Friday, April 1, 2011

Issues with 'hearts and minds'

(Some ideas from a paper I am working on.  I intend to run numbers on this, assigning values and probabilities to the various conditions, as I think it will probably end up fitting quite well into a pseudo-game-theoretical framework, but numbers minimal to non-existent in this version, wait for the paper itself)

Part of the approach to modern warfare involves an emphasis on winning over the 'hearts and minds' of the population in whichever country you are warring in.  The goal of doing so is, of course, to create or increase popular support for your mission, and to decrease the opportunities your opponents have to blend into the civilian population and engage in traditional insurgency defences.

I am concerned that the hearts and minds game (in the game-theory sense of game) is un-winnable.  There are a number of reasons to think this might be the case.  Firstly, we can look at the relative availability of praiseworthy and blameworthy actions to the participants in the game.  Doing this leads, I think, to the conclusion that praise is more difficult to achieve than blame.  Secondly, we can analyse the effect of particular praise or blame worthy acts.  Doing this, I believe, we will find that individual blameworthy acts resonate far more than do individual praiseworthy acts.  This is going to be particularly problematic in conjunction with the first point.  Thirdly, I suggest that the very idea of a program to win hearts and minds introduces cognitive dissonance in the minds of the population of the country in which this action is undertaken, when the hearts and minds program is undertaken by the same forces who are engaged in military conflict in that country.

Relative Availability
This point arises as follows.  The most prominent ways in which a state can succeed in winning hearts and minds are by having the military forces engage with the civilian population on civil terms.  To do this, the occupying (is occupying any better a term than invading? Is there an available non-value laden term that would be more appropriate?) forces have to treat the civilian population as relevantly equal and deserving of respect and assistance.  The problem is that this is simply the basic level of treatment that we expect anyone to give any other person at any time.  So soldiers in a conflict zone who treat the civilian population in that zone kindly and with dignity and respect, are doing much more than soldiers are expected to do, but not to any meaningful degree any more than people are expected to do in more general cases.  Accordingly, the degree to which soldiers will be praised for acting excellently qua soldier towards the civilian population is minimal.  An excellently behaving solider is acting just as a minimally decent stranger or neighbour.

By contrast, soldiers doing normal soldierly things will elicit blame from the civilian population of the area in which they are operating.  The presence of the soldiers disrupts civilian life.  Any hostile action undertaken by the soldiers causes property damage and runs the risk of civilian casualties.  These problems arise even if the soldiers otherwise act in exemplary ways.  If even some portion of them do not act in exemplary ways, further problems swiftly arise.  Examples are easy to find.  Consider the village flattened in Afghanistan because the US commander was sick of Taliban forces using it, or the small group of rogue soldiers who murdered a number of Afghani civilians and pretended they had been insurgents.  Or the recent furore over racial and ethnic slurs on Australian Defence force facebook pages, originating from those serving in Afghanistan.

Differential Resonance
The examples above give us opportunity to consider the second point of concern.  Winning over the hearts and minds of the civilian population requires a concerted effort by all involved over a long period of time.  Losing those same hearts and minds can be achieved very quickly through the actions of a small group of people acting independently.  When the 'kill team' (seriously, what is the world coming to when Rolling Stone is the source of things like this?) of US troops in Afghanistan plot to murder civilians and disguise it as legitimate conflict action, they destroy in days or weeks the goodwill that has been built up over years in a carefully orchestrated campaign to show the civilian population that the US forces are a better alternative to the Taliban, and that they should be assisted, and can be trusted.  Similarly, although not quite so immediately, even something like racist facebook postings (9 news) serves quickly to undermine goodwill.  Afghani immigrants to Australia learn that the ADF thinks these things, and they send messages to their relatives in Afghanistan telling them not to trust the Australians, because they might treat you well, but they secretly claim you are "sand niggaz", "dune coons", "ragheads" and "smelly locals".  (I feel somewhat sick having repeated those...)  Quite quickly, the mood in the villages where Australian troops have been present could change.  Do these troops really want to help us?  Or is it just a cover?  Goodwill.... gone, by the actions of an unrepresentative few.

Cognitive Dissonance
This issue arising because of what it is soldiers do.  In Iraq, where the hearts and minds doctrine has most recently been prominent, or in Afghanistan, where it is ongoing, the soldiers are there to kill 'bad guys', and they frequently do just that, often within earshot, and even within sight of the same people whose hearts and minds they are trying to win over.  This situation is clearly going to be problematic for the hearts and minds doctrine, as those whose hearts and minds are to be won know that these people with guns are willing and able to use them, and have done so, perhaps against people they know.  Even where a particular Iraqi village despises Saddam Hussein and has suffered as a result of his rule, it is not at all far fetched to imagine them having sympathy or even respect for some of those who fight for Saddam, and who, accordingly, are the target of these foreign troops.  Similarly, even if particular villagers in Afghanistan oppose the Taliban, they may well know and like some individual Taliban members, who they will not want  to give up to the soldiers, and whose death or injury would cause them to think poorly of the soldiers.

Where to from here?
None of this means that a hearts and minds doctrine is a bad idea.  It might well be that even where the chances of successfully implementing this are slim, due to the kinds of factors outlined above, the potential benefits from being seen to try make it worthwhile.  Further, if we move beyond explicitly military operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and toward policing and armed humanitarian interventions, then the third point in particular becomes less problematic, as fewer actual conflicts occur.  Similarly, in these situations, the risk of the first two points diminishes.

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