Raphael Cohen, a recently minted Georgetown Ph. D. in government has developed an intriguing thesis.
Whereas we have all learned that an army fighting against an insurgency must win the hearts and minds of the people, Cohen demonstrated in his dissertation that it is more important to control the populace than to win over their minds. In fact, the latter follows from the former, and not vice versa.
Beating an insurgency involves providing law and order, along with food.
Here is Cohen’s dissertation abstract:
Ever since Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer proclaimed that ?the answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people,? common wisdom suggests that the key to military victory in counterinsurgency is ?winning hearts and minds.? As interpreted in modern doctrine, Templer?s dictum requires that the counterinsurgent promote economic, social and political reforms (to give everyone a ?stake? in society) and minimize its use of force (to avoid popular backlash). My dissertation shows that 1) historically, most successful counterinsurgencies have not been fought this way; 2) when this approach has been tried, it rarely proves effective; and 3) instead, military victory comes from successful population control. Population control, in turn, employs some combination of three sets of tactics: physical measures (e.g. walls, resource controls and forced resettlement), cooption (of local elite and often the insurgents themselves) and ?divide and rule? strategies. I demonstrate these claims through detailed analyses of four influential modern counterinsurgencies?the Malayan Emergency, the Mau Mau Rebellion, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, along with a study of local opinion data from the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan Wars. Ultimately, as far as military victory is concerned, whether the counterinsurgent wins ?hearts and minds? matters far less than whether it can control them.
In many ways, Cohen seems to be describing the way we fought the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. We built schools and hospitals; we introduced democratic reforms; we were relentless in punishing ourselves for the bad behavior of some soldiers.
But, if we spend six months building a school and the Taliban destroys in in a few minutes, who looks stronger?
If we cannot protect the indigenous population from terrorism, we will lose their hearts and minds. And the only way to stop terrorism seems to be to suppress it violently.
To take some hotly debated questions: Does waterboarding produce more terrorists and is Gitmo a recruiting tool for Islamist militants?
Lately, it appears that the successes of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have proved to be a very effective recruiting tool. The anticipation of victory, coupled with the absence of a powerful counterforce seems to serve the terrorists better than waterboarding.
Cohen suggests that we prefer to win over hearts and minds because we believe that the use of force will be seen as oppression and will naturally provoke a rebellion.
One recalls 1989, during the Tiananmen protests and massacre that many Western commentators insisted that government repression would naturally provoke a rebellion against the ruling Communist autocracy. Twenty-five years on, many of those same commentators have admitted that they were wrong.
Why did they believe as they did? Why do counterinsurgency strategists fear a rebellion against authoritarian rule?
Obviously, they are seeing the world through the lens of a philosopher’s fiction. Whether it is Hegel’s myth of the inevitable revolt of the slave against his master or Marx’s myth of the inevitable revolt of the working class against their capitalist oppressors or even Freud’s myth of the inevitable failure of repression... serious contemporary thinkers do not see the world as it is, they look at the world as certain narratives would like it to be.
Cohen seems to be closer to the truth when he suggests that the imposition of law and order, mixed with the perception of being on the stronger and the winning side works best to quell an insurgency.
One might ask oneself whether this reasoning is motivating the new government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
How many of our most serious thinkers are bemoaning Sisi’s heavy-handed approach to taming the local insurgency posed by the Muslim Brotherhood? How many of them believe that his repressive policies must ultimately fail? How many believe that we did better to support the results of a democratic election that empowered Mohamed Morsi because we would then be able to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people.?