Winning Hearts and Minds in Civil Wars: Governance, Leadership Change, and Support for Violent Groups in Iraq

The forthcoming article “Winning Hearts and Minds in Civil Wars: Governance, Leadership Change, and Support for Violent Groups in Iraq” by Christoph Mikulaschek, Saurabh Pant and Beza Tesfaye is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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The “hearts and minds” model of combating rebellions indicates that civilians in civil war theaters are less likely to support armed opposition groups if they are satisfied with the provision of public services and security by the government. If the government effectively signals that it will address the grievances of a certain displeased group, then this group will reward the government with support in return; and simultaneously, this group will reduce support for the rebels. Building on this model, we argue that a political event that increases a group’s expectation of future security and public service delivery by the government will increase support for the government and will decrease sympathy for violent opposition groups. Attitudes toward the government and its opponents will change as soon as the displeased group’s expectations of future public service and security provision rise. Therefore, a leadership transition that affects these expectations can shift public support away from insurgents and toward the government even before the new government implements policy changes. 

To test our argument, we leverage original data from a large national survey in Iraq and a unique research design opportunity that stems from the unforeseen announcement of the resignation of divisive Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the summer of 2014 while the survey was in the field. This leadership transition to a successor viewed as relatively less sectarian, Haider al-Abadi, occurred at the height of the ISIS insurgency. We demonstrate that the characteristics of respondents who were interviewed before the leadership transition was announced were not systematically different from those of respondents who took our survey afterwards, and that the timing of each interview was unrelated to the leadership transition. Thus, we can estimate the effect of this event on the attitudes of Iraqi citizens by comparing survey responses provided immediately before the announcement of the leadership transition to those given shortly thereafter.  

We find that the announcement of the leadership transition had a large effect on the attitudes of Iraq’s displeased Sunni Arab minority. We show that this minority group shifted support from the violent opposition to the government. In fact, Sunni Arab support for violent opposition groups dropped by almost 20 percentage points over just a few weeks after the announcement of the leadership transitionIn line with our argument, we provide evidence that this realignment was due to rising optimism among Sunni Arabs that the new government would provide services and public goods—specifically security, electricity, and jobs. 

We can rule out three plausible alternative explanations of our findings. First, the results do not merely reflect a transitory “honeymoon effect” that is often observed when a new leader is elected. Second, it is highly unlikely that the realignment of Sunni Arab attitudes was due to changing expectations of which side was going to win the civil war. Third, and finally, the findings do not support an explanation grounded in zero-sum sectarianism where one group’s gain comes at the expense of another group’s welfare. 

These results have several major implications. First, support for militancy is not simply a reflection of primordial sectarian animosity. Iraqi Sunni Arabs are willing to support a Shia Arab-led government if they expect the government to improve their plight. Second, leadership change in civil war countries with a history of personalized dictatorship can drastically shift mass political attitudes even when the new head of government is a member of the same sect, political party, and ruling coalition as his predecessor, as long as the transition improves public perceptions of future service delivery to aggrieved communities. Third, while the recent literature shows that leadership transitions in weakly institutionalized regimes alter public goods and service provision, this study indicates that the public’s expectation of such changes triggers a realignment of popular support from violent opposition groups to the government. Thus, effective signals about future public service delivery start to at least temporarily win over hearts and minds even before any concrete policy change.  

About the Author(s): Christoph Mikulaschek is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University, Saurabh Pant is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and Beza Tesfaye is a Senior Researcher at Mercy Corps. Their research “Winning Hearts and Minds in Civil Wars: Governance, Leadership Change, and Support for Violent Groups in Iraq” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.