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Who Can Keep the Peace? Insurgent Organizational Control of Collective Violence

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Every armed organization seeks the ability to turn violence on and off by getting fighters to fight when ordered and to stop fighting when similarly ordered. This ability is a defining feature of what makes organized violence, in fact, organized. While state militaries develop clear hierarchies and disciplinary procedures to accomplish this goal, the complexity of civil war makes the task more difficult for insurgent groups. I argue that the leaders of insurgent organizations are able to turn violence on and off when they have deliberately established resource control through the direct, and exclusive, distribution of resources to their followers and those followers are socially embedded, meaning that members are united by strong horizontal ties and group norms. In contrast to existing approaches, I argue that material and social endowments do not predetermine whether leaders can establish resource control or embeddedness. Further, laying out the precise organizational mechanisms that determine when organizations can turn violence on and off challenges the utility of conceptions such as “fragmentation” or “cohesion” for explaining insurgent behavior and conflict outcomes. I test the theory by examining variation in behavior over time in two organizations facing different structural contexts—Jaysh al-Mahdi in Iraq and the Viet Minh in Vietnam—and find strong support for my argument while casting doubt on existing explanations.

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