Posted by: Christian | November 17, 2007

Theorizing Conflict In Afghanistan

November 17, 2007.

Funny story: A while ago I was sitting in Starbucks making my $2 coffee last 4 hours while I did some reading. On the table I had a print-out of a UCLA PhD dissertation:

Sinno, Abdulkader H. 2002. Organizing to Win in Afghanistan and Beyond: How Organizational Structure Affects the Outcome of Strategic Interaction in Politicized Group Conflicts. Ph.D. Dissertation in Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles.

A guy walked by to sit at a table nearby when the title page of the dissertation caught his eye. He asked what I was reading and seemed quite interested. I told him all about the dissertation and how great it was. He seemed amused and then introduced himself as Abdulkader Sinno (good thing I gave the dissertation a good review). He told me that he was working on a book based on the dissertation and that many changes and improvements had been made. He was quite curious as to how I got my hands on an electronic copy of his dissertation (I got it from someone who got it from someone who got it from Sinno). He told me to stop by his office any time to pick up an updated version or chat about Afghanistan.

I skipped town soon after and was unable to take him up on his offer. But I stopped by his website recently and found out that his book is to be published by Cornell University Press in January 2008.

Organizations at war

Here is Professor Sinno’s description of the book project:

Is it possible to explain the evolution and to predict the outcomes of conflicts as complicated as those that afflicted post-1979 Afghanistan? Is it possible to use a common analytical tool to explain the results of ethnic, religious, revolutionary, secessionist, and liberation conflicts despite their treatment by scholars as distinct categories? This book makes the case that this could be accomplished by developing a new perspective and theory premised on the understanding that societal groups, civilizations, classes, religions and nations do not engage in conflict or strategic interaction — organizations do. To engage in conflict means to perform a number of complex processes—formulation and execution of strategy, coordination, mobilization, etc—and amorphous entities such as classes, civilizations or people cannot do such things. To assert that a given conflict pits a politicized group against another is to use shorthand to indicate that organizations that recruit among those groups are engaged in conflict. Words influence where we look for answers, and such generally accepted but distracting linguistic constructs have limited the ability of social scientists to develop useful and powerful analytical tools to better understand complex conflicts.

The Organizational Theory of Group Conflict avoids misleading linguistic constructs by focusing on that which truly explains the evolution and outcome of conflicts: the ability of politicized organizations to outperform their rivals. Successful overall performance results from the execution of a number of essential organizational processes such as efficient mobilization, strategy execution, coordination, the management of factionalism, and the processing of information. An organization’s ability to execute these processes depends on how its structure fits with its ability to keep its rivals at bay from a sheltered space.

A sheltered space is a portion of the contested territory where an organization’s rivals can not intervene with enough force to perturb its operations. Centralized organizations are generally more effective than non-centralized ones, but are more vulnerable to the attempts of rivals to disturb their operations because of their dependence on coordination among their different specialized branches. An organization—such as the state, an occupier, or a strong insurgent group—which controls a sheltered space that protects it from the easy disturbance of its operations by rivals must therefore adopt a highly centralized and specialized structure. Organizations that don’t have such a space must adopt a non-centralized structure to increase their odds of outlasting their rivals. To have a sheltered space is not essential to win the conflict, what is essential for the organization is to organize properly based on whether it has such a space. An organization that suddenly gains control of a sheltered space must therefore transform itself into a more centralized and differentiated structure or risk dissipating its resources.

The Organizational Theory explains otherwise puzzling behavior or developments one normally encounters in politicized group conflicts, such as the longevity of many unpopular regimes, the surprising demise of some popular movements, why some seemingly advantageous strategies are never adopted, and why some who share a common cause are often more concerned with undermining their ideological kin than their ideological enemies.

I test the theory by applying it to successive Afghan conflicts after 1979 and then to a larger (42 conflicts and 134 organizations) statistical sample, both of which confirm its predictive and explicative power. Afghan conflicts are particularly conducive to test the Organizational Theory because they feature a wide array of organizations with broad variation in structure that facilitate the conduct of revealing critical tests that hold most other variables constant. The Organizational Theory convincingly explains 1) the resilience of the Afghan resistance and the failure of both the Soviets and the Kabul regime to overcome the mujahideen, 2) why the Najib regime survived well beyond everyone’s expectations after the 1989 withdrawal of its Soviet sponsors and the suddenness of its ultimate demise in 1992, 3) why only two centralized mujahideen organizations tried to upstage each other while others largely disintegrated afterwards, and 4) the post-1994 dramatic rise of the Taliban that left all observers baffled. I use evidence from my own field research and from primary and secondary sources. The last chapter argues that the Organizational Theory is useful to analyze conflicts beyond Afghanistan by verifying its predictive ability on a large sample of conflicts—all ethnic, revolutionary and secessionist conflicts that lasted longer than three years in post-WWII North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The epilogue also explains initial U.S. military successes in Afghanistan following the September 11 events, and argues that current American efforts at “state building” in this country are likely to fail.

I’m cautiously skeptical of most, but not all, PoliSci theory. Afghanistan has the quirky quality of destroying theories that works elsewhere. And if you need a lot of data you probably can not test your theory. But Sinno has been working on this for a long time (PhD dissertations are not completed overnight), I would guess about 10 years. So if anyone could make theory work in Afghanistan, it would be Sinno.

I’ll write a review when I get my hands on the book. In the mean time you can visit


  1. Friday Blogwhoring

    by matttbastard
    Happy holidays to our Southerly neighbours, two of whom kindly presented holiday themed posts yesterday. Hope you’re having a halfway-decent BND/Black Friday, y’all. Love and runaway consumerism forever.
    (All Hail The Que…

  2. […] Massoud’s group could compare in terms of organizational control (according to Abdulkader Sinno’s analysis). The other factions of the time were generally based on the distribution of patronage. It is […]


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