Forum — From the February 2018 issue

The Minds of Others

The art of persuasion in the age of Trump

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Hearts and Minds

By Laila Lalami

Last summer, in Afghanistan’s Parwan province, the United States air-dropped leaflets depicting a lion chasing a white dog. “Get your freedom from these terrorist dogs,” the text read in Pashto. “Help the coalition forces find these terrorists and eliminate them.” Because Afghanistan has a literacy rate of just 38 percent, symbols are often the most effective way to convey a message. To make their meaning clear, American military officials chose a dog, considered unclean in some Islamic traditions, to represent Taliban insurgents. The flag of the Taliban is white, so the dog on the leaflet is also white. And since the Taliban’s flag bears the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, the army printed it on the body of the dog as well. But the shahada is shared by Muslims regardless of country, culture, or tradition, which meant that the United States had inadvertently portrayed itself, on its own leaflets, as a predator of all Muslims.

The fallout was swift and unsurprising. A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up outside Bagram Air Base in retaliation. Afghans found the flyer offensive, and the governor of the province lodged a complaint with US commanders. They issued an apology, but the damage had been done. “It is a major abuse against Islam,” Mohammad Zaman Mamozai, the police chief of Parwan, told reporters. “Why do they not understand or know our culture, our religion and history?”

Mamozai had a point. America’s mission in Afghanistan is, in part, to “win hearts and minds,” but it would appear that the work of understanding is to be done by the people who are being occupied, without much effort on the part of the occupier. This asymmetry seems jarring to Afghans but not necessarily to Americans, who too often take it for granted that their country is a force for good.

America first developed the strategy of winning hearts and minds (also known by its unfortunate acronym, WHAM) during the Vietnam War. President Kennedy believed that in order to defeat an insurgency, it was not enough to overpower the enemy on the battlefield; civilian populations also had to be persuaded to join the American side, through social, cultural, or economic projects. One of these was the Strategic Hamlet Program, which relocated Vietnamese farmers to fortified villages where they could receive basic services and protection from insurgent attacks. But the move created resentment among farmers who lost their ancestral lands, and the villages often fell to Vietcong forces anyway. Nevertheless, President Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, continued to believe that WHAM was the key to winning in Vietnam. “The ultimate victory,” he said in 1965, “will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there.”

When I was growing up in Morocco, my encounters with America were primarily cultural. I watched Little House on the Prairie on television, pined for Michael Jackson’s red leather jacket, and copied Prince’s dance moves. I practiced English pronunciation by listening to Madonna. (“Muh-teer-ee-uhl girl,” not “Mah-teer-ee-uhl girl,” etc.) In college, I studied American history and the US Constitution as part of my major in English, and often used the library at Dar America, an embassy-sponsored cultural center in Rabat. For a few months in my twenties, I even worked as an education liaison for Amideast, an American nonprofit.

But familiarity with America’s culture and use of its educational resources did not translate for me into an endorsement of its foreign policy, which is why I have always found the concept of winning hearts and minds to be absurd. The minds of others are not empty vessels into which support for America can be poured. Persuading a society to abandon one form of government for another requires dialogue, and people are unlikely to listen to what you have to say if you’re also dropping bombs on them.

None of this means that there is no room for persuasion in international confrontations. The nuclear deal with Iran and the détente with Cuba, for example, were the outcome of sustained diplomatic work. But these efforts were successful because they brought both sides to the negotiating table, whereas WHAM relies on unilateral communication backed by violence. The fundamental flaw of WHAM is that it proceeds from the naïve belief that to know America is to love it, and thereafter accept its actions, even when they endanger one’s own survival. That WHAM has been an unquestioned part of US foreign policy for decades illustrates America’s peculiar insistence on its own innocence.

In spite of WHAM’s documented failure to quell insurgencies, George W. Bush decided to use the strategy when he invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. “Across the world, hearts and minds are opening to the message of human liberty as never before,” he told the UN General Assembly in 2005, citing as proof the two countries’ recent elections. To help shape opinion abroad, the Bush Administration launched a satellite TV channel that broadcast daily news, talk shows, and cultural programming across the Middle East and North Africa. They named it Alhurra (Arabic for “the free”). But just as Johnson failed to win over villagers whose homes were being torched with napalm, so too did Bush struggle to convince the fabled “Arab street” of his good intentions. Alhurra, which is based in Virginia and receives its funding from Congress, could not compete with the hundreds of local and satellite channels in the Arab world, the most formidable of which, Al Jazeera, aggressively covered the Iraq War, including the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison and the massacre of civilians in Haditha. Alhurra continues to broadcast throughout the Middle East, but it is seen for what it is: propaganda by an occupying power.

As the American war in Afghanistan enters its seventeenth year, “winning hearts and minds” has become little more than a painful cliché. Soon it may be discarded altogether. “I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” President Trump declared in August, with no detectable irony. Earlier in the summer, the Pentagon had announced plans to deploy 3,900 more troops to the country. But this time there would be no effort to win over the local population. “We are not nation-building again,” Trump said. “We are killing terrorists.” He also gave James Mattis, his secretary of defense, the authority to loosen rules of engagement on the battlefield, a move that may result in an increase in Afghan civilian casualties.

Although Americans have been divided over the war in Afghanistan, previous presidents could rally support by saying that soldiers were building roads or schools “out there.” But by bluntly stating that the United States is not interested in helping the people whose lands it occupies, Trump has removed the mask of compassion. Millions of quiet Americans may soon find that they do not like the brutal face beneath the mask. As shameful as it is, this admission may be the best chance we have of ending the war.

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