Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Burying the Powell doctrine in Afghanistan
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?