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Monkey Cage: How Hard Is it to Win Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan? Very Hard.

Author: Jason Lyall
January 6, 2014


"While a key policy takeaway—avoid civilian casualties—seems obvious, even taking great pains to minimize civilian suffering is no guarantee that civilians can be won over. Cognitive biases that predispose individuals to favor (or excuse) the actions of their fellow in-group members, while simultaneously using negative actions by the out-group (like ISAF) to confirm prior prejudices, are powerful frameworks not easily overcome during wartime. Without engaging these underlying psychological biases, however, efforts to win hearts and minds are likely to be expensive, protracted, and, in the end, fleeting."

The arrival of 2014 promises to open the flood gates of prognostication about Afghanistan's future as the long-planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces nears completion. Much stock has been placed in discerning Afghan attitudes toward their government and the Taliban as clues for anticipating future events. And with good reason. Counterinsurgency theorists (well, most of them) have argued that winning "hearts and minds" is a key, if not the key, to victory — or at least what passes for victory in these settings.

Now, new research shows that just how hard winning hearts and minds can be. Afghans who experience violence at the hands of NATO forces become less supportive of these forces and more supportive of the Taliban. But Afghans who experience violence at the hands of the Taliban don't react nearly as strongly against the Taliban.

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