January 8, 2013
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.
An important question — how can we measure “hearts and minds” accurately? — is often lost in the revolving shuffle of PowerPoint decks and endless debates about metrics. Clearly the obstacles are formidable. Dumping billions of dollars into a country is likely to skew attitudes, if only because it generates incentives for recipients to shade their answers in ways that guarantee future assistance. The shadow of violence also looms over respondents and enumerators alike: Speaking honestly, or simply entering a village to solicit opinions, can be risky endeavors.