Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Quotable: David Ucko on Totalitarian “Hearts and Minds” Campaigns


Ucko (right) image (not from article) from

Monday, May 23rd 2016
Totalitarian states have often launched “hearts and minds” campaigns against restive or occupied populations.  David Ucko of the National Defense University examined several examples – the early Soviet Union, Chechnya, China’s policies toward the Uighurs, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and others – in a suggestive article, “Cruel to be Kind: Authoritarian Counterinsurgency and the Winning of Hearts and Minds,” on the lawfare.com website on May 22, 2016.

This gist necessarily omits all the case studies Ucko cited, but here are some key quotes:

  • In counterinsurgency theory . . . . it is necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of the people.

  • Often maligned but seldom well understood, this phrase is erroneously credited to Gen. Gerald Templer, who, while commanding the British campaign in Malaya, noted that “the answer lies not in pouring more soldiers into the jungle but rests in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.”

  • Yet, if legitimacy is indispensable, how do we explain the apparent ability of authoritarian states to defeat insurgents with little to no concern for popular support or root causes? Be it the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Xinjiang, or Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign against his own people, there appears to be an alternative approach to counterinsurgency.

  • . . . many authoritarian regimes expend significant effort to win support among the populations from which insurgent threats have emerged.

  • Yet, if there is evidence of authoritarian regimes engaging in hearts and minds programs, it is less certain that these charm offensives have altered regime legitimacy or the outcome of campaigns.

  • First, these efforts are typically shaped by the regime’s own ideology rather than the needs and aspirations of those they target – particularly where the state itself is governed by a particular social theory.

  • Given the “unitary and assimilationist characteristics of Chinese nationalism,” for example, its engagement with Xinjiang seems utterly oblivious to the religious and identity-driven roots of the struggle and promotes instead economic palliatives as a solution.

  • . . . when the Soviet Union sought to co-opt the war-ravaged populations of the western borderlands, its go-to solution was taken straight from Das Kapital and reflected ideological impulse more than local need.

  • Notably, in this instance, neither the hearts and minds campaign nor its overall failure had much of an effect. Instead, the Soviet Union’s stranglehold and ruthless application of violence instilled despondence among the insurgents. Resistance was deemed futile, and people either died or moved on.

  • The hearts and minds efforts in Chechnya and Xinjiang highlight a further obstacle: the apolitical nature of efforts made and the absence of grievance mediation.

  • And yet, authoritarian regimes operate with the added challenge of winning support without political reform and amid the continued repression of a police state. Unsurprisingly, within such a context, outreach and handouts have only a limited effect on regime legitimacy.

  • A more successful approach, used by a number of authoritarian regimes, is to turn this disadvantage on its head and use the trappings of the police state to win hearts and minds by other means. In these cases, the state interposes itself in every local transaction and activity, and thereby renders itself indispensable to public life.

  • Such penetration is possible because of the state’s pervasive security presence, which allows it to combine the sticks expected of this set-up with occasional carrots, leading gradually to predictability, stability, and even something resembling legitimacy, yet without the state conceding political space.

  • This approach can be seen in Xinjiang. As part of what Martin Wayne calls ‘society-centric warfare’, the state has purged and co-opted local institutions, and thereby permeated public life. From this position, the state uses social levers to force a public disassociation from the insurgency and assimilation with Chinese norms.

  • The image of authoritarian governments as indifferent to popular support is over-played; many of them do complement the use of force with attempts at outreach. These attempts may not always succeed, but in this respect, too, authoritarians share something with their democratic counterparts.

  • Still, winning hearts and minds is an essentially political activity, and success will go to the state that can best reform. Authoritarian regimes are therefore at a disadvantage, given their anti-democratic tendencies.

  • Yet democratic regimes should also take note, given their proclivity to confuse winning of hearts and minds with humanitarianism and handouts.

  • Earning the gratitude of local populations can be helpful, particularly where they see themselves as under occupation or are the victims of “collateral damage.” Ultimately, however, successful counterinsurgency must address the drivers of alienation and causative factors of violence, which in almost all cases are political (or about “who gets what, when, how”).

  • Finally, in terms of understanding why authoritarian governments have clung onto power, sometimes quite successfully, despite misfiring hearts and minds programs and amid excessive and indiscriminate violence, the answer is often found in the regime’s broader engagement with the population, be it through the control on information, the mobilization of ideology, or imposition of a police state and the permeation of civil society.

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