Foreign Policy Essay

Cruel to be Kind: Authoritarian Counterinsurgency and the Winning of Hearts and Minds

By David Ucko
Sunday, May 22, 2016, 10:36 AM

Editor's Note: Dictators fight insurgents wrong. Rather than redress grievances and win over the locals, they repress and coopt, tolerating corruption and abuses. David Ucko of National Defense University explores why and how dictators often defeat insurgents despite ignoring the lessons of the US and other democracies.


In counterinsurgency theory, legitimacy is everything – at least according to mainstream Western texts on the topic. Beyond the narrow pursuit of the enemy, so the theory goes, it is necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. Often maligned but seldom well understood, this phrase is erroneously credited to Gen. Gerald Templer, who, while commanding the British campaign in Malaya, noted that “the answer lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle but rests in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.”

Yet, if legitimacy is indispensable, how do we explain the apparent ability of authoritarian states to defeat insurgents with little to no concern for popular support or root causes? Be it the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Xinjiang, or Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign against his own people, there appears to be an alternative approach to counterinsurgency. So which is it: does authoritarian counterinsurgency succeed in spite of its indifference or because of it – or is our understanding of these regimes’ strategies simply flawed?

From Russia with Love

Conventional wisdom suggests that autocratic governments reflexively oppose any form of accommodation; autocracy, after all, denotes centralization of power. And yet, many authoritarian regimes expend significant effort to win support among the populations from which insurgent threats have emerged. Russian history is instructive. During the Bolshevik war against the White Army, Lenin’s New Economic Policy was enacted specifically to alleviate the misery facing the Russian peasantry and gain their support, even at the cost of ideological purity.

Similarly, following the 1944 occupation of the Baltic States and Poland, Soviet attempts to counter subversion included an agrarian program designed to win hearts and minds. In terms strikingly similar to Western counterinsurgency doctrine, Moscow lectured local communists that “insurgency cannot be successfully suppressed by police and military operations alone, without raising the broad masses against them.” Much later, in Afghanistan, Russia again sought hearts and minds. As the mujahidin economy relied on local agriculture, the Soviet Union tried to coopt Afghanistan’s rural population to starve the insurgency. In this instance, the effort yielded various economic projects and a larger-scale, Marxist-inspired land redistribution program.

Russia’s focus on hearts and minds is apparent even in Chechnya. After years of neglect, in 2007, Putin granted funding to Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, to reconstruct the province. Grozny transformed quickly, given its starting point, with apartment blocks appearing throughout the city. Socially, Kadyrov engaged in a campaign of Islamization – building mosques (the largest in Europe), enforcing headscarves for women, limiting alcohol sales, and closing down brothels. The intent is to out-Islamize the guerrillas, to appropriate their cause. Kadyrov also initiated a counter-corruption campaign, rehabilitated former guerrillas and turned its leadership, and resurrected Chechen traditions (such as mandated teaching of Chechen in schools). The achievements are such that other Russians now see Chechnya as “a part of Russia in name only” and resent the allocation of federal funds – substantial and certainly unsustainable – for the breakaway republic.

[I]f legitimacy is indispensable, how do we explain the apparent ability of authoritarian states to defeat insurgents with little to no concern for popular support or root causes?

Can’t Buy Me Love

Russia’s emphasis on hearts and minds is not unique among dictatorships. The Chinese government has imposed repressive policies in Xinjiang, making organized dissent all but impossible, but it has also sought to win over the local Uyghurs. The government launched the ‘Open up the North-West’ program in 1992 and ‘Great Development of the West’ in 2000, the latter allocating 900 billion yuan (approximately 108.23 billion USD) to Xinjiang-based infrastructure projects. In parallel, the Chinese government accorded ethnic minorities privileges, such as a relaxed one-child policy, affirmative action, and lower taxes.

Yet, if there is evidence of authoritarian regimes engaging in hearts and minds programs, it is less certain that these charm offensives have altered regime legitimacy or the outcome of campaigns. First, these efforts are typically shaped by the regime’s own ideology rather than the needs and aspirations of those they target – particularly where the state itself is governed by a particular social theory. Given the “unitary and assimilationist characteristics of Chinese nationalism,” for example, its engagement with Xinjiang seems utterly oblivious to the religious and identity-driven roots of the struggle and promotes instead economic palliatives as a solution.

Similarly, when the Soviet Union sought to co-opt the war-ravaged populations of the western borderlands, its go-to solution was taken straight from Das Kapital and reflected ideological impulse more than local need. Initially, taking land from the rich and giving it to the poor engendered pro-Soviet attitudes among the majority population – that is, the poor. Yet, with time, the unrelenting foisting of collectivization as the answer to agrarian problems raised the worst fears of the local workforce, who were well aware of its disastrous effects in the Soviet Union.

