Throughout the Iraq War I argued against "taking off the gloves" to really hammer the Sunni Arabs in Iraq. No matter how frustrating the fight seemed, I argued that we had to wage a war for the people to defend friends, move neutrals to friendship, and move enemies to neutrality. Plus, since most Iraqis were our friends, it would only risk losing friends more than it promised to scare enemies.
Nor was it right to ask our troops to become beasts in a mistaken notion that we could brutalize the Iraqis into supporting our victory. It would take near-genocidal levels of killing to win an insurgency that way. In Syria, we can see that Assad has been unable to brutalize his way to victory over insurgents there.
But even if I only mentioned the concept in passing, I did always recognize that if we fought a war where we weren't essentially protecting friendly populations from an enemy insurgency (and terrorists), we'd have to fight it differently. We could afford to be more ruthless in fighting enemies--even if that doesn't mean being indiscriminate in violence--if we truly conquered a hostile country and had to suppress national resistance.
I never really explored how we might win that fight since we didn't have that one. But if we have to actually pacify a hostile population, it would have been better to think of population-centric operations not as "protecting" the people from insurgents as much as it is "separating" the people from insurgents, as I mentioned here in regard to Iraq, as we fought in the Taliban south in Afghanistan:
[It] was crucial that we go in to hammer the enemy and stay in the areas instead of commuting to the war in order to break the enemy and make them weak enough for strengthening Iraqi forces to handle. Counter-insurgency 101, right?
And I absolutely worried about thinking we could take what worked in Iraq where we teamed with Sunnis and Shias to combat the alien al Qaeda terrorists and expecting it to work in the Taliban heartland where the people supported the Taliban insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists. But counter-insurgency can handle that. Like I said, "hearts and minds" isn't about gaining the love and gratitude of the people by protecting them from insurgents. It is about separating the insurgents from the people so the people can't support the insurgents. That can be done whether the people love us or [are] the enemy. It is harder. But it can be done.
Winning hearts and minds doesn't mean just being nicer than the enemy. That may be the "hearts" part but it neglects the "minds" part. If we are defending people, we can expect their hearts to be in the right place and want to help us. But regardless, we have to address the "mind" part, too. Whether or not people are basically friendly or basically hostile, our presence in a community separating the people from the insurgents will help convince the "minds" that it is safer to support us or at least safer not to support the enemy. The idea, as Boot writes, is to separate the people from the insurgents:
In Iraq in 2007-08, Gen. David Petraeus showed how successful a "population-centric" strategy could be, at least in narrow security terms, by sending troops to live in urban areas and by wooing Sunni tribes.
The best-known term for this strategy is "winning hearts and minds"—a phrase popularized by the British Gen. Gerald Templer, who saved Malaya from a communist insurgency in the 1950s. But the term is misleading, since it suggests that a counter-insurgency campaign is trying to win a popularity contest. In reality, the populace will embrace the government only if it is less dangerous to do so than to support the insurgency. That is why successful population-centric policies aim to control the people with a 24/7 deployment of security forces, not to win their love and gratitude by handing out soccer balls, medical supplies and other goodies.
I suppose, in a way, handing out the soccer balls is as much about the hearts back home so our people think well of our troops who are waging wars for minds. By killing insurgents and keeping the insurgents from getting help from the people because we are always around interfering with that, we can make supporting American forces seem safer than supporting insurgents. Their hearts are a nice bonus, at that point.
Winning hearts and minds isn't some wimpy alternative to fighting insurgents. It is how you fight an insurgency when the objective is the people themselves. You want their hearts. You can settle for their minds. And when you are pacifying an enemy population, you need to grab the insurgents by the balls so the people's hearts and minds will follow.
NOTE: I discovered this post as one scheduled to go up on 30 APR 2013, but it did not post and I did not notice the failure to post. So here it is. The subject isn't a fleeting one whose time has passed.