Colin Powell's Revenge

We can't win in Afghanistan if we have no clue what we're doing there.

Retired General Colin Powell is one of the most-respected men in American public life and has been for many years.  As a longtime holder of high office in both our military and civilian realms, his vast breadth of experience offers rare insight into the way power in the world really works.

So highly regarded is Mr. Powell that he has a politico-military doctrine named after him: the Powell Doctrine.  By the means of 8 simple questions, the Powell Doctrine helps Americans individually and collectively decide whether a given war is a good idea or not.  Considering the inconvenient fact that we are deeply enmeshed in a rather long-running war right now, let's see what the Powell Doctrine has to say about Afghanistan.

The What, The Why, and the How

As a committed internationalist, Mr. Powell included deference to the international community in several of his formal 8 points.  However, in derisively rejecting John Kerry and his "global test" requirement before using American power, the American people decisively put that perspective in the dustbin where it belongs.

The remaining parts of the Powell Doctrine can be easily summed up as, really, common-sense questions that you ought to answer before starting a war:  What are we trying to accomplish in this war?  Why are we doing it?  How do we rationally expect to get it done?  And finally, How do we know we're done so we can stop?

If we can't give a satisfactory answer to these questions, Mr. Powell would say, we shouldn't be in a war.

Mr. Powell's well-expressed logic has been familiar to leaders since long before he was born, of course.  Our Founding Fathers were careful to explain, in the Declaration of Independence, both the reasons for the American Revolution:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

as well as what they hoped to accomplish:

That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

Likewise, Abraham Lincoln made clear what he thought the reason and the objective of the Civil War was:

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.

Sure enough, it did, because Lincoln made it so.

It's not always possible to come up with the how of winning a war the moment you declare it, but you definitely need to figure it out sooner or later.  George Washington had quite a few false starts before settling upon a sort of early guerrilla war.  Commander-in-chief Lincoln burned through a whole bunch of generals before finding U.S. "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

As you're casting about for a winning strategy, in a democracy it's essential to let people know you're serious about winning.  In 1940, Winston Churchill had no clue about exactly how to stop the Nazi juggernaut but he had the general idea down pat:

We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender...

With his all-consuming fire feeding national inspiration, Mr. Churchill eventually arrived at a winning strategy and achieved a highly improbable victory.  A lot of people thought England was doomed, but nobody - ever, not even for one moment - doubted Mr. Churchill's absolute ironclad determination to do everything possible towards victory, and not a few things that weren't.

George W. Bush considered Mr. Churchill to be one of his heroes and tried to model both his leadership and rhetoric after the Britain's Last Lion.  Sometimes it worked, as with Mr. Bush's Bullhorn Address to Ground Zero workers right after 9-11.  Other times, his rhetoric didn't come off nearly so effectively: "Bring it on!"  "Dead or alive!"

We view Mr. Churchill as a hero because he won his war; if he'd lost, history would view him somewhat differently.  Maybe we'd look back on Mr. Bush's boasts differently if we actually had caught Osama bin Laden, either dead or alive.

As bellicose as his rhetoric was, Mr. Bush's actual goals in Afghanistan were far more modest than any Mr. Obama has articulated: deny al Qaeda a reliable safe haven and deny them government support.  This goal was accomplished in short order: the Taliban were booted out of Kabul and lost all international recognition, Osama and his minions had to hide in caves for years on end.

America never controlled or conquered the entire land of Afghanistan, but Mr. Bush had never stated that to be the goal.  Perhaps he knew it wasn't possible to conquer Afghanistan at a price America was willing to pay.

Given that he'd accomplished his stated goal for the war in Afghanistan, it was reasonable for Mr. Bush to turn to Iraq, the next Axis of Evil.  The Iraq war was both easier and harder to define with the Powell Doctrine.  "Remove Saddam Hussein from power" is an easily-understood goal and was not particularly hard to accomplish, but it implied replacing him with something else that wasn't worse.

Nation building wasn't an issue for Mr. Bush's Afghan program, he'd never spoken of "regime change" there per se, but a proper "regime change" for Iraq required a new government to take the place of the old one.  Like Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Bush burned through several generals and tried wildly varying strategies before finally arriving on Gen. Petraeus.  Like the South right after the Civil War, Iraq today is a long way from peaceful and productive but a noticeable improvement on the horrors that existed before Mr. Bush put in a hand.

The Grand Old Duke Obama

What, then, is Mr. Obama's goal in Afghanistan?  Why is it the goal?  How does he plan to achieve it?  And most important, how will we know when the goal has been achieved so that we can exit without having to go back in again to finish the job?

Unfortunately, after 18 months of observing his commander-in-chieftainship we have not the slightest clue of the answer to any of these questions.  Mr. Obama isn't even willing to call Afghanistan a proper "war" at all; to him, it's just a "conflict" as Vietnam was a "police action" to JFK.

Mr. Obama talks of goals that are patently impossible in any remotely realistic timeframe, like bringing security, stability, and democracy to the Afghan people.  This simply can't be done unless he plans to station a million soldiers there for a half-century as we did in Germany and Japan, if not much longer because our enemies in WWII actually had been civilized nations at one time unlike Afghanistan.

Bringing democracy to Afghanistan under the current circumstances is not a proper goal at all.  It barely even qualifies as a practical wish!  At best, it's another pie crust promise that will cost us many lives as well as much treasure.

When we talk about the "how," things look even grimmer.  Here's what he said last year:

As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

Shades of the Grand Old Duke of York, who had ten thousand men - he marched them up to the top of the hill, and they marched back down again.  Mission accomplished, hah!

Mr. Obama has changed commanders in Afghanistan twice; nothing wrong with that, but what's the point?  Even if he could appoint Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Dwight Eisenhower all rolled into one, it wouldn't do the nation any good unless he could give them some idea of what they were supposed to accomplish.

The problem is that, for Democrat Obama, the useful goals are politically impossible.  Pacify Afghanistan?  That would require killing an awful lot of savage Afghans which his media allies would never allow.  Stop the drug trade?  Ditto.

The only way to make Afghanistan a peaceful, prosperous, normal country would be to fully occupy it and run it as, in effect, a colony; imagine the exploding heads at the New York Times should Mr. Obama ever propose that!

If we don't pacify the place by whatever means, of course, there will always be an ongoing death rate of American soldiers in Afghanistan - until the day when we withdraw.  At that point, the Islamofascist Taliban will move back in, Osama Bin Laden will emerge from his cave, and we'll be right back where we started having accomplished nothing at vast expense.

We don't like to side with the Code Pinkos, but they have a point: if we don't know what we're doing in Afghanistan, we need to leave and let the Afghans get on with sending each other to hell in their own way.  We can always lob a bomb or cruise missile on any targets of opportunity that stick their heads too far up.

Of course, so can they.  Maybe if Mr. Obama had listened to Colin Powell before he took office, he wouldn't be in this fix.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
'Germany and Japan, if not much longer because our enemies in WWII actually had been civilized nations at one time unlike Afghanistan',hah!What a joke.Have we forgotten German's H-------- & Japanese Grilled POWs for dinner.We, humans , are all animals.It proves when we get chance.Its a mad mad world,going to ditch,sooner or later.Rest assured!
July 2, 2010 12:08 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...