Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Counterinsurgency and the chief failure in “hearts and minds”

Why is it that, in a period characterised by the unquestioned dominance of the US military, angry groups and usurper movements are spreading?

It seems to defy logic that the Islamic State, Russia, al Qaeda and even perhaps China can act in ways counter to the enormous firepower of the US. Surely its spy satellites, all-seeing surveillance and advanced strike systems would deter even the sneakiest of actors. It should be this way, but maybe the groups know something we don’t?

As I've previously explained, the central US project is to protect its trade routes. To achieve this US military forces are positioned in other nation states. Those states must therefore be friendly towards Washington. So they must be encouraged to think and behave in a philosophically comparative way to State Department elites.

The greater amount of Western (re: American) institutions a country adopts, the more likely it is to agree with Washington. From the Beltway’s perspective, this is not viewed as manipulation. Rather, the process is sprinkled with beneficent terms such as “freedom”, “democracy” and “human rights”. Washington elites believe these ideas to be self-evident, and think everyone else should too.

This is a game of statecraft on a global scale, which is not surprising because the US is an empire. Washington elites don’t like to think of their dear country as an empire, but reality always cuts through ideologies. The process towards the goal is simple: if everyone thinks the same as Washington, then everywhere is open for trade. This is not a critique, it is just a photograph.

The essential element of this process is what the British called “hearts and minds”. In its purest form this idea is applied to counterinsurgency, as a procedure to limit a distributed military uprising inside a nation state. But it can also be thought of as the overarching governance of a modern state.

To “legitimise” a government, leaders and officials must constantly reinforce in citizen’s “hearts” a sense of love and desire for the structure by aligning all vertices of government – press, universities, the judiciary, the treasury and banks, the civil service proper, NGOs and transnationals, the military and corporate holders of official monopolies – towards the same project of whatever ultimate ideology, be that monarchy, democracy, anarchy, oligarchy, etc.

Everything else will follow, but only if the second aspect, “minds”, is coupled with the first. Securing minds requires getting a population to think, not feel, that the government has the power to deny.

The key for securing “minds” is to squash a counter-ideology before it grows inside a nation state to a point where it wishes to use force. The usurper must view the government in such a way that it knows its insurrection will fail. Flip this around to the obverse: insurgencies occur because, and only because, the insurgents perceive a chance of winning.

And so we can see why great swathes of the world are in flux, as if squirming out of an invisible bag. The ideas poured into the globe by Washington over 200 years, the “hearts”, have never been stronger. What dissipates is the belief in people’s “minds” that alternative ideologies must not upset the status quo. Usurper groups and strongmen are seeing light between hearts and minds and exploiting the gap.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a good example. He has encouraged Russia to introduce and maintain a checklist of Western institutions ranging from parliamentarianism and elections to protests. But in practice none of these institutions operate anything like their peers in the US or New Zealand. Up until the middle of the last decade, that didn’t matter because the gap between “hearts and minds” wasn’t wide enough yet.

Now, Mr Putin is not beholden to the “heart” of democracy and his “mind” no longer feels compelled by the prospect of US retribution for squirming free of this invisible bag. Mr Putin’s actions come in to focus when thinking about the Islamic State. He watched the failure of the “hearts and minds” campaign in Iraq and saw a weakness in US ideals.

In Iraq, the US was conducting colonial government. There is no other way to describe it. The solution to the problem of colonial government is to govern: to enforce order instantly and without compromise, tolerating no challenge to the occupying authority whether military or political, religious or criminal.

But to progressive Washington elites, the only way to govern Iraq was to persuade Iraqis to fall in love with the new government. They say “hearts and minds”, but what they really mean is “hearts.” They believe people’s hearts are always for sale, a theory leading to the concept known as “aid.” If this showed any evidence of working, then Mr Putin and ISIS wouldn’t be such a problem.

Colonial-era British elites would be horrified that the US tolerated not only native Iraqi political parties, but parties with armed paramilitary wings. The essential tactic in a colonial occupation is the construction of mixed authorities in which foreign administrators exercise executive authority over native troops and civil servants. Mixed authorities work by combining the independence and professionalism of foreign leadership with low cost native manpower.

In other words, replacing an ideology with a new ideology requires directly managing the entire process long after the guns stop firing. More importantly, avoiding insurgency requires the occupiers deliver overwhelming force against usurpers wherever they may be. “Hearts and minds” must work in concert, otherwise the ultimate goal will always fail. People must be compelled not to rise up.

What we are witnessing today is the result of three decades of a robust US “hearts” strategy suffering from a half-hearted “minds” strategy. So even while many nations appear to operate democratic institutions, some suspect an insurgency just might have the chance of winning.

Reality has a way of cutting through ideology. Washington desire to encourage worldwide democracy and freedom cannot coexist with pacifism and cultural autonomy. Hate it all you like, but a secure world requires the threat of a big stick. An empire’s “hearts and minds” strategy must be total. Anything less leads to the turmoil of today.

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