Small Wars Journal

Winning Hearts, Losing Wars

This article attempts to explore why deep-seeded emotions cause individuals/groups to disregard the rational actor model that many use to describe the premise of modern Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and thought. Specifically, understanding how the emotional aspect can help show why FM 3-24[1] and Galula's methodology are great in theory but flawed in execution. My hypothesis is, the U.S. government cannot buy lasting friendships, cannot pay individuals/groups enough money to stop committing acts of terrorism. Rather, it is time to focus less on "winning/controlling hearts and minds" and refocus our attention on understanding and attempting to coerce/influence the existing state, populace, and insurgent groups who seek violence as a means of expression. Rationale: We may be successful to a point in winning some hearts and minds, but still lose the war.

Statement of the Problem

Strategies and tactics are great. These are our ‘blueprints’ for specific courses of action. Supposedly, wars are guided by brilliant thinkers and lead by the brightest and best minds. Hours are spent in the classroom studying what works as well as what does not work. Theories are examined and ripped apart, put back together and a final product is built…PowerPoint’s are constructed with every detail explained. Font, color schemes, maps, and solutions are built into pre-mission briefings. Drills are repeatedly rehearsed so everyone on the mission knows and understands their role. Best case and worst case scenarios are also examined. Rules of engagement are iterated and reiterated. Behaviors and actions are choreographed for the purpose of ‘acting’ as opposed to simply ‘reacting’ during an attack.

The history of counterinsurgency (COIN) is studied and is well defined. The theory works on paper. The big question for this researcher is simply, “Why are we losing the war after we win the hearts and minds of the people?” General Peter J. Schoomaker[2] (2004, FM 3-24) remarked, “This is a game of wits and will. You’ve got to be learning and adapting constantly to survive.” Specifically, training foci seeks to understand the emotional aspect showing why FM 3-24 and Galula's methodology are great in theory. However, as great as theories are, execution is often flawed. This researcher often heard the comment, “Let’s go for a 70% solution.” When conducting a counterinsurgency, 70% solutions leave us with 30% unconvinced. Question, “What percentage of a population does it take to gain the advantage of an insurgent group?”

Consider FM 3-24, 1-159. “COIN is an extremely complex form of warfare. At its core, COIN is a struggle for the population’s support. The protection, welfare, and support of the people are vital to success. Gaining and maintaining that support is a formidable challenge.”  


The word tactic is defined as a device for accomplishing an end. The word strategy is defined as ‘the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war. As a social scientist, I witnessed one key leader engagement (KLE) after another during my time in Iraq. Pleasantries were exchanged and needs were openly discussed. On many occasions our Soldiers were attacked by insurgents in route to these meetings. I listened as offers of support were made by our commanders and funding was agreed upon. All appeared well and friendships were strengthened. Hearts and minds were won, one village elder at a time.

However, as projects were completed and ribbon cutting ceremonies concluded, the indirect fire would begin to spike again. So, more money for projects would be pumped into a province or community. More KLE’s followed. I surmised, local nationals had learned to allow insurgent activity to resume once again, ultimately benefiting from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). The cycle was predictable.

As a social scientist, embedded with numerous brigades and battalions, spanning two deployments in Iraq, I was front row and center which allowed me to observe local national response in direct relation to our efforts of ‘winning hearts and minds’. I sat in meetings as recent as 2010 and 2011 listening to field personnel discussing their “carrot stick” approach to operations within their operational environment. Frustration and often anger was expressed by Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Captains. One LTC remarked, “I have promised continued support for training the Iraqi Police, funding a local school and have Civil Affairs teams making payments to local contractors for schools, medical clinics and agricultural projects, however IED and IDF attacks continue.”

As I sat in that meeting pondering what I was hearing, I thought, “This is transactional leadership theory gone wrong.” Basically, a transactional leader bargains for an outcome. Leaders offer something of value to the people; the people will accept the offer behaving in a rationale manner ultimately fulfilling the goals of the leader. It is a quid pro quo mindset. The problem with this type of thinking is, it doesn’t always result in a positive outcome. We think, if I do something for you—you will do something for me. In the case of counterinsurgency, we think, “If I build your school, you will no longer attack my convoys. You owe me.” This is predicated on rational thinking. An insurgent’s mindset functions from a different rationale. Their thinking can be described as, “I want what I want at all cost. You build, I will destroy.”

What does it mean to be rational?[3]

Simply stated, a rational person is logical, dispassionate, and capable of satisfying one’s needs by maximizing benefits and minimizing costs. Further, it implies perfect information about the consequences of certain choices.