Notably, in this instance, neither the hearts and minds campaign nor its overall failure had much of an effect. Instead, the Soviet Union’s stranglehold and ruthless application of violence instilled despondence among the insurgents. Resistance was deemed futile, and people either died or moved on. The same pattern can be seen in Afghanistan, where hearts and minds programs were easily eclipsed by the destruction wrought by the campaign. Seeking to break the bond between worker and guerrilla, the Soviet Union razed the lands on which the insurgency was thought to depend. Hearts and minds remained an afterthought or amounted to sporadic humanitarianism, badly integrated, and with no political effect. Indeed, in only three years, the Soviet attempt to co-opt the local work force had all but eliminated the government’s tax base and made it dependent on food imports.

The hearts and minds efforts in Chechnya and Xinjiang highlight a further obstacle: the apolitical nature of efforts made and the absence of grievance mediation. In Chechnya, Kadyrov’s efforts to win over the population have occurred amid repression and state violence, including killings, disappearances, and torture. Conditions have improved, but the economy is still in tatters and reconstruction is limited to Grozny and precariously dependent on outside funds. Socially, Islamization may have swayed rebel leaders, but sits badly with Chechnya’s traditionally secular populace. Indeed, their underlying grievances remain unmediated and renewed hostilities are not unlikely.

Clearly, authoritarian regimes do endeavor to win hearts and minds, even if their efforts are misguided or counter-productive.

In Xinjiang, too, economic efforts have left political grievances untouched – or even made them worse. The projects launched tend to favor the local Han population, which has grown in tandem with Chinese investment in the province. Indeed, the government has encouraged westward migration so that the Han can guide the locals toward economic integration. The implied ethnic hierarchy is seen also in the privileges reserved for minorities, which are often viewed as denoting backwardness and declined for their stigma. The new opportunities have created a small Uyghur middle class, but it sits uncomfortably between a Han elite and far larger Uyghur working class, both of whom look upon it with disdain. More generally, excluded from emerging markets, the Uyghurs view China’s policies as exclusive and exploitative of their indigenous lands.

Winning Hearts and Minds by Other Means

Clearly, authoritarian regimes do endeavor to win hearts and minds, even if their efforts are misguided or counter-productive. Notably, this verdict applies also to democratic counterinsurgency, whose hearts and minds programs tend to reflect Western norms rather than local need or are altogether eclipsed by the military aspects of the fight. And yet, authoritarian regimes operate with the added challenge of winning support without political reform and amid the continued repression of a police state. Unsurprisingly, within such a context, outreach and handouts have only a limited effect on regime legitimacy.

A more successful approach, used by a number of authoritarian regimes, is to turn this disadvantage on its head and use the trappings of the police state to win hearts and minds by other means. In these cases, the state interposes itself in every local transaction and activity, and thereby renders itself indispensable to public life. Such penetration is possible because of the state’s pervasive security presence, which allows it to combine the sticks expected of this set-up with occasional carrots, leading gradually to predictability, stability, and even something resembling legitimacy, yet without the state conceding political space.

This approach can be seen in Xinjiang. As part of what Martin Wayne calls ‘society-centric warfare’, the state has purged and co-opted local institutions, and thereby permeated public life. From this position, the state uses social levers to force a public disassociation from the insurgency and assimilation with Chinese norms. In education, Mandarin is positioned as the language of opportunity, teachers (state-employed) are carefully monitored, and a centralized curriculum inculcates the wonders of the Chinese state. In culture, the role of religion is constrained, state officials deemed ‘too religious’ are eliminated, under-18s are prohibited from studying Islam, and imams are closely monitored and barred from political activity. Combined with repression and control, the long-term effect of these measures will likely be the province’s involuntary integration into the Chinese mainland, even if in the meantime we see the consequences of unmediated grievances. Indeed, the last two years have seen increased ‘mass incidents’ and terrorist attacks, most notably the July 28, 2014 knife attack in Yarkand County in which nearly 100 people were killed. It would appear that, for some authoritarian states, this is the cost of doing business.

A more successful approach, used by a number of authoritarian regimes, is to turn this disadvantage on its head and use the trappings of the police state to win hearts and minds by other means.


The image of authoritarian governments as indifferent to popular support is over-played; many of them do complement the use of force with attempts at outreach. These attempts may not always succeed, but in this respect, too, authoritarians share something with their democratic counterparts.

Still, winning hearts and minds is an essentially political activity, and success will go to the state that can best reform. Authoritarian regimes are therefore at a disadvantage, given their anti-democratic tendencies. Yet democratic regimes should also take note, given their proclivity to confuse winning of hearts and minds with humanitarianism and handouts. Earning the gratitude of local populations can be helpful, particularly where they see themselves as under occupation or are the victims of “collateral damage.” Ultimately, however, successful counterinsurgency must address the drivers of alienation and causative factors of violence, which in almost all cases are political (or about “who gets what, when, how”).

Finally, in terms of understanding why authoritarian governments have clung onto power, sometimes quite successfully, despite misfiring hearts and minds programs and amid excessive and indiscriminate violence, the answer is often found in the regime’s broader engagement with the population, be it through the control on information, the mobilization of ideology, or imposition of a police state and the permeation of civil society. Violence in itself is rarely strategically decisive, even where it appears to dominate. In this respect too, but for different reasons, authoritarian and democratic approaches to counterinsurgency find common roots.