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Winning Hearts and Minds: What Business People Can learn From the US Counter Insurgency in Afghanistan

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Across a lot of my writing and speaking I stress the importance of building and developing relationships; pursuing the relationship rather than the sale. One of the traditional issues with the perception of networking among many people is that too often people have felt 'hunted', or have been the hunters themselves. Neither position leads to a satisfactory conclusion.

Of course, the power of getting to know someone and winning their trust in order to achieve your objectives has a great amount of relevance in our day to day interactions. Networking is not just a business tool.

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I recently finished a wonderful book, In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab. In the book the author, an Afghan born woman who emigrated to the US as a teenager and then went back to Afghanistan as a translator for the US forces, shares the story of a picnic during the early days of the US presence. There is a lot we can learn from the US Army's move from a transactional approach towards their Afghan hosts to seeking to build stronger relationships.

"The army's standard approach to interacting with regular Afghans is to devise a mission: Let's go to village A and see whether they need a school, and complete that mission in the shortest time possible, preferably the same day.....Most PRT missions are designed to be short, featuring a straightforward goal that can be measured at the end of the day.

"Once the event is over, everyone hops into their Humvees and races back inside the wire to work on the storyboard that inevitably concludes with "Mission accomplished!"

But this casual gathering was something else entirely. It didn't seem to have anything to do with anything measurable. Judy, the commander, the soldiers pulling her security, and some local agronomists were just sitting around talking, getting to know one another, becoming acquainted with one another's culture."

The phrase 'winning hearts and minds' was first coined by British General Sir Gerald Templar during the British campaign in Malaya in the 1950s, "The answer [to defeating the insurgents] ... rests in the hearts and minds of the Malayan people", before being adopted by US President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

It's a phrase that many people will recognise today, and became core to the US counter-insurgency campaign (COIN) in Afghanistan. Rather than impose the will of the army on the locals, win their support by engaging with them.

Of course, a campaign based on relationship-building and winning hearts and minds has got to be authentic and come from a genuine interest in the other party, rather than a box-ticking exercise. But when such an approach is authentic, the rewards can be tangible.

"This may not sound like much. Today we have a greater understanding that building long-term relationships with the Afghan people is critical, but in 2005 it was very unusual. To most soldiers, Afghanistan was just a tour of duty. Their only goal was to get through it alive, so they could be promoted and move on.

"The missing link was a genuine relationship with the local population. If the villagers felt connected to us, they would be more likely to cooperate with our missions, warn us of any impending danger in the region, and avoid providing shelter and support for the insurgency."

When the US soldiers first arrived in Afghanistan they didn't see the need to build relationships with the locals. They had been invited into the country by the Government to help with reconstruction efforts. Why was there a need to win the support of the local population?

The challenge was that those reconstruction efforts were undermined by insurgents ensuring that the villagers wouldn't co-operate with the army or would help them to block the reconstruction efforts. Relationships were needed to give the villagers the confidence and, more importantly, the desire to find ways to help the US troops.

"This is not to say that villagers would be able to stand up to the insurgents directly just because they were supportive of the U.S. mission, but if they felt that the company commander was a friend, they might find a way to pass on crucial information that could potentially save the lives of his soldiers.

"Once established, these relationships could be passed on to the incoming units, because one of the characteristics of being in uniform is that you become interchangeable with the soldier who replaces you. If one company commander stresses the importance of good neighborly behavior to newly arrived troops and introduces them to local villagers, he creates a foundation that can be built on when the next unit arrives, and so on."

When we take a hunting mentality into our business interactions we fail to see the world from the perspective of the people we are meeting and talking to. People are less likely to want to co-operate with or support us in our objectives. We may occasionally gain something in the short term but long-term, more valuable returns are far from likely.

By winning the hearts and minds of our business contacts we can develop strong relationships that can lead to a host of rewards, from referrals and recommendations to finance, knowledge, support and much much more.

We just have to start taking the longer-term view and putting much more effort into getting to know the other party.

"The result is trust, and a long-term relationship, principles that are a big part of Pashtun culture. This picnic felt like the beginning of a new type of relationship between Afghans and Americans, and the beginning of the idea that led General Petraeus to encourage his soldiers to mingle more, to drink more cups of the world-famous Afghan green tea."