Merchant of Death
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Blood from Stones

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The Hearts and Minds Issue
One of the striking things about several of today's military engagements with Islamist radicals is the inability to improve people's lives, even after several years on the ground.

The most obvious example is Afghanistan, where Gen. David McKiernan warns that better governance and economic progress are vital.

"It is true that in many places of this country we don't have an acceptable level of security. We don't have good governance. We don't have socio-economic progress. We don't have people that are able to grow their produce and get it to market. We don't have freedom of movement," he told a news conference in Kabul.

One of the great lessons of the Taliban's first takeover was not that their theology and ideology were loved and supported by all or even most Afghanis. It was that the Taliban promised-and delivered-stability and security.

The same is true in Somalia, where chaos now reigns, despite the presence of foreign troops and AU peacekeepers. The biggest failing of the effort is the failure to deliver on the promises to make Mogadishu and other areas safe and secure. The Islamists did when they controlled Mogadishu, the international forces have not.

My point is that much is made over the idea of winning people's hearts and minds, and that is often interpreted as getting people to love us, or at least really, really like us, or whatever anti-Islamist group is fighting.

But, in my years of covering insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, that is a fanciful notion. What people do want, especially in situations where chaos and fear have been the norm for years, is to live a somewhat normal and secure life. The relative success in Iraq, I would argue, is due as much to that as any other factor. That is the danger of the Iraqi government's inability to press forward on the political side, for real improvement, while the military creates a climate of normalcy.

People want to go to the movies and get ice cream with their children without fear of being blown up. They want basic medical services to function, and for the constant worry about being kidnapped to cease. They want the fear to cease. They don't want to love us, and they probably won't. But if these basic needs are met, the appeal of the Islamists withers.

There is one caveat. If the anti-Islamist forces, whether US or others, inflict civilian casualties, the war is essentially lost. Every civilian killed turns an entire family, sub-clan and perhaps clan, away from us and into the arms of the Islamists. Those people cannot be won over, no matter what the inducements to change are.

I have seen in this in many wars. The FMLN in El Salvador grew exponentially as the military repression increased and innocent people were targeted by death squads. The Contras prospered when the Sandinistas started their internal repression. The RUF in Sierra Leone was the most reviled rebel movement I have ever seen, because of what they did to civilians on the ground.

I find it striking that so much effort is put into telling victims of atrocities that they are, in fact, victims of atrocities. They already know that. They understand the abuses of the Taliban or the ICU in Somalia far better than we do. The RUF victims did not need to be told what had happened. They had the stumps of their arms or legs to show they understood.

All they need and want is to have a portion of their lives back. Whoever can give that to them will win. That is why the corruption endemic in Afghanistan, touching the president's brother and fed by drug profits, is so corrosive. Because people know it, and feel the effects every day in the humiliation of trying to get a broken system to work in some fashion, to deliver some basic service.

Secretary Gates and the military command have moved a long way toward understanding this in Iraq. The question is whether these basic lessons and principles will be applied elsewhere.
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