We had a nice discussion of the current operations in Afghanistan on The Conservative Wahoo Live! radio program last night, with several listeners very much espousing the "win their hearts and minds" strategy that has become part of the background noise in Washington's current fascination with counterinsurgency theory (COIN). Here is a rational, well-argued criticism of modern COIN from today's New York Times.
I was a student at the Joint Forces Staff College in the Summer of 2006, about the time the COIN cabal began their ascendancy. After a day-long symposium on the subject in which no fewer than five separate speakers parroted the "hearts and minds" line, I stood up in the Blue Bedroom (the main auditorium, so named because of its color and the propensity of the lighting/atmosphere to put students to sleep) and asked the unlucky lecturer a simple question:
"Has an insurgency ever been broken through a policy of fear, terror and murder?"
His answer was a very quick "yes", and as if to prove his credentials as a COIN expert, he named a half dozen or so. I then asked, "How come we don't study those?"
He was aghast. His answer was basically, "Because that kind of fighting is inconsistent with American values and ideals."
I then went on. "But we firebombed Japanese and German cities night after night, killing tens of thousands of civilians at time. We dropped two atomic weapons on an opponent who was obviously losing the war. Is it a question of from how far away the fear, and terror and murder is delivered? Is that the prime determinant of whether something is "consistent" with our values?"
My point is this: winning the hearts and minds of a population is a proven strategy for breaking an insurgency--because it has been proven to work. But it hasn't always worked. Shouldn't our forces then also at least discuss other methods of breaking insurgencies? Or is it the discussion of such distasteful methods that is actually inconsistent with our values and ideals, rather than the conduct?
I'm all in favor of the "hearts and minds" approach being the default, textbook US method of addressing COIN. I'm not in favor of ignoring history.