More Than “Hearts and Minds” Needed to Counter Terrorism

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, July 2009

The phrase “winning hearts and minds” is a simplistic and dangerous cliche reflecting a certain naivete in American thinking that everyone yearns to be like us. In the struggle against those who would pervert Islam and use that despicable version of a great religion as a tool for terror, winning hearts and minds should not be our center of gravity. The center of gravity is delegitimizing this perverted view of jihad in the minds of the 99.9 percent of all Muslims who reject terror and the one-tenth of 1 percent who are likely to be seduced by the siren song of al-Qaida. That one-tenth of 1 percent, by the way, numbers about 1.4 million people, roughly the size of the American military.

Regrettably, collectively we have done very little to delegitimize extremism in the eyes of either the world’s “peaceful” 1.4 billion Muslims or the 1.3 million potential converts. The reasons for this failure are, in the first case, our inability to create and deliver an antidote acceptable to the many and the belief that those bent on suicide and martyrdom cannot be stopped short of physical means. Sadly, no matter how hard the Bush II administration tried to develop a strategic communications package to that end – and both Undersecretaries of State Charlotte Beers and then Karen Hughes were thought to have the right stuff to accomplish that mission – it failed. The Obama administration thus far is doing no better.

The solution to this first challenge is simple to define and perhaps impossible to execute given the dysfunctionality of government and the absence of anyone with enough authority south of the president to make the plan work. But we simply have not spent the time and intellectual resources to develop an effective plan. However, the challenge of deflecting and defeating those who might be targets for suicide and martyrdom is more interesting. In this regard, there is precedent.

During World War II we faced an enemy that saw suicide as both honorable and an effective tactic. Banzai attacks on the part of the Japanese army were paralleled in the air with Kamikazes, translated as “divine wind,” crashing their planes against enemy ships and targets. Indeed, as we witnessed in the assault on Guam, Japanese civilians also committed suicide to avoid capture.

For the final invasion of the Japanese mainland, estimates of a million allied casualties were presumed. No one was sure how many Japanese would die or commit suicide. However, that figure was likely to be a substantial portion of the population.

Defeated on land, Japan was being destroyed from the air. Thousands of B-29 bombers in air raids that often lasted all night dropped millions of pounds of bombs including incendiaries that killed upwards of 100,000 Japanese in Tokyo, Nagoya and Haruna. Cut off by the blockade and literally starving, the Japanese showed no sign of surrendering.

Given these realties, the decision to employ the first two atom bombs was clear. After Hiroshima was eviscerated, Japan still fought on. Two days later the destruction of Nagasaki led to deadlock in the War Cabinet. Emperor Hirohito wisely broke that standoff and Japan surrendered unconditionally. Overnight, Japan was transformed from a suicidally oriented society to one that meekly accepted total surrender. The question of how and why that happened is very relevant psychologically to today’s threat of jihadist extremists.

Japanese people could understand how a 1,000-plane raid could lay waste to city over the course of a night. They could not, however, understand how one plane and one bomb could replicate that same level of damage. It was the “shock and awe” of the event that reversed the psychology of a suicidal society.

Shock and awe later became the watchwords of a strategic concept that was misunderstood and misapplied by the Bush administration in the opening day of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And, equally unfortunately, the references to the nuclear attacks on Japan were misconstrued by many as the need to use them again to change “hearts and minds.” In fact, the basis for shock and awe was drawn from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. The aim was to get people to do what we wanted or to stop doing what we did not want done. And the incentives ranged from positive reward to the use of force.

Regarding radical jihadists bent on suicide, there may be no countervailing solution. On the other hand, delegitimizing this perversion of Islam and those who would pervert it by leading clerics, scholars and politicians is worthy of analysis. In that regard, Britain’s highly effective propaganda campaign against Nazi Germany during World War II is a good case study to be replicated. Unfortunately, no one in the West has seriously undertaken this assessment. This should be among the Obama team’s highest priorities.

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was syndicated as “Winning hearts and minds ain’t it” by UPI.  Photo: Reuters Pictures.

Image: TalibanFighters.jpg