Crackpot theory no. 7: hearts and minds

The great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz remarked that, ‘Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.’

For Clausewitz, the primary aim of war was the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and there was only one sure method of achieving this objective: combat. In recent years, however, Western military forces have attempted to do what Clausewitz warned against – defeat the enemy ‘without too much bloodshed’. Following the failure of initial counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, counterinsurgency theorists convinced NATO leaders that the key to victory in Afghanistan  was a ‘whole of government’ approach. Military force would be combined with humanitarian aid and economic development projects, which would win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Aghans and persuade them to support the Afghan government and NATO rather than the Taliban. NATO would win not by killing people but by being nice to them.

How has this theory worked out in practice?

Not very well, is the answer.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), is responsible for auditing the $113 billion which the United States has spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan. Citing SIGAR’s new quarterly report to the US Congress, the latest update sent out by his office contains a particularly eye-popping statement:

Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. The MISTI [Measuring Impacts of Stabilization Initiatives] program reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability—an aggregate measure of whether the projects strengthened perceptions of good governance and effective service delivery—than similar villages that received no such assistance. And some villages reportedly under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support.

Why was this? According to SIGAR’s quarterly report, USAID says that raised expectations are to blame. Aid projects tend to raise villagers’ hopes of an improved quality of life. When their expectations ae not fully met, they become embittered.

There may be something to this explanation, but I’m not sure that it is the whole story. After all, it begs the question of why the projects fail to meet expectations. I would not be surprised if that is because the projects are often ill-conceived, disrupt existing practices and power structures, and are driven by perceived short-term security needs rather than the real requirements of local inhabitants.

SIGAR’s quarterly report [pages 118-120] also points to another factor. Apparently, USAID’s ‘Stability in Key Areas’ (SIKA) programs have improved ‘community cohesion, resiliency, and perceptions of local leaders’, but ‘at the expense of government officials’. Years ago, I heard complaints that in its haste to win ‘hearts and minds’, NATO was bypassing Afghan government institutions and officials (often deemed corrupt and/or incompetent), with the result that the aid was doing nothing to solve the fundamental problem of central government legitimacy which lay at the heart of the insurgency. These complaints may have been right.

SIGAR’s report suggests that ‘hearts and minds’ stability projects don’t win hearts and minds, but actually make matters worse. If confirmed, this finding is a terrible blow to counterinsurgency theory. The belief that one can win wars by building schools and digging wells has apparently turned out not to be true.

11 thoughts on “Crackpot theory no. 7: hearts and minds”

  1. There is one, exactly one, hearts and minds strategy that works:

    Once an enemy surrenders or yields, treat him gently, offer him a future and help him up from his knees.

    The problem is that the utterly manichean US world view is so incredibly hell bent of overdemonising any adversary (since this demonisation is apparently necessary to attack this adversary in the first place) that doing so becomes politically impossible.

    This is perhaps related to the US illusion that no enemy of the USA could possibly by “democratic” and that states only resist the USA out of the “evil designs of their corrupt rulers” and never because of their legitimate interests, or because the public at large will not countenance a kowtow before the US hegemon.

    As such, the Americans end up badly surprised when removing “corrupt evil rulers” just ends up rejuvenating and strengthening the popular resistance to US goals.

    Win the war first, hearts and minds come later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Given the relative calm of Chechnya compared to Afghanistan, it seems that the Russians are making better use of their money than the Americans. A scholarly comparison of counterinsurgency in Chechnya and Afghanistan would make a fascinating study.


      1. Said “relative calm” depends on a de-facto warlord who is willing to challenge and undermine Russian state institutions.


      2. Indeed, anonym2008, there is a definite downside to Russia`s chosen strategy. Whether it can maintain stability in the long term or is just sowing the seeds for future problems, remains to be seen. Then again, what is the alternative?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘Hearts & Minds’ COIN works when there’s a astute politician running it, and the schools & wells astutely located as part of a larger positive political program. It also takes good security & time.

    Americans aren’t too terrible at the security bit, but they have no clue about the rest.


  3. Reminds me of the story from Apocalypse Now, about inoculating children: “We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms.

    I don’t think you get the hearts&minds by pushing your vision of what the society in question must become – because, of course, you know better!

    I think you may get the hearts&minds by respecting – and tirelessly emphasizing your respect – for what this society is. Which is, I think, exactly what the RF government is currently doing in Chechnya…


  4. …hey, you know what else this reminds me of? Introduction of the voting right for women in Switzerland, in the last canton (half-canton, actually) where the women still didn’t have the right to vote.

    It was in the 1990s, I believe. That canton stubbornly refused to change its constitution. It’s become an embarrassment. What to do? We know what the American feds would’ve done: send the national guard. You know what the Swiss feds did? They hired lawyers. The lawyers studied the text – and issued a statement, saying that there’s an interpretation that doesn’t prevent women from voting. Case closed, end of story, move along – nothing to see here. Now, this is how you get hearts&minds…


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