Often, our Western-thinking, worldview is driven by believing that rational thinking will prevail. The primary problem with our thought process is, our adversary has a different worldview and is focused less on human suffering, essential services and quality of life issues. To the point, the adversary has a completely different desired outcome. It is a clash between ideology and basic worldviews. We can build the schools, health clinics, agricultural programs and support democracy until the sheep come home, but the result will often fail. 

Why is it so difficult?[4]

  • Different people have different priorities and goals
  • Different people have different calculations of probabilities

Decisions are made in a bureaucratic environment where many actors tend to prefer the status quo. Consequences in foreign policy are difficult to predict. Time is short and events can overtake reality.

Western thought tends to be linier, while many Central Asian and Middle Eastern thinking tends to be cyclical. We start with “a” and go through to “z”. It is logical to our way of thinking and life, but illogical to an insurgent or terrorist. The end justifies the means and time is on the side of the insurgent. We set dates and withdrawal schedules, they have time. With 1000’s of years of history on their side, what are a few more years of waiting to ultimately get what is wanted?

In addition to time being a friend of the adversary, death is viewed differently. Death for a Muslim extremist is the final victory insuring one’s place in paradise. Not only does the adversary create a chaotic and violent event, death carries the perception of martyrdom for the perpetrator and in some instances, status and financial gain for the family of the extremist.

These are foreign to Western thinking, not so for Taliban, Haqqani and Al-Qaeda extremists. Remember, the end justifies the means.

Understanding Social Psychological Processes

Griswold[5] (1994) asserts that the understanding of social psychological processes enhances relationships between visible social characteristics and performance outcomes. The relationship is indicated by the level of understanding and the explanation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals as influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.

There is little argument that both Iraq and Afghanistan represent a diverse population of languages and tribal affiliations. Diversity in relation to perception issues, real or imagined, affects the interactions and relationships among people with regard to race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, work and family status, and weight and appearance. Many of these attributes are in fact visible social characteristics. Differences may be readily apparent resulting from a sense of personal identity and are often associated with historical disparities in treatment, opportunities, and outcomes (Bell & Perry, 2007)[6]. The localization and application of Bell and Perry‘s stated findings as related to Iraq are quite evident as this researcher often heard comments made in reference to Iraqis from Baghdad or southern Iraq‘s Maysan Province.

A Baghdadi Iraqi is assumed to have an education and better lifestyle, while a Maysani is assumed to be illiterate and have a lifestyle in keeping with that of a subservient peasant. The same may also be true in Afghanistan among Pashtuns who make up the largest ethnic group at 42% of the population, followed by Tajiks (27%), Hazaras (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch, and other small groups. Each group shares similar identities, but also major differences which set each group apart. These distinctions prevent nationwide unity, but also serve to bind a people within each group by blood and customs. A diverse people will become more fully engaged and therefore more productive when all people with their differences and similarities are acknowledged and included in decision making and problem identification and solving (Miller & Katz, 2002)[7]. The performance outcomes are largely determined by leadership in the country.

Based on the statement of Miller and Katz, I may infer a diverse nation such as Iraq or Afghanistan will become more fully engaged and therefore more productive when all people with their differences and similarities are acknowledged and included in decision making and problem identification and solving. Miller and Katz (2002) report the benefits and outcomes of diversity tolerance begin with education and understanding and claim change can start anywhere, but succeed only when led from the top.

U.S. and Coalition Forces think differently than do their local national military and law enforcement partners. The divide is too great to be bridged in a short period of time. Iraqis and Afghanis understand power. Their culture is built on survival. Armies come and go, locals stay.


This researcher thinks the time has come to focus on winning wars and less time on winning hearts and minds. However, by winning a war, one can win hearts and minds. It is perspective. If building infrastructure, schools, medical clinics and training were good enough, our success would have been realized before now. The transactional leadership model won’t work because someone with a bigger carrot will eventually show up promising even more. The carrots get bigger and the learned response is to wait for the next carrot.

The rational actor model works among the rational, but won’t work among the irrational thinker. Instead of looking for a less irrational actor, our focus should be on winning the war, not simply on hearts and minds. If more money were the answer, it would be simple. More money is obviously not getting the results we want. People must become war weary and want the same things their protectors’ want in order for lasting change to occur. So far, we don’t see complete and total buy in to what we espouse in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let the Soldiers fight…and win. Then, after victory and total surrender is achieved, rebuild.    

