Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Hearts, Minds, & ISIL

By Raphael S.
Sunday, October 12, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The return of U.S. military advisors to Iraq and U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have dashed hopes that the United States would be able to put the latest counterinsurgency era behind it as U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan. As it finds itself fighting an insurgency once again, the United States should dispel the myths of past campaigns. The accepted wisdom is that victory in a counterinsurgency campaign requires winning the goodwill of the local population: commonly referred to as winning “hearts and minds.” Yet it is unclear whether this wisdom really holds true. Raphael S. Cohen of the RAND Corporation contends that winning hearts and minds does little to help counterinsurgents win and that the U.S. military can and should focus on defeating ISIL forces militarily and not on winning over the population.

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With the decision to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the United States is once again fighting an insurgency. The United States is loath to admit this fact, preferring to label its actions somewhat differently—as a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” And yet the fact remains that ISIL—with an organization that numbers tens of thousands strong, controls territory, mobilizes the population, and seeks to overthrow and replace a constituted government—fits most definitions of an insurgency. Though it also behaves at times like a terrorist group, it is nonetheless an insurgency. The challenge facing the United States is what to do about it.

The most prominent strategy for how to counter an insurgency is “to win hearts and minds.” Popularly attributed to Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer’s Malayan Emergency campaign against communist insurgents shortly after World War II, the term actually dates at least as far back as the American Revolution and has regularly been used to describe strategies against insurgencies ever since. Indeed, the term even made an appearance in President Barack Obama’s recent United Nations speech.

Raphael-Cohen-Photo“Hearts and minds” as a strategy rests on the assumption that any insurgency’s lifeblood is its access to the population, who provide it with fighters, resources, and intelligence: in sum, everything the insurgency needs to survive and thrive. Combating an insurgency, therefore, requires wooing the population—the majority of whom are believed to be neutral or at least passive—away from the insurgency and over to the government side, often by providing political and economic incentives. Once the battle for popular opinion is won, they will provide the government with the information it needs to effectively prosecute these wars and the insurgency, starved of support, will wither away.

There are at least two problems with the “hearts and minds” logic. First, most of the population may not be open to persuasion. Violence—and its corresponding emotional toll—tends to entrench people’s views of the combatants, leaving relatively few undecided and persuadable. Moreover, changing loyalties mid-conflict can be a dangerous proposition, as those who do so are often branded turncoats or collaborators. Economic inducements, political reforms, and other such “carrots” seem paltry in comparison to matters of life and death. As a result, many may only be willing to take such a risk after the conflict’s outcome has already been decided.

Second and more problematic, even if the counterinsurgents can persuade a majority of the population to change sides, it may not matter much to the conflict’s outcome. Insurgencies do not require overwhelming popular support for their efforts to thrive. For example, while it is difficult to tell how much genuine support there is for ISIL, even if one takes the high-end estimates of ISIL’s strength, some 31,500 according to publically-released intelligence estimates, this would still be a tiny fraction of the populations of Syria and Iraq. ISIL’s passive support base likely is also smaller than often believed. Much of its wealth is believed to come from looting lucrative assets throughout the territory it controls and coercing the hapless minorities under its control into paying “taxes” rather than voluntary contributions.

Similarly, defeating insurgencies may not require overwhelming popular support either—at least in the short term. While many cite a supportive populace as being crucial to intelligence gathering, intelligence can come from a host of sophisticated technological means as well, as the United States currently is demonstrating in Iraq and Syria. Especially in the modern age, signals and imagery intelligence can often prove as if not more valuable than intelligence gathered from informants. Even with human intelligence, quality matters as much as—if not more than—quantity, so popular support may matter less than the ability to recruit a select few with the right placement and access.

In sum, while winning popular support may be crucial to rebuilding the state post-conflict, there are reasons to believe that “winning hearts and minds” matters little in determining the outcomes of the conflicts themselves. In other words, winning hearts and minds may be the effect—rather than cause—of victory: only once the population is spared the horrors of war and reconstruction begins in earnest can you ever hope to win their support.

Testing whether successfully winning hearts and minds is the cause or the effect of victory proves tricky. Popular opinion often proves difficult to measure even under the best of circumstances, and in a war zone, where a wrong answer can cost lives, the task becomes even more challenging. Still, the limited data we do have from the 2003 Iraq War casts doubt on the “hearts and minds” hypothesis.

A series of polls of Iraqi public opinion conducted jointly by ABC News, the BBC, the Japanese broadcaster NHK, and ARD German TV from 2003 to 2008—during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom—reveal three important trends. First, for much of the conflict, the Iraqi public had relatively consistent views about the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi government. Second, the coalition never won the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. Even in February 2008, well into the “surge,” 70% of Iraqis believed that the United States and its allies had done a “quite” or “very” bad job and 42% thought that attacking coalition forces was “acceptable.” Third, and perhaps most important, to the extent Iraqi opinions of the U.S. and its allies improved, they did so after violence fell, indicating that winning hearts and minds may be the effect, not the cause, of counterinsurgency success in Iraq.

More localized studies, such as those contained in the Department of Defense’s Measuring Stability and Security Reports to Congress, paint a similar, if more nuanced, picture of the interplay between public opinion and insurgency. As the Anbar Awakening in 2006-7 and the 2007 troop surge brought violence down in Iraq, a trend would play out across Iraq’s provinces. First, the violence would decline and the population would begin to feel secure—and only then would confidence in Iraqi institutions increase (views of Americans still remained mostly negative). Clearly, winning hearts and minds—to the extent they were ever really “won”—proved to be an effect rather than a cause of success. And Iraq is not a one-off example: polling data from Afghanistan and Vietnam seem to confirm these findings, as do qualitative studies of Malaya, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

What does this mean for the future of U.S. policy towards ISIL and the next iteration of America’s wars in the Middle East? It does not mean that the United States shouldn’t care about the host of political, economic, and social issues afflicting Syria, Iraq, and the broader Middle East, but it should help focus U.S. priorities, at least in the near term. For the moment, whether U.S. actions are called “comprehensive counterterrorism” or “counterinsurgency,” the focus must be on militarily defeating ISIL, not on winning the “hearts and minds” of the populations under its control.

Nor is it clear that ISIL can be destroyed through a hearts-and-minds-friendly application of military force—that is, a handful of precision airstrikes guided by infallible intelligence. Indeed, as the Israelis recently learned from Operation Protective Edge, airpower has its limits against entrenched irregular forces, especially in urban areas. Eventually, the Israelis had to launch a ground campaign and they ultimately paid a price for it in blood and treasure. Gaza is a far smaller place than the territory ISIL currently controls, and ISIL (arguably) is if anything only more fanatical than Hamas.

Ultimately, if the United States truly intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIL, it must be prepared for what that means. There are no quick fixes or pretty alternatives. Defeating ISIL will not come from “winning hearts and minds” and soft power, nor will it come from a handful of precision airstrikes. It will require hard, bloody ground combat. The United States may not want to admit this, but it is the grim truth nonetheless.

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A multiple-tour Iraq War veteran, Raphael S. Cohen is now an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. This article is adapted from a longer piece titled “Just How Important Are ‘Hearts and Minds’ Anyway? Counterinsurgency Goes to the Polls,” which was published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Strategic Studies.