Friday, August 13, 2010

'Hearts and minds': an historical perspective

B.D. Hopkins's article "The Problem with 'Hearts and Minds' in Afghanistan," published in the Summer 2010 Middle East Report (site here; subscription required), makes several interesting points. The phrase "hearts and minds" was first used in 1891 by Sir Robert Groves Sandeman, agent to the British governor-general in Baluchistan. "What came to be known as the 'Sandeman system,'" Hopkins writes, "was based on the recruitment of local tribesmen into the edifice of imperial governance." In at least a limited sense, the system worked for the British insofar as Baluchistan under the Raj was relatively peaceful and "was considered a quiet backwater of imperial administration."

A traditional colonial power, however, had certain advantages that the U.S. today lacks, Hopkins suggests. A colonial power "is plugged into local information networks and has deep ties of patronage through which it draws on a collaborating elite," whereas an 'imperial' state (as distinct from a colonial one) lacks comparable "roots and interests in local society...." Formal colonialism is extinct (well, virtually extinct), for which Hopkins is (presumably) grateful, yet this makes the task of counterinsurgency more difficult, he argues. There is no equivalent in today's Afghanistan to the British settlers in Kenya or Malaya who helped give "the colonial state...a vested interest in the outcome of counterinsurgency efforts." (Although it must be noted that the British counterinsurgency against the Mau Mau in Kenya was very brutal and hardly something one would wish to duplicate.)

Hopkins concludes by "doubt[ing] the success of any US strategy [in Afghanistan] at this point." Others think it still may be possible to salvage an acceptable outcome, as three authors recently argued in Foreign Affairs. Who is right? I'll leave readers to reach their own judgments.


hank_F_M said...


Well all of them have good points.

But is the conversation, not just their articles, a touch Anericentric? Or what is the correct magic formula and every thing will fall in place in thirty days or there is no 30 day magic formula so we should withdraw.

A political advisor told Candidate Clinton to put up a sing “It’s The Economy Stupid“.

Perhaps we should put up big sign “It’s A War Stupid”!

The slow drudgery of pushing two steps forward for every one back in a number of arena’s. About the beginning of this year we began an offensive to take out the Taliban as a significant military player. Success means we have the room for a least a minimally successful outcome, If we lose there won‘t be a successful outcome . It was optimistically predicted that it would take a year and another 20 to rebuild the country. It is going to take longer than a year.

Either withdraw for policy reasons that have nothing to do with the situation on the ground or provide the strength support and patience necessary for it to be a success..

This war is in execution phase not select a policy option phase. It is too early to call the outcome.

Thank you for letting me use the space to vent.

LFC said...

Thanks for venting.

DPT said...

The Afghan situation is not impossible to salvage, in that there really is nothing inherent in Afghan culture or geography that lend themselves to permanent civil war. The current condition of violence is a 30-year one with its origins in great power interventions. Ultimately Afghanistan's return to relative stability rests on the actions of Afghans, but how much the US can do to shape the conditions for that outcome is questionable.

Certainly Britain had stronger incentives to intervene. But was it actually "cheaper" and "quicker" than counterinsurgency today?

Another advantage colonial power has is the ability to maintain credibility and "staying power" in local perceptions. The fact that formal colonialism and conquest is over means that all insurgents can assume they are running down the clock and plan accordingly. This also makes it easy for insurgents to significantly bolster their strength by attracting foreign allies with interests in the post-conflict balance.

LFC said...

Yes, your point about running down the clock is one that Hopkins also makes in the article I mention.

I agree that Afghanistan is not fated by geography or culture to permanent civil war; however, as Biddle et al. observe in the linked Foreign Affairs piece, the country's modern history is one of decentralized government with substantial autonomy for local/regional power-holders. And that in turn suggests that 'success' probably should be defined in terms other than the creation of a centralized state on Western models.

hank_F_M said...


On the lighter side.

From Chicago Boyz, Afganistan in 2050

LFC said...

Hank: Thanks, I've read it, albeit quickly. On one level, somewhat amusing. On another level, I'll have to think about it a bit more.