Time to Move on from Hearts and Minds

How to Win in Afghanistan - Brigadier Justin Kelly, Quadrant Magazine.

Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.


General Sir Gerald Templar's admonition during the Malayan Emergency that "the answer [to the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and the minds of the people" has echoed through the ensuing half-century and has become the basic precept on which counter-insurgency campaigns are - or apparently should be - designed. Nowadays, hardly a day passes in which some journalist or general is not reminding us that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan. Echoing this proposition, in January 2009, the Secretary General of NATO argued that good governance "would suck the oxygen out of the insurgency". Similar statements were made about the war in Iraq; to argue against Bush's 2007 "surge" of troops and to emphasise that here lay a "quagmire" - dreaded by all in the US Congress and the New York Times - from which immediate withdrawal was the only solution.

This essay argues that aspects of the above propositions may be true - but they are irrelevant. That, in reality, there is no military solution to any war; that "hearts and minds" might hold the solution but they are beyond our immediate reach; that good governance (and its corollaries of law and order and national infrastructure meeting the physical needs of the community) might suck the oxygen out of an insurgency but is at best a secondary factor unattainable for many years; and that we are, in our timeless way, attempting to fit square Malayan pegs into round Middle Eastern holes. The essay concludes that until there is security there be no real progress and, as a result, we should be doing more fighting and fewer good deeds.

It is not clear from where our present woolly thinking emerged. It is a characteristic trait of humans that we try to understand events and decide on actions by the application of metaphor: "this situation looks like the one last week, Action A worked then, I'll try Action A again today". In many situations this works perfectly well, in some it does not. The present application of the "British Model" of counter-insurgency to quite different contexts may be an example of this approach to problem solving. Certainly, the media, the public and politicians find it easier to argue for the benefits of reconstruction, education, political reform - hearts and minds - than they do for the remorseless hunting down and destruction of insurgents.

Equally, perhaps, part of our problem may be that, because of some its specific attributes, the military has tended to conceptually separate counter-insurgency from the rest of its understanding of war, giving it a level of uniqueness which it does not warrant and perhaps clouding our understanding of it. Although in both Iraq and Afghanistan, on the balance of probabilities, we will eventually muddle through and bring the war to some kind of acceptable conclusion, it would be better if we understood what it was that we were about...

Much more at Quadrant.

Bonus - Brigadier Justin Kelly on How to Win in Afghanistan - Quandrant videos - six parts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

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BG Kellys thesis that "we should be doing more fighting and fewer good deeds" is one probably shared by many soldiers and marines that have faced the growing frustration of an insurgency that appears to continue to spread. Good deeds appear to be a waste of time in the face of insurgent violence. Although this frustration is understandable BG Kelly presents us with a false dilemma - either good deeds or fighting - and he fails to consider the role that "winning hearts and minds" plays as part of a broader strategy.

No two insurgencies are the same and BG Kelly is right to warn us to avoid seeing a British success in Malaya in the 1950s as an exact model which may be applied to Afghanistan. But insurgencies by their very nature do share some characteristics. The state has more military power in total than the insurgent, the insurgent attempts to conceal its organization and activities in order to avoid the superior military of the state and the insurgent gains most of its resources from the population through a variety of mobilization techniques such as coercion and persuasion. A final commonality of insurgencies is that indiscriminate military attacks by the state against the population, in an attempt to defeat the insurgent, usually have the secondary effect of shifting more popular support to the insurgent. Thus, an effective counterinsurgency strategy must include methods to limit the resources that flow from the population to the insurgent, which would include protecting the population from the coercion of the insurgent. This strategy must also include a method in which the state can increase its information about the insurgents so it can deliver military strikes that defeat the insurgent without causing an unacceptable level of damage to noncombatants. The common term for such a strategy is population-centric; and "winning hearts and minds" may be considered a component of population centric strategy.

The term "hearts and minds" has been misunderstood since Gen Templer used it in 1952 (a term which he regretted using - see the book Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960 by Richard Stubbs). The phrase is frequently interpreted as a strategy designed to win the sympathy of a population by doing good work and addressing some of their fundamental needs. The faulty reasoning being - doing good stuff for them will make them like us better than the insurgents, and therefore they will support us and not the insurgents. As David Kilcullen points out in a briefing posted on Small Wars Journal this "gratitude theory" is not only faulty reasoning but extremely dangerous. See-smallwarsjournal.com/documents/kilcullencoinbrief26sep07.ppt.

"Hearts and minds" as part of a population-centric strategy involves winning the "mind" of the population through legitimate and persistent demonstration of the superior commitment and resources of the government over the insurgents. The population makes a cost-benefit analysis where the cost to support the insurgent is great and the benefit is minimal but the cost to support the state is low and the benefit is high. This assumes a logically thinking population and the decision based on this cost-benefit analysis, would only favor the state if the population were secure. If the cost of supporting the state is death, then most people will chose the insurgent. This would indicate that security is a prerequisite for any civic action and development programs. However, that security - without development - only addresses one side of the equation.

