Networks of Rebellion – Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse: Paul Staniland

The last three decades have seen a plethora of insurgent groups vying to topple sovereign authorities and regain control over contested territories. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Southeast and South Asia, insurgencies are unfolding with troubling regularity. South Asia has become a particularly fertile terrain for this kind of political activism. Despite the litany of variant insurgent groups across the region, there is a peculiar variation in their ability and capacity to prevail. Successes are rare. Why do some insurgent groups succeed at rebellion whilst others fail? Paul Staniland’s detailed study on insurgent cohesion and collapse aims to answer this question and puzzle. Through a social-institutional approach, Staniland argues that one critical factor matters greatly: how insurgent groups are formed before they congeal into a war-making unit. Pre-war ties between and within various communities and groups and how they are organised are thus key. Pre-existing social bases provide various social resources to groups as they mobilise and those that are able to adeptly meld vertical and horizontal relationships are better equipped to handle the vicissitudes of insurgency and civil war.

Using social bases as a key variable and bifurcating them by their vertical or horizontal alignment, Staniland puts forward a typology comprising of four types of insurgent groups – Integrated, Vanguard, Parochial and Fragmented. Integrated groups are formed out of robust central processes and local processes or high level of vertical and horizontal ties whereby the central leadership is united and disciplined and they are able to elicit similar levels of discipline from local cadres that buy-in to the movements driving motives. Vanguard groups possess strong central leadership and control but are lacking in local commitment stemming from disparate nature of groups that inhibit robust vertical linkages. Parochial groups are the converse – strong local groups and factions but weak central leadership that fuels competitive strategy making at the local level. And finally fragmented groups suffer from both poor central and local control and find it hard to manage the social ties within various groups on the ground. All these variations differ on the basis of the strength of their vertical or horizontal ties or their capacity to penetrate their social universes and mobilise the requisite support to manage respective movements. These social bases and how they are structured are critical determinants of insurgent success and failure, independent of other factors like material and resource flows, ideological cohesion and ethnic composition. What matters more, according to Staniland, are more malleable factors like trust and commitment within these group structures. Going further, Staniland theorises on why and how insurgent groups also change and evolve. The second part of the book studies on how these insurgent groups across South Asia evolve as they attempt to wrest control coercively from the state and how various internal factors like leadership shifts or fracturing leads to shift in the core nature of these groups. Importantly, understanding change helps us unpeel the factors affecting these groups as they engage with the state and its counterinsurgent forces. The framework is then applied to examine insurgencies in three different South Asian countries – Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka.

Clearly, Staniland’s scholarship fills several gaps in the literatures on civil wars and violence. It places the autonomy and agency of insurgents at the forefront. Whereas existing literatures tend to situate these actors within state contexts and then analyse their behaviour, Staniland gives precedence to the capacity of these groups to organise and leverage those ties to wage wars against the state apparatus. Second, his work challenges the notions that material forces are key in insurgent organisation and behaviour. Groups that are funded by illicit flows of capital are key to insurgent success but this does not explain why groups that are well funded fail which does hint to other factors, like social links, being involved. Fundamentally, Staniland’s work is instructive because it sheds light on three factors and their influence on insurgent organisation and operation – pre-war politics and social bases, history of political dissent and concomitant mobilisation of anti-state elements and insurgent dynamics. The cases show the robustness of the framework in explaining insurgent organisation and change, especially in Kashmir and Sri Lanka, where much change took place within these groups before they perished for various reasons. The LTTE, for example, despite being an integrated group could not eventually marshal the will and resources to defeat a more powerful and renewed state that had led a decisive counterassault.

Policywise, Staniland’s work has several implications as we engage with insurgencies across the Middle East and South Asia. For instance, what strategies should states use to counter these insurgents? In some cases, targeting their leadership and creating dissent within their local cadres can impair the resolve and effectiveness of these groups, which could lead to different outcomes. Or the nature of strategies or levels of armed mobilisation that is required from the state even if they are dealing with a strongly disciplined and organised insurgent group. Much can be learned from Staniland’s work from the policymaker’s standpoint. Before ending, however, two charges must be docked against the book. First, it is unclear how or if Staniland’s framework and structure will work in environments where states have ceased to function or have effectively failed. Here, armed insurgent groups will have greater space and writ to manage their domains, which will shift their incumbent strategies. Thus, the level and depth of social ties might not matter much to eventual organisation and operation. And second, Staniland, in my view, under appreciates the close linkage between the material and social or in other words, the material costs associated with organising and functioning as an insurgent group. Ties and links matter but they are harder to buttress without sufficient material resources flowing in. For instance, the Tamil diaspora across the western world played a significant role in sustaining the advocacy and agency of the LTTE and one can make the argument that this financing built greater levels of trust within the group as they battled Colombo. The material and social might play a more complex role than is accounted for by the framework constructed and applied within the book. Nonetheless, Staniland’s work helps illuminate much on the politics of insurgent organisation, cohesion and operation within the South Asian context that can be extended to study such groups in other regions as well.

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