“Winning Hearts and Minds” Is Dead

The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government. Counterinsurgents achieve this objective by the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means…. Governments described as “legitimate” rule primarily with the consent of the governed; those described as “illegitimate” tend to rely mainly or entirely on coercion. Citizens of the latter obey the state for fear of the consequences of doing otherwise, rather than because they voluntarily accept its rule.“- United States Army Field Manual No. 3-24, section 1-113. [1]

(Photo: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt / US Air Force via The New York Times)

Counterinsurgency operations are dead. Dead as a door nail. Almost all observers in security circles have recognized that the Obama administration has replaced counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns with a different type of warfare, sometimes called “counter-terror (CT)” or “limited war operations.” Only recently did I realize how antithetical the two approaches are.

The hundreds of drone strikes authorized by the President since he first took office are a telling example. The headline tells this story better than I can:

U.S. Drone Strikes In Afghanistan Cause Villagers To Flee

KHALIS FAMILY VILLAGE, Afghanistan — Barely able to walk even with a cane, Ghulam Rasool says he padlocked his front door, handed over the keys and his three cows to a neighbor and fled his mountain home in the middle of the night to escape relentless airstrikes from U.S. drones targeting militants in this remote corner of Afghanistan.

Rasool and other Afghan villagers have their own name for Predator drones. They call them benghai, which in the Pashto language means the “buzzing of flies.” When they explain the noise, they scrunch their faces and try to make a sound that resembles an army of flies.

“They are evil things that fly so high you don’t see them but all the time you hear them,” said Rasool, whose body is stooped and shrunken with age and his voice barely louder than a whisper. “Night and day we hear this sound and then the bombardment starts.”


The Associated Press – in a rare on-the-ground look unaccompanied by military or security – visited two Afghan villages in Nangarhar province near the border with Pakistan to talk to residents who reported that they had been affected by drone strikes.

In one village, Afghans disputed NATO’s contention that five men killed in a particular drone strike were militants. In the other, a school that was leveled in a nighttime airstrike targeting Taliban fighters hiding inside has yet to be rebuilt.

“These foreigners started the problem,” Rasool said of international troops. “They have their own country. They should leave.”

From the U.S. perspective, the overall drone program has been a success. [2]

I suppose only a few Americans have thought about what it is like to try and work, commute, or play beneath the drones. They have never had to explain to a young child what makes the terrible buzzing sound. For us it is a disconcerting thought. Those living under the shadow of the drones know it as a terrifying reality. From the 2012 report Living Under Drones:

One of the few accounts of living under drones ever published in the US came from a former New York Times journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban for months in FATA. In his account, David Rohde described both the fear the drones inspired among his captors, as well as among ordinary civilians: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.” Describing the experience of living under drones as ‘hell on earth’, Rohde explained that even in the areas where strikes were less frequent, the people living there still feared for their lives.

Community members, mental health professionals, and journalists interviewed for this report described how the constant presence of US drones overhead leads to substantial levels of fear and stress in the civilian communities below. One man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as “a wave of terror” coming over the community. “Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified. . . . They scream in terror.” Interviewees described the experience of living under constant surveillance as harrowing. In the words of one interviewee: “God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.” Another interviewee who lost both his legs in a drone attack said that “[e]veryone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.”

Interviewees indicated that their own powerlessness to minimize their exposure to strikes compounded their emotional and psychological stress. “We are scared. We are worried. The worst thing is that we cannot find a way to do anything about it. We feel helpless.” Ahmed Jan summarized the impact: “Before the drone attacks, it was as if everyone was young. After the drone attacks, it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones.” One mother who spoke with us stated that, although she had herself never seen a strike, when she heard a drone fly overhead, she became terrified. “Because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears.” When asked why, she said, “Why would we not be scared? 

A humanitarian worker who had worked in areas affected by drones stated that although far safer than others in Waziristan, even he felt constant fear: “Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember what it felt like right after? I was in New York on 9/11. I remember people crying in the streets. People were afraid about what might happen next. People didn’t know if there would be another attack. There was tension in the air. This is what it is like. It is a continuous tension, a feeling of continuous uneasiness. We are scared. You wake up with a start to every noise.”

Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. Interviewees also reported suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances, which medical health professionals in Pakistan stated were prevalent. A father of three said, “drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.” According to a strike survivor, “When the drone is moving, people cannot sleep properly or can’t rest properly. They are always scared of the drones.” Saeed Yayha, a day laborer who was injured from flying shrapnel in the March 17, 2011 jirga attack and must now rely on charity to survive, said: “I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there . . . I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared.

The small number of trained mental health professionals and lack of health infrastructure in North Waziristan exacerbates the symptoms and illnesses described here. Several interviewees provided a troubling glimpse of the methods some communities turn to in order to deal with mental illness in the absence of adequate alternatives. One man said that “some people have been tied in their houses because of their mental state.” A Waziri from Datta Khel—which has been hit by drone strikes over three dozen times in the last three years alone—said that a number of individuals “have lost their mental balance . . . are just locked in a room. Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room.” [3] (bolded emphasis added)

There is a horrible sort of irony in these operations. To fight a global war on terror the United States regularly plunges entire populations into a state of unremitting terror.

The contrast between these operations and the guidance given in U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency (the manual created by the military to teach officers how to wage counterinsurgent campaigns) is striking. Consider a few statements culled from its first chapter:

  • “The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian populace.” 
  • “It is easier to separate an insurgency from its resources and let it die than to kill every insurgent. Clearly, killing or capturing insurgents will be necessary… However, killing every insurgent is normally impossible. Attempting to do so can also be counterproductive in some cases; it risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge.” 
  • “U.S. forces committed to a COIN effort are there to assist a Host Nation government.”  
  •  “Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy for the Host Nation government with activities that do not involve killing insurgents (though, again, killing clearly will often be necessary). Arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”  [4]

The use of drone strikes and other CT operations do not just diverge from the strategic principles proposed in FM 3-24. They are irreconcilably opposed to them. Counterinsurgency is dead. The idea of victory through winning minds has been replaced with the tactic of fighting terror with terror. 


[1] David H Petraeus and James F. Amos. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency (Washington: U.S. Army). 2006. 1-113 (Link).

[2] Kathy Cannon.”U.S. Drone Strikes In Afghanistan Cause Villagers to Flee.” Huffington Post. 28 March 2013.

[3] International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law). Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan. September 2012. p 80-88.

Every United States citizen should read pages 56-73 and 80-88 of this publication. And then imagine themselves explaining to a child what the buzzing means. If the policy is worth these costs, then so be it, but Americans need to know what is being done in their name.

[4] David H Petraeus et. al. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency. 1-131, 1-128, 1-147, 1-153.

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