[1] FM 3-24

[2] FM 3-24

[3] G. Matthew Bonham (2007). Lecture 1. The “Gold Standard”: Rational Actor Model

[4] Ibid.

[5] Griswold, W. (1994). Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.

[6] Bell, M.P. & Berry, D.P. (2007). Viewing diversity through different lenses: Avoiding a few blind spots. Academy of Management Perspectives, 21(4) 21-25.

[7] Miller, F., & Katz, J.(2002). Inclusion breakthrough. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.



Scott Kinner

Tue, 10/25/2011 - 7:08pm

In reply to by Bill C.

And, of course, since there is not agreement about what the values of the "modern world" are, let alone if they are worth embracing, we have the continual source of conflict - and frankly, the not entirely unreasonable suspicion and resentment of "Western" imperialism.

What does winning hearts and minds, in context, really mean?

Its about transforming the state and society such that these (the state and society) might provide the modern world with fewer problems and offer the modern world greater utility and usefullness instead.

This is our foreign policy objective re: all states and societies.

Standing in the way of the achievement of this, our foreign policy objective, are at least two things:

a. States and societies -- and/or individuals and groups therein -- who are UNWILLING to be "transformed" (think "Westernized") as the modern world desires. And

b. States and societies -- and/or individuals and groups therein -- who are UNABLE to transform as the modern world requires.

In the first instance above (those unwilling to be transformed), the calculation has been made that the "costs" of such a transformation are not worth the "benefits" that might be derived therefrom.

In the second instance (those unable to be transformed), the extremely radical metamorphosis that is required to go from, for example, "tribal" to "modern" is beyond their ability.

(Regarding "a" and "b" above [unwilling and/or unable] consider the similar dilemma of the American Indians and the American government in the United States' earlier years).

Thus, even in the most ideal conditions (hearts and minds have been "won" -- via conflict and/or by less violent means), this requirement (state and societal transformation) is no easy task for any or all of the parties concerned.

And "hearts and minds," as I have tried to indicate above, would only seem to address part -- but not all -- of the factors relating to this question/equation.


Tue, 10/18/2011 - 2:10am

I share with other commenters the reluctance to call people irrational. It may be rare but we have our share of guerrilla warfare in the West too in Northern Ireland and the Basque area of Spain.

One factor that I missed in the story is the outside world: Pakistan's support for the Taliban and Gulf area money for AQIM. The Taliban is paying its soldiers well and for some Afghan villagers it is simply an attractive job. AQIM relies for a considerable part on foreigners infiltrating in Iraq. It takes a lot of money to maintain these people in what is for them too is initially foreign territory.

The author argues for first winning the war and then hearts and minds. But we started both Iraq and Afghanistan with a clear victory in war. The problem was that our victory created a vacuum at the local level that we didn't manage to fill up and that in the end was filled by the guerrilla.

I see our problem as the problem of all foreign rule: we have insufficient information and as a consequence our rule is arbitrary and favors the locals who manage to befriend us but who may not have much local support and may even have strong criminal connections. This puts the Taliban with their local recruits at a big advantage. Even guerrilla fighters from elsewhere have an advantage over US soldiers who stay most of the time in heavily protected bases and vehicles and are shifted out after only half a year.

The author mentions diversity. But often it is us who make it an issue. We encourage the use of Tajik soldiers in Pashtun areas. We pursued policies in Iraq that were vehemently anti-Sunni. And it would be naive to assume that we don't make similar mistakes on the local level.

Mike in Hilo

Sun, 10/16/2011 - 10:59pm

Iam reminded of Leites and Wolf's Vietnam era (1970) RAND paper, Rebellion and Authority, in which the authors conclude, highly significantly IMO, that the progress made by each side in the conflict influences the affiliations of most of the population more than the loyalty/sympathy of the population influences the progress or outcome. This suggests that support of the population will go to the side whose victory is seen as inevitable; that fence sitters will support the perceived winnng party even if this is contrary to their sympathies. Heart and minds appears absent from this calculation. Liely the VN conflict preponderantly influenced the authors, as IMO their conclusions mirror observations in that theater. In VN, this dynamic worked to either side's advantage: I observed villager behavior determined primarily by the presence of a PAVN battalion in the sanctuary in close proximity to the village, the armed presence even empowering the VCI to intimidate and extort. On the other hand, there occurred a massive shift in loyalty (historian Stephen Melton's "identity shift?")of a rural populace responding to the inexhorable attrition and relocation of 1967-69 by coming to terms with the prospect of a US victory and thus permitting conscription of their sons/husbands, many doubtless recently VC combatants, into Territorial Forces or ARVN and thereby transforming thousands of rural families into RVN armed forces dependents. In the former example, the enemy-centric remedy would obviously be elimination of the enemy battalion and the sanctuary from which it operated...

