, constantly rushing off to the next thing. So, this blog is going to be a place for me to “hide the crazy”. I will keep it reasonably formal, because, really that’s the only way I know to write. (Even when I try fiction it ends up with academic-style introductions: “This story will tell you this, and this and this.” Maybe it’s just my style.)

For instance, yesterday, I was reading about veils. (Part of my thesis is concerned with appreciating cultural differences.) And I learned something fascinating from Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed’s chapter “Dress Codes and Modes,” in Jennifer Heath’s book The Veil. Shaheed makes the point that differences in dress codes have always shocked those not used to them. In British colonial times, when English ladies saw Indian women with bare feet and midriffs (even at the dinner table) they were offended. In the same way, as the clothing restrictions on women lifted after the Victorian era, British women’s décolletages and bare ankles upset the Indian ladies.*

That’s basically the crux of what I want to get at with my discussion of cultural differences. There are differences between cultures, but that doesn’t mean that one culture is ‘better’ than another. It simply means that they are different. And isn’t it awesome that there is a difference! </puppydog>

I’ll now speak, poetically, if I may, to the first reason behind my ressurecting this old, well-dead horse for another flogging. In an age where publishing models are changing, it’s becoming important for academics (and those of us who aspire to a garret in an ivory tower) to think about their ‘impact’ in different ways. The internet has changed the way that people access, create and supply information, knowledge and creative ideas. That’s a given. What is not changing, are the institutions by which this information (particularly in the academic sphere) is being created.

Certainly there are exceptions to this, but it is by no means the rule. Take for example, the online journalzine, Infinity Journal. Personally, I’ve been subscribing to and reading this journal since its inception. In the latest issue, the editors described the dearth of useable material they had received. (On occasion I have considered submitting to Infinity Journal, but have yet to summon the courage (or to adequately prioritize it).)

However, a recent article on the excellent Kings of War blog has reignited my passion for sharing ideas, and, more specifically, for the ‘medium’ of blogging. So I’m going to give it another go.

Whether I actually keep this up is another matter. Only time, and structured learning (and structured, planned use of my own time) will tell. But I hope that you enjoy reading my diversions. And that they keep the dissertation itself on course.

* See, Fox Shaheed, “Dress Codes and Modes,” in Heath (ed), The Veil, 294.