Small Wars Journal

Cruel to be Kind: Authoritarian Counterinsurgency and the Winning of Hearts and Minds

Cruel to be Kind: Authoritarian Counterinsurgency and the Winning of Hearts and Minds by David Ucko, Lawfare

Editor's Note: Dictators fight insurgents wrong. Rather than redress grievances and win over the locals, they repress and coopt, tolerating corruption and abuses. David Ucko of National Defense University explores why and how dictators often defeat insurgents despite ignoring the lessons of the US and other democracies.  

In counterinsurgency theory, legitimacy is everything – at least according to mainstream Western texts on the topic. Beyond the narrow pursuit of the enemy, so the theory goes, it is necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. Often maligned but seldom well understood, this phrase is erroneously credited to Gen. Gerald Templer, who, while commanding the British campaign in Malaya, noted that “the answer lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle but rests in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.”

Yet, if legitimacy is indispensable, how do we explain the apparent ability of authoritarian states to defeat insurgents with little to no concern for popular support or root causes? Be it the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Xinjiang, or Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign against his own people, there appears to be an alternative approach to counterinsurgency. So which is it: does authoritarian counterinsurgency succeed in spite of its indifference or because of it – or is our understanding of these regimes’ strategies simply flawed? …

Read on.


While I believe the article is factually correct, I think it misses some key points when comparing dictatorships to democracies conducting COIN. Winning hearts is seldom decisive, while winning minds is (or establishing control). Kilcullen in his book "Out of the Mountains" called it competitive control.

I assert that the communists and Islamists (and perhaps other forms of authoritarian governance) have a significant advantage over democracies in this regard (unless the country threatened by an insurgency already has a long history of democracy). Assuming there is a high degree of uncertainty and chaos, people are seeking safety by looking for governance that provides a rules based order. Communists and Islamists are more effective at using military force to achieve this political end, while using military force to establish a democracy simply creates more chaos in a time of crisis.

A messy democracy is O.K. in a relatively secure area, but it provides little hope in a chaotic situation. I suspect authoritarian governance is actually desired until things come under control, at which time you can begin to think about a gradual transition to a democratic form of governance. However, the U.S. is ideologically opposed to even establishing martial law, much less an authoritarian government to facilitate a smooth transition to democracy as conditions permit. In the short run we'll lose the competition for control when we're up against those who are willing to impose governance, versus offer a form of governance.