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.