Last week ProPublica carried a post decrying wasted US tax dollars on “Hearts & Minds” programs in Afghanistan, and the White House’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program attracted some positive buzz for its college student social media campaign and other attention here, here and here. It got me to thinking about what we know about winning hearts and minds. So I put the question to several of our regular contributors, and this is what I learned.
Barbara F. Walter observes that “academics and policymakers do not agree on what they mean by ‘winning hearts and minds’.” That certainly makes communication challenging. She continues:
Does it mean that the local population starts to support you? Does it mean that they target you with less violence?
And that’s not the only difficulty.
There’s also no agreement on how exactly you achieve these goals. Does the U.S. win hearts and minds in places like the Middle East through large public works projects? By increasing development aid? By providing order and security? By handing out food? By doing nothing?
Note that this references half of the issue as framed by last week’s stories: we tend to think of “hearts & minds” as a counterinsurgent issue “over there,” but the CVE program features a partnership between federal, state and local US law enforcement who are expected to actively engage community leaders. Just as they did during the Cold War, US government officials are defining “winning hearts & minds” as both a domestic and an international issue. Many other governments have done the same.
When I read about such policies I can’t help but wonder whether Sir Robert K. Thompson might roll in his grave and wonder “What’s wrong with good governance?” (i.e., are special programs required to offer “them” constituent service, and if so, what does that say about the quality of our democracy?)
But I digress.
Walter‘s point is important, and she closes with this kicker:
Even if we could agree on what we mean by the concept, we have no systematic evidence of what works and what doesn’t work, and under what conditions.
She overstates the case, for effect, but we do have precious little systematic evidence. What we do know is nicely summarized as four key lessons here, and Walter summarizes thusly:
Small scale development projects that were carefully planned and targeted did appear to reduce violence in these countries, but many other types of intervention tended to increase violence.
Paul Staniland agrees, and suggests that a focus on “hearts & minds” may have us missing the key issues in active conflicts “over there”:
Hearts and minds likely “matter” in some background way, but nitty-gritty variation in conflict dynamics seems to be driven more directly by the balance of military control, organizational discipline, and institutionalized social mobilization.
Rather than trying to win over “the population” writ large, insurgents and counterinsurgent tend to be more effective when narrowly and selectively trying to manipulate the behavior of specific individuals, networks, and organizations. Providing public goods doesn’t do much, because by definition they are accessible to everyone regardless of their attitudes or behavior, and providing club goods inevitably requires a substantial degree of surveillance, population control, and coercion that quickly blends into large-scale, militarized state-building.
That is, if we target sub-populations perceived to “be at risk” to insurgency, that tends to come part and parcel with the type of policing played out in Boston this week, thus minimizing, and possibly canceling out, the positive effects.
Joe Young notes that “what we know is bad for winning hearts and minds is indiscriminate repression.” Staniland’s observation suggests that the “stick” is generally part and parcel to the “carrot,” and whether played out “over there” or “at home,” policing has a tendency to become indiscriminate.
Page Fortna continues this line of inquiry, pointing out that terror tactics are “bad for winning hearts and minds,” and as her research shows, “that’s a big reason rebel groups that use terrorism are less likely to succeed (either to win outright, or to achieve a negotiated settlement).” On the government side, Gil Merom has argued that only dictatorships are able to avoid this trap.
Allison Beth Hodgkins offers some insight to the criticisms leveled in the ProPublica piece, and emphasizes the importance of execution after a “hearts & minds” program is adopted. In particular, culture clashes across government agencies and contractors are a problem:
While they work together, each one has a bureaucracy or agenda behind them that is intuitive to them but opaque to the other. So expectations are often mismatched and communication misinterpreted…it’s kind of like two mismatched gears spinning in opposite directions – they don’t mesh together, rather grind or fly off each other until one is ground down enough to latch.
She also notes that “good old fashion greed and corruption… and not always on the part of the “locals”” do their bit to undermine these programs. In brief: banal bureaucratic politics and the challenges of public-private partnerships need to be considered when we assess “hearts & minds” programs.
Stephen Saideman argues that “it really is not about hearts and minds but about confidence,” by which he means peoples’ beliefs about the future. When a government has a history of failing to provide people with constituent services, a new program will be viewed as a temporary fix that won’t last long. In the “over there” context this is especially pernicious:
A foreign country performing counter-insurgency will eventually/always leave, so their ability to gain the confidence of the local populace is limited; and a foreign intervention is taking place precisely because the indigenous government has failed to provide security.
I will observe that the government in Baltimore, for example, also faces this dynamic.
Saideman’s research suggests that striking this balance is key:
A government that is competent and able enough to use force to deter the potential/actual insurgents while being restrained enough to reassure the population that whatever force that is used is used only against those who violate the bargain.
That point seems to apply equally well “over there” and “at home.”
In closing, I return to Walter:
Should we abandon the idea of winning hearts and minds? No. But we should be very conscious about how little we know and realize that intervention often does more harm than good.