Issue 47 - Article 11

Local perceptions of US 'hearts and minds' activities in Kenya

June 24, 2010
Michael Kleinman and Mark Bradbury

Local perceptions of US ‘hearts and minds’ activities in Kenya

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military strategy has increasingly focused on the provision of humanitarian and development assistance in order to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of local communities.[1] This strategy, however, is not limited to active conflicts. The US military is also trying to win hearts and minds in Muslim populations in the Horn of Africa, in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Established in 2003 and based in Djibouti, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) provides humanitarian and development assistance in the region as part of a broader regional counter-terrorism and stabilisation strategy. At the same time, the activities of CJTF-HOA reflect the growing engagement by the US military in humanitarian and development activities, not least through the establishment of the US Command for Africa (AFRICOM) in 2008.


Winning hearts and minds – or losing them?

We recently undertook a study looking at the effectiveness of CJTF-HOA’s humanitarian and development projects in winning the hearts and minds of communities in north-eastern Kenya and along the Kenyan coast.[2] Assessing the impact of CJTF-HOA’s hearts and minds activities is complicated by the changing objectives of the Task Force itself. Over time the initial aim of influencing the attitudes of the target population has become conflated with more ambitious objectives to counter terrorism and violent extremism through alleviating poverty and facilitating the reach and acceptance of the Kenyan state into previously ‘ungoverned’ areas.

Tactically, these military aid projects provide an entry point into communities that are potentially hostile to the US and its interests. They allow the military to build connections and networks and acquire knowledge about the population – connections and information which may then be used to augment intelligence, to influence local leaders or to facilitate a military intervention, should the need arise. At the same time, these projects are intended to influence local perceptions and stereotypes about the US, with the goal of undermining local support for groups hostile to America and its allies and thus to prevent potential conflict.

CJTF-HOA’s projects in Kenya’s North Eastern and Coast provinces were mostly small, scattered and under-resourced. Most were either contracted through small Civil Affairs (CA) teams, or implemented directly by US military engineering units. We were able to compile a list of 151 projects undertaken since 2003 in north-eastern Kenya and along the Kenyan coast, including a few projects in the Rift Valley as well. The projects were overwhelmingly small in scale, costing only $6.9 million over six years (excluding the costs of maintaining Civil Affairs and engineering teams in the field).

The cost of individual projects ranged from under $10,000 to $325,000, the latter spent on the renovation of the primary school in the town of Kiunga on the Kenya–Somalia border. Projects were primarily focused on the education, water, health and veterinary sectors; over 50% of all projects implemented were in the education sector. By way of comparison, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provides $8–12m per year for education in Kenya and $7m per year on governance. The $6.9m over six years also pales into insignificance in comparison with the $1.3 billion spent by USAID under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) between 2004 and 2008, on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment in Kenya.

The US military and the communities that are recipients of its assistance have different perspectives on issues of security, stabilisation and developmental needs. Whilst the communities themselves are not homogenous, it is possible to draw out some tentative conclusions. Although these activities were arguably effective on a tactical level, in terms of facilitating the US military’s entry into regions of potential concern, our study found that small-scale development projects (and exposure to US military personnel) were insufficient to convince communities to change their perceptions of the United States and its motives.

There is some evidence that CJTF-HOA has achieved a measure of tactical success insofar as CA teams have established a presence in north-eastern Kenya and along the Kenyan coast. Over the past six years, local attitudes towards their presence have become less hostile and more accommodating. Familiarity, political lobbying, better outreach by CJTF-HOA and other US government agencies and a continuing demand for external assistance mean that there is a pragmatic and tacit acceptance of the presence of CA teams. Yet it is not clear that these communities were innately hostile to the US to begin with; for instance, interviewees spoke favourably about the Peace Corps and USAID assistance. The initial resistance to the CA teams might not have reflected anti-American sentiment so much as suspicion of the US military following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a suspicion aggravated by the tendency of CA teams to separate themselves from the population during the early years of CJTF-HOA, and act as though they were in potentially hostile territory.

