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.