Review of "Networks of Rebellion"

Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (New York: Cornell University Press, 2014)

As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and enters into a new war with ISIS, the perceived failure to defeat the Taliban or significantly harm ISIS has raised new questions about the resilience of insurgent organizations. Insurgencies have had renewed interest in the wake of the Afghan and Iraq wars, leading to a plethora of works related to the subject. Yet despite the increased attention, some basic questions still confound academics and policymakers alike. Why do some insurgent groups endure in the face of opposition and counter-insurgency while others quickly fade away? Why are some organizations able to persist, despite a lack of social connection to the community at large? These are some of the questions that Paul Staniland attempts to answer in his book Networks of Rebellion.

The primary purpose of Networks of Rebellion is to provide a model to examine insurgent groups. In order to accomplish this, he specifically examines the social connections that insurgent groups possess. By using a social institutional theory, Staniland argues that this gives any analyst the proper framework to examine how cohesive or fragmented a group is, how the organization evolves or changes in structure, and how resources are utilized.

By investigating the prewar formation and social roots of insurgent groups, multiple important questions about the organization can be answered. How the group is formed, how resources are used, whether the organization is cohesive, and which types of organizations are vulnerable to break up. But first, there is a difference in the prewar bases that organizations cull from when joining an insurgency. These four types of bases are the social organizations that are most likely to be turned into a rebel group. The qualifications used by Staniland in identifying these organizations as insurgent groups focus on two factors: whether the organization is planning for violence and whether the organization is in political opposition to the government it is fighting.

The social roots of insurgencies are categorized into two types of linkages: vertical and horizontal. Horizontal linkages are defined by the ties the organization have across geographic and social communities. An example of this would be the connections of different branches of an insurgent group, or the connections between those with a similar political ideology. Organizations that suffer from weak horizontal connections will face trouble with communication and coordination with other sectors of the organization, nor will expansion into different areas or communities be easy. Vertical ties, on the other hand, are ties that the branch has to the community. This linkage allows the group to carry out political or social projects as well as gain the trust and cooperation of the community. To sum up, strong horizontal ties lead to robust central command by the organization, while strong vertical ties lead to strong local connections. It is through a combination of these two forms of linkages that the different types of organizations are categorized.

Staniland’s typology of insurgent structure falls into four different categories: vanguard, integrated, parochial, and fragmented. Integrated organizations tend to have strong vertical and horizontal ties, leading to the central command of the organization having strong central control while also maintaining strong local processes. Vanguard organizations possess strong horizontal ties with weak vertical linkages; parochial groups have strong vertical connections but weak horizontal ties and fragmented have both weak horizontal and vertical connections. The dyad the terrorist organization possesses does not necessarily guarantee that the group is popular or successful. Indeed, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF, initially categorized as vanguard) was much more popular among the masses than its rival Hizbul Mujahideen (initially categorized as integrated), but it failed to turn this support into organization strength. Yet while Hizbul Mujahideen possessed strong vertical ties, this did not make the organization popular among the people. Rather, the strong local ties came from its social base, Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative religious organization whose social services were present throughout Kashmir, giving Hizbul leaders knowledge about local affairs even if their ideology lacked mass appeal.

Another important aspect for Staniland’s analysis of insurgent group is change within the organization. The mechanism for change is dependent on what the organization was initially. For instance, fragmented groups could possibly become stronger organizations if they are able to merge with another organization. Although the mechanisms for change for each organization are possible, Staniland notes that this ability to change is not made equal for all organizations. Using the example of fragmented groups again, these organizations tend to be eliminated or disappear as a major force instead of going through change. Indeed, throughout all of his group selection throughout conflicts in South Asia and Southeast Asia, not a single fragmented group remains a major player in the conflict for long.

Staniland’s theory of a social explanation of insurgent origins and change is quite convincing, especially since he is competing with several other popular theories in explaining insurgent organizations. Other popular theories that Staniland refutes include that ideology or the resources a group possesses determines the structure of an insurgent group. Staniland’s theory will take an important place for academics and policymakers in examining civil conflicts and insurgencies.

That said, the social linkages theory advanced by Staniland does possess some shortcomings. His theory cannot explain what strategies an insurgent group will take, nor can it be explain why some leaders choose or do not choose to create insurgent organizations from their social bases. This of course is understandable and would naturally fall outside the scope of the work. While the organizations in Kashmir fit fairly well with all aspects of the theory laid out, several other case studies does not fall neatly within his paradigm. Staniland himself admits this, but again this is not of major concern as several of the case studies lack reliable information on the structure of the organization (e.g. the Tamil insurgency and the civil war in Afghanistan) and the conclusions that can be reached fit within the broad contours of the theory.

Although Staniland’s theory is useful, one major type of organization in insurgencies that he does not cover are foreign groups. Groups like AQ and LeT fighting in Afghanistan or Kashmir are not present in his case studies nor in his analysis at all. In many modern insurgencies, foreign groups often play a major role in the fighting against, or even with, the state. Whether it is Hezbollah and ISIS in Syria or Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir, foreign organizations can play a vital part in civil conflicts. Lashkar-e-Taiba can be a very useful case study for this purpose.

Can Staniland’s theory apply to Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir? Already the theory faces several shortcomings. Although LeT’s structure can be described as integrated within Pakistan, this does not necessarily apply to Kashmir. Through LeT’s social organization, JuD, they are able to vertically link themselves to areas all over Pakistan, especially in the Punjab province where the group is based allowing for local information and ties to the communities. There is also a fair amount of centralization within the command structure of the group allowing for minimal dissent and fragmentation. So clearly the organization inside of Pakistan can best be described as integrated.

Yet, the same vertical ties are not present in Indian-held Kashmir. Most members of LeT are Punjabis, not Kashmiris. Many of the fighters and leaders of the organization lack what Staniland considers to be the best creators of horizontal linkages. Many of the fighters were not students or in organizations together, nor can the fighters rely on ethnicity to be a foothold into gaining vertical connections. Although the fighters and Kashmiri population share the same religion, this by itself is insufficient for creating connections. While Kashmir is known for possessing a Sufi-inspired form of Islam, the orientation of LeT is a Salafi connected school (Ahl-e-Hadith).

The fact that the group is from a different country also makes the application of Staniland’s theory difficult as it did not have to undergo a structural change that many domestically based groups will have to undergo. Although the organization might face pressure from the Pakistani government not to conduct attacks, they have little to worry about in terms of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, the theory would possess much more concrete explanatory power should the organization become directly involved in the insurgency against the Pakistani state. So the theory has a great weakness in explaining foreign non-state actors, as the connections and pressures they face are inherently different from those based in the territory under civil conflict.

Nevertheless, Paul’s theory still possesses great explanatory power in examining the structures of insurgent groups in general. Even with LeT, we can use the variables examined by Staniland’s theory to explain the structure of the organization with great accuracy. The book itself is a fresh injection of original thought for a subject matter that has seen an excess of publications in the last decade and will be a useful guide for academics and policymakers alike.