The "hearts" part of hearts and minds is equally critical but usually harder to evaluate. There are factors that affect peoples choices that go beyond simple rational choice. Emotions, commitment to family members, relationships inside small group and organizations, social proof, peer pressure, personal and group status, and prestige factors all combine to influence some people to make decisions that an outsider might see as irrational but one which the decider believes is the best choice. In some societies, these choices are not made by the individual but by group leaders (such as in certain patron-client relationships).To understand how these decisions are made and how coalition forces may influence these choices or "win the heart" of a population requires a deep understanding of the society and culture in which the conflict is taking place.

BG Kelly is exactly right that security must be the primary concern for the counter-insurgents. Any attempts to influence a population will quickly fail if the security of the population is overlooked. Thus, any strategy that failed to secure the population would lead to failure, this includes a strategy that involved doing random acts of kindness but it also includes disregarding population security in favor of hunting for Taliban members. We learned in Iraq that disregarding the populations security in favor of finding and killing insurgents at any cost alienated the population, fostered mistrust and allowed the insurgents more resources and freedom of movement. Either strategy would allow the Taliban to exercise control over the population and make the coalitions job impossible (see Thomas Ricks new book Gamble for a description of the change in US strategy from hunting insurgents to securing the population).
A final point is that our ability to fight the Taliban depends on accurate information. In counter-insurgency, the hardest part for the state is to find the insurgent. A smart insurgent works within the population and does not offer himself to coalition airstrikes or combat brigade attacks. He disperses or hides within a civilian population. Thus, the only way to gain accurate information about the insurgent is through building a relationship with the population. Only a population that trusts the state and believes the state is working in the interest of the people will begin to turn over information on the insurgents. As the state secures the population and begins to address the needs of the population, then the population gives information to the state; and as the state gets better information, it targets the insurgents more accurately and with less unintended damage which in turn creates a safer environment and the process continues. Accurate information leads to measured use of force with limited impact on noncombatants; conversely, with poor information more noncombatants get hurt and the people are less likely to trust the state and more likely to support the insurgents.

BG Kelly certainly knows this and has seen it work in Iraq; his frustration then may be a reflection of the initial failure of "hearts and minds" practitioners, whether they be special forces, civil affairs, or infantry soldiers. While focusing on the security of the population, they have failed to avoid random acts of kindness; to design civic action programs, community engagement activities, and information operations that mobilize the population; to reinforce government legitimacy; and failed to allow local people to play an active role in improving their own lives. The design and application of programs that can truly influence the population can be a tedious affair requiring long discussions "over tea" with local leaders and a constant negotiation process with persons of influence within the population. The simple determination of who has real influence can be time consuming and when impatience sets in, the temptation to select school projects or medical outreach that is simple to execute but may have little real effect can be great. It is essential for all of us, whether civil affairs, special forces, infantry or quartermaster to design programs that require local influential leaders to become involved and actively participate. Active civic engagement that builds Afghan local and national legitimacy conducted in a secure environment will allow coalition and Afghan forces to target and defeat the Taliban. This, in combination with capacity-building of the Afghan security forces, is how we will win in Afghanistan.

An excellent, thought-provoking piece. I do have some quibbles: I'm not sure I entirely buy into the characterization of political dynamics within Afghanistan, and I think a major reason for the success of the al-Anbar Awakening/Surge/SoI in Iraq--namely, Sunni fear of unleashed Shiite military power--has been omitted.

Nevertheless, it does usefully highlight the extent to which outsiders--especially in Afghanistan--will find it difficult to win "hearts and minds." It also is an antidote to excessive COIN fetishism.

That being said, I think there are two issues that deserve further exploration.

First, while resources may never buy you love in this context, they can affect the cost-benefit analysis of locals, whether in terms of the cooperation they offer or the willingness of individuals to join the insurgency. Clearly the material, non-kinetic parts of COIN have some importance, especially in a context where the insurgency itself has its own complex internal dynamics.

Second, what does "a strategy focusing on the annihilation of Taliban power" look like? What does it require, both operationally and in terms of allocated resources? Are these costs that the US and NATO can or will pay? How might its consequences--for example, collateral damage--affect the legitimacy of the Afghan central government? The Soviets, of course, tried an annihilation strategy with 100,000+ troops, 15,000 KIA, millions of Afghan dead/injured/displaced, all with little success.

Also, how does such a strategy impact on Pakistan, and what needs to happen on the Pakistani side to make it possible? What can reasonably be expected from Pakistan, given their own domestic politics?

Perhaps most important, if pop-centric developmental COIN isn't a magic wand, and full military victory in the "annihilation" sense isn't possible, what are the remaining mix of compromise policy options?