Bill, I concur that a population's responses to coercion, or to the heavy hand of attrition, are not irrational; these reflect a life or death cost benefit analysis.



Sun, 10/16/2011 - 10:44pm

The assumption that building roads, schools, or whatever constitutes "winning hearts and minds" is deeply flawed and needs to be reassessed.

People typically support or join insurgents because they see the government as a direct threat to them. Often they have good reason for that perception. This doesn't take circular reasoning at all. If the government or its agents are abusive and corrupt, if they kill your people and steal your land or goods, you'll fight against them. That's not circular reasoning at all; it's quite linear and quite logical.

If we really want to win hearts and minds, we need to focus less on building stuff or delivering services that we think are useful, and focus more on figuring out why people are fighting the government or supporting those who do, and changing those conditions.

People don't take up arms against the government because they aren't getting services, especially in places where governments have never delivered services and expectations are proportionally low. If people are fighting the government, it's more likely because they see the government as a threat to them. Find out why that perception exists, and correct it, and you might actually win some hearts and minds.

Many of us are tiring of the robotic assumption that the population is always the center of gravity and the way to shift that COG in our favor is through a hearts and minds approach. Sometimes that is true, and in other cases we missed the ball entirely. Author's points in quotes below.

"This researcher thinks the time has come to focus on winning wars and less time on winning hearts and minds."

The Capt that wrote the article on MDMP made an excellent point about objectives. Our objectives define the degree of complexity we impose upon ourselves and in turn the feasibility of success. Our objectives in both Iraq and Afghanistan were grandiose to say the least. Yet when the author states we need to focus on winning the war, what does that really mean? We ousted Saddam and AQ, so when the objectives were simple and relevant we excelled. The new objectives are not about winning a war, but transforming a society, so I don't think this proposal is helpful at this point. Thoughts?

"If building infrastructure, schools, medical clinics and training were good enough, our success would have been realized before now."

Obviously, but those blinded by stats that can be manipulated can be (and have been) convinced we're making steady progress.

"The transactional leadership model won’t work because someone with a bigger carrot will eventually show up promising even more. The carrots get bigger and the learned response is to wait for the next carrot."

This is only partially correct because most of the transactional leadership intereactions are taking place with local leaders, who are not always key influencers over the insurgents. Our promise of more $$$ for good behavior is of course desirable by most, just as responding to coercion (or else) from insurgents is rational. This is an example where we missed the ball, because the locals are not empowered to stop the insurgents (in many cases), nor do desire to kill their brothers to protect the occupier.

"The rational actor model works among the rational, but won’t work among the irrational thinker."

This assumes that the other person isn't rational, but the reality is quite different. How they rationalize, what they value, what they believe in, etc. is much more complex than making a simple decision do I take the $$ or the punishment.

"Then, after victory and total surrender is achieved, rebuild."

First you have to describe victory to see if it is even feasible. What is it? Based on our current goals can we achieve victory without support of the populace? If we can't, and we can't win the support, then has the cost of the objective exceeding its worth?

Scott Kinner

Sun, 10/16/2011 - 10:20am

Dr. Smith brings up a very good question because he asks, at base, if "winning hearts and minds" is the metric of success in COIN, can you possibly hope to achieve that when the population's definition of rationality and its worldview is significantly different than your own?

I am a bit more leery than Dr. Smith in attributing rational thought to Western thinking - if nothing else, postmodern thinkers have at least served to remind us that reality consists of multiple strata, that universal objective reality requires a uniform perspective that does not exist, and that an imperfect human mind is hardly a reliable tool to use in creating "pure," rational thought.

All of which, from a different perspective, inform Dr. Smith's concerns. Regardless of whether our rationality is "better" than their rationality, if we have decided to fight a war, if we have decided that COIN is our best methodology to do so, at what point do we need to re-evaluate that calculus?

The great question Dr. Smith leaves open is if COIN is not the best methodology for our current conflict - then what? If we should focus on winning wars, rather than hearts and minds, then how does that look? More importantly, is success in COIN to be measured only in terms of "winning the population" - or in this case, co-opting their worldview? If our goals can be achieved merely by "mitigating the population" can that also not be success?

Scott Kinner