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Losing 'hearts and minds' in Afghanistan

If there was ever a discredited phrase surely it’s “winning the hearts and minds of the people”. Used by the Americans in Vietnam and more recently Iraq, it is now on the lips of every commander and politician involved in the latest phase of the debacle in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, after reports that 20 villagers were killed by misguided missiles, no less a person than Bob Ainsworth, the gruff, tough-speaking New Labour defence secretary, uttered the same immortal words that have served as a cover for naked aggression down the ages, saying: "The most important phase of the operations begins now – winning over the hearts and minds of the people ... That's the hard bit…"

Actually, the hard bit is listening to Ainsworth, who personifies the New Labour New Imperialist government, set on remaking the world in their image, overthrowing regimes they don’t like and propping up corrupt governments like the Karzai presidency in Afghanistan if they serve a political purpose.

In 1965, President Johnson gave the phrase its first modern outing, when he declared that "ultimate victory [in Vietnam] will depend upon the hearts and the minds" of the Vietnamese. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) poured billions of dollars into the country in a bid to win over the local population to the American way of life.

The military were having none of it, however. A brutal campaign of “pacification” – epitomised by the My Lai massacre in 1968 when the population of an entire village was slaughtered by US troops – ensured that the support for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam remained solid. A dramatic documentary by Peter Davis made in 1974 shows what winning “hearts and minds” was about in practice. A year later American troops left Vietnam, defeated.

In Iraq, in November 2004, Fallujah was reduced to rubble by US troops, who used white phosphorous bombs. The execution of a wounded Iraqi was caught on video tape. Before the massacre, a squad leader with 1st Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, vowed: “We will win the hearts and minds of Fallujah by ridding the city of insurgents. We're doing that by patrolling the streets and killing the enemy." An Italian documentary made a year later exposed what happened.

Winning “hearts and minds” is in practice an impossibility. The phrase has the stench of a colonial mentality running right through it. When the strategy falters, as it inevitably does, the frustrations of the military come out and the shooting starts all over again. The Afghan people have been “visited” by foreign armies since time immemorial – and rightly resisted them all.

British and American troops come under attack by the Taliban simply because they are the latest in a long line of occupying forces. The killing of Afghans only reinforces this perception inside the country. The deaths of US and British troops are pointless because ultimately the soldiers are serving political masters whose imperial mentality prevents any lasting solution.

Only a different kind of government and democratic political system in countries like Britain and America, one that is cleansed of all this “hearts and minds” rubbish, can even contemplate offering the Afghan people the resources and support they want in their legitimate quest for self-determination.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
16 February 2010

Your Say


Fiona says:

"Neither occupiers nor the bestial Taliban" says the organisation Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)

Totally agree that the tired old 'hearts and minds' mantra reeks of a patronising almost Victorian imperialism.


Mike says:

this is killing body and soul; their hearts and minds belong to them


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