Reassessing the ‘Hearts and Minds’ Model of Counter-Insurgency

A couple of news items today bring forth contrasting visions of counter-insurgency success and failure. The first recounts the apparently quite successful reconstruction of Grozny; the second, the massacre of 16 Afghans by an American soldier. The contrast makes one wonder why the Russians seem to have done rather better at pacifying Chechnya than Western nations have done in Afghanistan or Iraq.

When Canadian troops moved into Kandahar province in 2006, we proclaimed that we would win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals through a combination of minimum force and development assistance. The term ‘hearts and minds’ was first coined by General Templar, the British commander in Malaya during the insurgency against the British there in the 1950s. An associated counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy was developed over the years by British and French writers such as Robert Thompson and David Galula, and eventually influenced American thinking, in large part through the influence of John Nagl, author of a book comparing the American and British experiences in Vietnam and Malaya.

Unfortunately, recent research suggests that the ‘hearts and minds’ approach is based on a false reading of history. British and French counterinsurgency was never the ‘hearts and minds’ phenomenon that COIN proponents suggest. In fact, it was generally extremely violent and involved regular abuses of the law. Former British army colonel David Benest has catalogued numerous instances of atrocities committed by the British army from the Malaya era through to the Northern Ireland years. Other authors such as David French, Paul Dixon and Andrew Mumford have similarly punctured the myth of the history of British counterinsurgency, while others still, such as Frank Ledwidge have shown that contemporary operations do not fit the myth either.

In short, the ‘hearts and minds’ view of COIN has been based all along on a misunderstanding of history. Not only is suppressing insurgency in a foreign country very difficult, but generally it cannot succeed without considerable application of violence, and it almost always comes with associated atrocities, either as deliberate policy or due to rogue elements.

This does not mean that the core COIN principles of minimum force, respect of the law, and so on are incorrect; it remains better not to antagonize people needlessly. It does, however, make one doubt whether the hope that COIN strategy offers a special solution for success in places like Afghanistan rests on sound foundations.

Related Articles

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

The CIPS Blog is written only by subject-matter experts. 

 

CIPS blogs are protected by the Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 


 

Congratulations America 🇺🇸! New President = New You🥳❗️ But is there something rotten below the with how we got there? 🌐CIPS' @gbardall argues that there are several pressing issues that must be faced by #BidenHarris! Read more here: https://www.cips-cepi.ca/2021/01/20/the-last-boomer-president-three-game-changers-for-46/

Our neighbour and closest ally 🇺🇸has new leadership👨‍🦳
and 🇨🇦Canada has a new Foreign Minister 👨‍🚀! But is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose? 🌐CIPS' Amb. Daniel Livermore doesn't think so ☹️. Read his case for urgent reform here: https://www.cips-cepi.ca/2021/01/17/memorandum-for-the-minister-for-foreign-affairs-welcome-to-gac-structural-challenges-ahead/

These three things will set the course of the #Biden-Harris administration. International #democracy and #security experience can help. Read about it on my latest blog w/@uOttawaCIPS https://twitter.com/uOttawaCIPS/status/1351916540753534989

Twitter feed video.These three things will set the course of the #Biden-Harris administration. International #democracy and #security experience can help. Read about it on my latest blog w/@uOttawaCIPS https://t.co/HZx0AAXxEd
CIPS uOttawa@uOttawaCIPS

"The incoming #BidenHarris2020 admin 🇺🇸 is positioned to serve as a no-nonsense clean-up crew 🧹and a bridge to the demographic future of the U.S." But after 4 paradigm-busting years how do we judge success? Read 🌐CIPS' @gbardall's superb new blog now: https://www.cips-cepi.ca/2021/01/20/the-last-boomer-president-three-game-changers-for-46/

Load More...