Arguably, the increased acceptance of the presence of CA teams owes as much to the teams interacting more openly with communities and local leaders – as well as through outreach by the US Embassy and lobbying by interested local politicians – as it does to communities changing their perceptions about the US military. Tacit acceptance, however, is not proof that CJTF-HOA’s presence has changed overall attitudes about the US government and its foreign policy. Communities and their leaders are sceptical about the purpose of CJTF-HOA’s mission and dubious about the utility of some of the assistance provided. Acceptance does not appear to be based on firm foundations and attitudes are not fixed.


Simplistic assumptions

The idea that, by delivering aid, the US military can change people’s perceptions about the United States is premised on very simplistic assumptions. It is naive to assume that a project or series of small projects are sufficient to change people’s perceptions, convictions and values, regardless of the historical and contemporary local, regional and global sociopolitical and economic context. People’s attitudes are influenced by a multitude of factors beyond the scope of aid projects, such as the relationship between the target population and the Kenyan state, their self-perception as Muslims, local leadership, the media and, more importantly, their perception of the impact of US foreign policy, both globally and across the border in Somalia. Acceptance of aid does not automatically translate into acceptance of the policies or beliefs of the entity providing the assistance.

People in North Eastern province remained highly critical of the military aid projects and suspicious of the ulterior motives behind the presence of the CA teams. It is possible that the negative views our research captured reflected a point in time in early 2009 when the number of projects had declined, particularly in North Eastern province. In Lamu district, people interviewed were generally more positive and less questioning about the US military presence. Nevertheless, they were also conscious that the reason they were recipients of assistance from the US military had more to do with US interests than a concern for their own well-being.

Local communities did not believe that CJTF-HOA activities had improved their security. On the contrary, their comments suggest that some feel more insecure than before because of the US presence. Security in Kenya’s borderlands has worsened over the past three years, partially as a consequence of US and Western policy towards Somalia. Some people feared that their association with the US could make them more vulnerable to violence by extremists, although there is no evidence that any projects have led to attacks.

Some respondents were uncomfortable with the US military’s association with the Kenyan military, given its record of violence against the Somali population in North Eastern Province. In addition, some people feared that the aid projects (in particular borehole drilling) were in reality a cover for harmful activities such as the burial of nuclear waste. In a context where US foreign policy in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Somalia and Kenya has been seen as an attack on Islam, aid projects that aim to win over both hearts and minds can appear as an attempt to directly influence a Muslim community’s faith and beliefs.

It is also worth noting that CJTF-HOA’s hearts and minds efforts have been hampered by the simple fact that soldiers are not aid workers. Despite the developmental rhetoric of CJTF-HOA, there are several glaring problems with the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance by the military. Whatever the technical skills of the reservists who make up the CA teams, they do not necessarily have the requisite skills or knowledge to undertake community development work. The short-term rotation of CA teams means that relationships and projects lack continuity. From our interviews, it does not seem that CA teams are adequately prepared before deployment, nor does the military appear to have effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Overall, the organisational strengths of the military do not translate into more efficiently delivered aid projects.

A moderate religious leader in Lamu summed up the successes and limitations of CJTF-HOA’s campaign to win hearts and minds thus:

The projects are useful, but if their purpose is to win the hearts of the people this has not been achieved. They build faith on one side and destroy it on the other. What they are doing to our brothers in Afghanistan and Israel affects all of us. 


Michael Kleinman was an independent consultant at the time he conducted the research for this article.

Mark Bradbury is an independent analyst and Director of the Rift Valley Institute Horn of Africa Course.


[1] Andrew Wilder and Stuart Gordon, ‘Money Can’t Buy America Love’, Foreign Policy, December 2009.

[2] Mark Bradbury and Michael Kleinman. Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship Between Aid and Security in Kenya, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, April 2010.


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