Since 2006, the United States has explicitly adopted a population-centric, or hearts and minds, approach to counter-insurgency (COIN), characterized by minimizing harm to civilians and improving living standards. This paper evaluates this doctrine from the perspective of several academic literatures and finds that its main claims lack merit. COIN recommendations are traditionally derived from process tracing, a methodology that has many uses in IR but is ill-suited towards inferring causation in counter-insurgency wars, due to inherent difficulties involved in showing each individual step, endogeneity problems, and the lack of data. Having established that current methods provide a weak basis for American policy, the paper shows that COIN doctrine is in contradiction to three robust findings: measures of opportunity rather than grievance predict civil war, political and economic reform is not necessary to end civil wars, and positive economic indicators and higher levels of aid are not generally associated with lower levels of insurgency. While some work indicates that economic aid can be effective under special circumstances, current findings on that topic are more consistent with an elite-centric view of counter-insurgency, as are the general trajectories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. COIN theorists have mostly ignored the civil war literature in particular, despite its direct relevance to their work. While any individual study or finding can be critiqued on methodological grounds, it is compelling that researchers working independently from one another in diverse academic disciplines have all produced findings that fail to support COIN doctrine. This implies that most of the recommendations of the hearts and minds approach lack scientific merit, and helps explain the failure of US policy over the last two decades.
Richard Hanania is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. Richard’s academic interests include nuclear policy, American grand strategy, political psychology, the politics of the Middle East, and international law. He also uses statistical modeling and text analysis in order to investigate the behavior of international organizations. Among other journals, his work has appeared in International Studies Quarterly and The Journal of Cold War Studies.