Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

The Hearts-and-Minds Myth

| July 15, 2021

How America Gets Counterinsurgency Wrong

After two decades, the United States is finally leaving Afghanistan, and only 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. In both countries, the insurgencies continue. It wasn't supposed to end this way. In both wars, Washington hoped that imposing democratic reforms could protect the population, win hearts and minds, and defeat the insurgency.

That, after all, was the narrative spelled out in the vaunted U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2006, which was intended to guide both campaigns. Drawing from Western practitioners' accounts of successful counterinsurgency campaigns over 60 years, the document argued that good governance—including democratic reforms—defeats insurgencies. "Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors," two generals, David Petraeus and James Amos, wrote in the manual's foreword. "They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law." A 2005 article in the journal Military Review by another pair of officers—Peter Chiarelli and Patrick Michaelis—made the same case: "A gun on every street corner, although visually appealing, provides only a short-term solution and does not equate to long-term security grounded in a democratic process." Governments must limit civilian casualties, they noted, because harming the population only bolsters support for the insurgency.

Civilian policymakers have made similar points. In 2009, the Center for a New American Security, the liberal-leaning U.S. think tank, recommended that a top priority for the United States should be to "promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Afghanistan and the region." In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers that in Afghanistan, "success requires a fully integrated civilian-military effort, one in which security gains are followed immediately by economic and political gains." She was in line with the rest of the administration of President Barack Obama: the National Security Strategy published by the White House that same year concluded that in Afghanistan and Iraq, "building the capacity necessary for security, eco­nomic growth, and good governance is the only path to long term peace and security."

In fact, successful counterinsurgency campaigns have rarely included democratic reforms, and there was little reason to believe that the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq would prove any different. Rather, when Western powers have intervened militarily to support a threatened government, they have often perpetuated the government's human rights abuses, bolstered self-interested elites, and harmed civilians. Even when an external power has pushed for reforms, it has found that its influence over another state's domestic political choices is limited, making democratic reforms exceedingly unlikely....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hazelton, Jacqueline.“The Hearts-and-Minds Myth.” Foreign Affairs, July 15, 2021.

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