Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Burying the Powell doctrine in Afghanistan

March 23, 2010
A U.S. soldier in Helamd. Picture by Shamil Zhumatov)

A U.S. soldier in Helmand. Picture by Shamil Zhumatov)

Early this month Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered what military experts are saying was the final nail in the coffin of  the Powell doctrine, a set of principles that General Colin Powell during his tenure as chairman laid out for the use of military force. A key element was that the military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. A clear exit strategy must be thought through right from the beginning and the use of force must only be a last resort, Powell said, the experience of Vietnam clearly weighing on him.

U.S. military involvement overseas has deviated far from those principles since then but Mullen finally finished it off, according to Robert Haddick in this piece for Foreign Policy. The United States is faced with low-level warfare and the public must accept it as a way of life. The question no longer is whether to use military force; America’s enemies whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen have settled that issue, ensuring it remains engaged in conflict. The question is how should it use its vast power.

The nature of the threat from irregular warfare is such that it would often make more sense for the United States to turn to use of military force as a first option, according to the new Mullen doctrine. And you don’t need to assemble an armada before going in, as Powell did for Operation Desert Storm. You need to be precise and principled.

Last week another one of Powell’s principles came under withering attack and this goes directly to the heart of the issue of nation-building that the United States has been faced with in Afghanistan and Iraq after invading these countries.  Powell said America had a  moral obligation to countries it got militarily involved in, a sort of a “Pottery Barn rule” which meant  “you break it, you own it.”

Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the America Security Project, rejects the Pottery Barn rule saying that while the U.S. must launch quick decisive operations in third countries,  it must not get subsequently involved in an open-ended military occupation.  In short, the U.S. military  must play to its strengths and not fight the asymmetric war that its adversaries want it to, as it has discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The U.S. military is a dominant fighting force, capable of rapid global power projection and able to defeat state adversaries quickly and at relatively low cost in American lives and treasure. Unfortunately, American leaders are increasingly trying to transform this force into one optimized for counterinsurgency missions and long-term military occupations,”  Finel writes in the Armed Forces Journal.

So if there is a rogue regime that needs to be removed in the interests of regional stability or for protection of basic human rights for example, the United States would be better off launching quick, decisive military attacks even repeatedly than staying on trying to repair the ”broken dishes.” In the cases of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States achieved its core objectives early on in the campaign, Finel argues. But in both wars it has stayed on, even though the benefits flowing from it are limited.

But what about the fate of the countries and the people it leaves behind after the military action? Finel’s point is that even after the prolonged deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be some degree of trouble and uncertainty when the United States leaves, a prospect that could start as early next year in the case of Afghanistan. All the broken dishes would not have been mended, so what’s the point of trying to do that in the first place at huge cost?


It’s done. USA is now one of the two big rogue states . The other one is Israel. What a trouble makers you are turning on.

Posted by silva | Report as abusive

The American Armed Forces need to pay more than lip-service to reconciling the fantasy that they have the means to settle conflict anywhere with surgical precision on the one hand, with – on the other – the harsh reality that every unfortunate place they show up these days is left devastated and irredeemably destabilized in their aftermath.

Doctrine or no – given none of the latter, with or without the former, they’d be a lot less unwelcome everywhere. Even at home.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

Dangerous, cowardly idea in general. This is the same sort of argument that had us doing “air strike warfare” in the 90′s to little or no lasting effect. If you aren’t committed, break out the diplomacy.
Btw, I was USMC infantry, I don’t hesitate for force on force. But don’t do it half-assed.
No surprise though, after the new Admiral of the Navy announced that the USN needed to stop demanding the best equipment in the world, and just make do with cheaper stuff.

Just gives you a warm an’ fuzzy.

Posted by dzoo | Report as abusive

The benefits of military intervention appear to be temporary and not substantial.

Posted by Abendego | Report as abusive

American think-tanks, doctrines and media-obsessed pundits were all immensely prominent, especially after September 11th, 2001. Since then, they have wreaked havoc in many countries, causing immense destruction and rifts that will last generations.

The conclusion that America will need to settle for on-going conflict as a way of life is the consequence of the folly of Iraq and the hubris of Afghanistan (known by many countries over the past few centuries).

Can Reuters please think twice before publishing this prattle? You’re one of the last bastions of journalism. Please take that responsibility seriously.

Posted by KRM | Report as abusive

Colin doctrine died in UNO, when the first black chief of the US army deliberately told a complete lie infront of the world audience. Let the US marine test their metal against the warriors of the Afghan valleys and demonstrate to the world that they are superior to other invaders. The overwhelming force or the guerilla war tactics, the Pashtoons have demonstrated their skill against many foes including Brits and the Russians.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

If taken purely on their own, our post-911 Afghanistan and Iraq experiences would support the author’s argument, especially when contrasted against our more limited support to insurgencies in during the Arab Spring (particularly Libya and possibly Syria) and our SOF support to the AU in Somalia, each of which are no LESS likely to produce similar outcomes. We don’t seem to achieve any better results whether we occupy or leave a power vacuum in post-conflict “nation-building” scenarios. The reason for this is simple. The onus of nation-building necessarily must fall on a fledgling nation’s constituency. Outside interests will invariably create artificial and unsustainable governments…at best neocolonial and co-dependent puppets and at worst the empowerment of really bad people. We are best off lending limited military support economic incentives, and access to global media when possible, and empowering newly-liberated populations in post-autocratic regimes to determine their own futures. The UN, despite its flaws and inefficiencies, is most appropriate institution to offer the nation-building piece (jurisprudence, rule of law, humanitarian assistance, economic/infrastructure development) in a civilian-international context that at least attempts an objective approach.
American unilateral intervention in the near term will likely be limited by our domestic economic situation. Our voting constituency is simply not interested in investing our dwindling national treasure in expensive expeditionary quagmires.

Posted by scott.moreland | Report as abusive

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