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.

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