Winning Hearts and Minds Has Failed America

An unceremonious, ugly end to the war in Afghanistan makes clear that U.S. counterinsurgency tactics are inadequate to deal with the very type of conflict they were designed for.

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Alex Mormorunni

In late September, the United States Senate held a lengthy and tumultuous hearing examining American presence in Afghanistan. Under questioning from senators, Pentagon officials divulged that President Biden had ignored their counsel when withdrawing fully from Afghanistan. This revelation fed sustained Republican criticism of Biden’s withdrawal effort, but also drew reproach from the left, as Senate Democrats criticized the disorganization of the extraction of forces from Afghanistan. A Reuters poll following the fall of Kabul found that Biden’s support among Americans plunged 7% in response to the event.

Bipartisan criticism of withdrawal efforts and loss of public support can make ending a war a political nightmare for a presidential administration. As the Times recently noted, the Biden administration will likely be remembered for overseeing the “humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan.” The political flak an American president takes for withdrawing from an unpopular conflict is made worse by an implicit question: as the most powerful military force in the world, why does the U.S. ever lose? 

America’s greatest military failures have come during our counterinsurgency efforts, with Vietnam and Afghanistan being the most notable examples. Both conflicts lasted decades, cost hundred of thousands of lives, spent untold billions in taxpayer dollars, and ended with insurgent forces controlling a country the U.S. fought to liberate. Though those two wars were separated by 28 years, use of a “hearts and minds” doctrine was the root cause of both failures.

The concept is fairly straightforward. By being supportive of the local population, or simply being a more lenient alternative to the harsh Taliban and or Viet Cong, the American military could win the “hearts and minds” of the local population, and by doing so, undermine support for the insurgents. In the ideal scenario, the U.S. prevails using minimal violence, even humanitarian methods to garner the support of local communities. The doctrine prioritizes achieving victory and looking like the good guys while doing it. However, this strategy, so ingrained in American military doctrine, has failed to produce positive results. 

Looking at counterinsurgency with a historical perspective shows us that the failure of this strategy is not a uniquely American problem. In fact, “hearts and minds” campaigns have been one of the least effective methods militaries have employed to put down armed uprisings. The idea of a hearts and minds campaign was first envisioned by British Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who during an anti-guerilla campaign in Malaya stated, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.” This statement quickly became popular military doctrine. Before the introduction of this idea during the Malaya conflict, democratic counterinsurgents around the world had won 40 out of 58 counterinsurgency efforts. After the introduction of hearts and minds as a concept, democratic counterinsurgency efforts were successful only six out of 27 times. This abysmal record demonstrates clearly that winning over a local populus politically is simply not tantamount to winning a war. From this, two questions arise. First, why doesn’t “hearts and minds” work? And second, are there more effective alternatives?

Despite its surface appeal, there were a variety of factors that made it fail. United States campaigns against the Viet Cong implemented hearts and minds (or “pacification” as it was more formally called) in a variety of ways. The Strategic Hamlet program placed Vietnamese civilians in fortified villages, protecting them from the Viet Cong and winning their favor by providing safety. However, these hamlets tied down allied Southern Vietnamese forces and created easy targets for enemy attacks. A similar issue arose during U.S. hearts and minds efforts in Afghanistan. A Princeton study of U.S. used humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan found that civilian communities that received American assistance were directly targeted for attack by the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, the insurgents whom we were attempting to undercut with hearts and minds chose not to sit idly by and let it happen. By targeting recipients of U.S. aid, the Viet Cong and Taliban made the costs of receiving assistance from the U.S. more personally risky than the benefit it conferred was worth. These methods of counter-counterinsurgency severely impeded the effectiveness of our pacification efforts. 

By constraining the level of violence the military is able to bring to a conflict, hearts and minds reduces the odds of successful military engagement. While a less violent war is obviously preferable, placing priority on local political support curbs America’s main wartime strength: the enormity of our military force and its firepower. Some of the most successful counterinsurgency efforts throughout history have been despised by local populations. Take Sherman’s “March to the Sea” during the Civil War as an example. His violent drive into the American South used a “scorched earth” policy to counter the Confederate insurgency by “making Georgia howl.” In his tear through the South, his army destroyed military, industrial, as well as civilian infrastructure. These extreme actions brought him the ire of most Southerners, but it also brought him victory. 

A key problem faced in countering armed uprisings is how closely insurgencies are tied to their respective populations. The Taliban, though funded and armed by out-of-country supporters, relied heavily on Afghan locals to feed them, house them, and fill their Jihadi ranks. There was no way to isolate and starve the Taliban of resources without harming the local populus as well. This is fine if, like Sherman, the safety of the civilian is not a fundamental concern in your efforts. However, any damage to the infrastructure of the country, or collateral harm to civilians is fundamentally at odds with the hearts and minds approach. The U.S. was, understandably, unwilling to impose the severity of “total war” methods on Afghanistan. A total war approach deemphasizes the importance of avoiding collateral damage and has been used by the U.S. to great success, not only in the Civil War, but also in the non-counterinsurgency efforts of WWII, which involved extensive efforts to cripple Japanese and German production capacity by carrying out air raids on entire cities. Total war is both terrible and effective. However, the Civil War and WWII were existential threats to the U.S., while neither Afghanistan and Vietnam called for nearly the same harshness of response. 

Because extreme violence wouldn’t have been justified in the non-existentially threatening conflicts of Afghanistan or Vietnam, our military employed the half-measures approach of hearts and minds. As a result, no matter how many Taliban were killed or conventional battles won by coalition forces, the U.S. was never able to curb Taliban strength to any consequential degree. This effect of pacification’s failure was a key reason for the drawn-out nature of these counterinsurgency efforts and why they became “Forever Wars”.

This leaves the American military with a dilemma. If half measures avail us nothing, and total war is uncalled for, what options are left when the U.S. must react to serious conflicts which don’t rise to the level of existential threats? A more serious emphasis on diplomacy, the third option, should be implemented. The Department of Defense has long overshadowed the State Department in both funding and political power. While diplomacy has limitations and would never realistically be the primary tool for responding to incidents like 9/11, it has enormous value in the prevention of conflict, and in bringing active wars to closure. As the saying goes: war is an extension of politics by other means. It may be advisable for this country to embrace politics, specifically enhanced diplomacy, as a form of war by other means. However, American military history and factors such as the military-industrial complex make it extremely unlikely that we will see any significant shift away from the military as the main player in foreign policy. Policymakers are then faced with the predicament of no good options. When it comes to counterinsurgency, total war is unethical, half-measures are ineffective, and diplomacy is unrealistic. Facing this issue, American policymakers have concluded that the middle path approach to counterinsurgency, via hearts and minds, is best. This means that, despite its proven uselessness, hearts and minds might continue to be the standard American response to counterinsurgency. As a consequence of this, it is likely that “Forever Wars” like Afghanistan may be forever a part of American policy.⬩

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