Colin Powell and the Doctrine of ‘Overwhelming Force’

Could America have avoided the enormous casualties and loss of international standing from two decades of war in Afghanistan if it had listened to the military policy propounded by the legendary military leader?

Colin Powell died at 84 as America’s most prominent military leader of the post-Vietnam War era. No one had a greater effect on the superpower’s national security thinking and strategy. He set a number of records because of his ethnic background, including serving as America’s first African American national security advisor and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The 1991 Persian Gulf War (which led to the quick expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait) made him a national hero. He became such a popular figure that in 1995 he even flirted with the idea of running for president, but eventually decided against it. His decision was attributed to the absence of any “internal drive, or fire in the belly” for the race, something that was disappointing to many.

Specifically, two situations stand out in his controversial military and foreign policy career. One was the 2003 Iraq War, which he opposed in its early stages. He argued that if Hussein were overthrown, a leader who was even worse could take his place, and the role that Iraq’s military and geopolitical position played as a counterweight to Iran and Syria could weaken. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the U.S. and the world, as secretary of state under George W. Bush, Powell became the American face of the Iraq War.

In a long speech before the U.N. Security Council in early February 2003, he alleged that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, citing “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” gathered by American agencies. “These are not assertions,” he said.

Not long afterward, it became clear as day that the allegation was completely unfounded. The Hussein regime did not have such weapons. Although the speech did not convince the Security Council of the need for military intervention in Iraq, it played a major role in preparing the American public for the U.S.-led invasion launched 1 1/2 months later, an invasion which swept the Hussein regime from power in less than a month. Powell later called his speech “painful,” something that not only tarnished his career, but also undermined Washington’s credibility on the world stage. The White House deceived him about the reality of the situation, knowingly exploiting the abundant capital of trust that Powell held in international diplomatic circles.

Powell’s second and more important legacy is the military doctrine named for him, a doctrine that is mandatory reading at military academies around the world.

Primarily relying on the experience and lessons he gained from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the Powell Doctrine was born of disillusionment with an overly gradual military strategy (sometimes marred by breaks in military campaigns) and protracted wars. The Powell Doctrine held that America may only resort to significant foreign military intervention if political and military leadership can positively answer the following crucial questions:

1. Is the goal clear, vital to national security and is it achievable?

2. Do the American people support military intervention?

3. Is there a plausible and credible exit strategy to avoid perpetual war?

Under the doctrine, if the U.S. could answer yes to these questions, then decisive, or even “overwhelming force” would have to be utilized against the enemy to end the war as quickly as possible and to minimize casualties.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had the opportunity to put his own doctrine into practice in 1991 in the Gulf War. Under Powell’s command, the nearly 1 million U.S. and coalition forces that lined up in the Arabian Desert exerted immense human and technical superiority over the Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait. The war, therefore, did not even take 1 1/2 months. The Powell Doctrine had performed well on the desert battlefield. In light of America’s military adventure in Afghanistan, the question arises as to what extent political and military leadership applied the principles of the Powell Doctrine? Let’s look at the issue one question at a time.

Clear, Vital, Achievable Goal?

The U.S. quickly achieved the basic goal of its military mission, the fatal weakening of al-Qaida’s Afghan bases and removal of the Taliban, the terrorist organization’s patron. Soon after, Washington forced a Western-style constitution on the country. It sacrificed billions of dollars to build a Kabul-centric administration for a tribal-structured society with a 1,000-year-old tradition of local autonomy and opposition to central authority. Subsequently, the gradual expansion of the mission, that is, the nation-building, left its mark on American politics. Washington built a deeply corrupt and kleptocratic Afghan state system over 20 years that could neither function nor fight without continuous American support. The clear original purpose of the military mission became increasingly less recognizable over time. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. … I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency or nation building,” said President Joe Biden, a great admirer of Powell, this past August. The fact is that Washington did not possess a clear goal for much of the military mission over the last two decades. Instead, the mission took on an uncertain goal and drift.

American Public Support?

American public support for the war in Afghanistan was overwhelming when the invasion began due to the recent experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With significant changes to the mission, however, public support for war in Afghanistan began to decline dramatically. By the summer of 2021, half of all Americans believed that the Afghan war was a mistake. Moreover, the much larger-scale and geopolitically important Iraq War consumed the attention of the media and the public and almost reduced the Afghan battlefield to a side quest.

Clear Exit Strategy?

Of all the provisions in the Powell Doctrine, the provision governing an exit strategy in Afghanistan was clearly the most botched, from a symbolic deadline of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, to leaving weapons behind for the enemy, all the way to a chaotic evacuation.

Although Biden had explicitly promised an “orderly” withdrawal, he still believes that “chaos was inevitable.” Few accept his defense of the operation, mostly regardless of party affiliation. Everyone expected a lot more from the world’s leading military superpower and from American intelligence, considered the best in information gathering and international logistics. For example, why was there no detailed or feasible emergency playbook for the sudden collapse of the shaky, kleptocratic Afghan puppet government and an army that had been “inflated” from abroad? Biden and military leadership greatly overestimated the perseverance of the Afghan army. Perhaps that was one of the biggest flaws in the military planning. It is also unclear why Biden, as he admitted, listened to an unreliable Kabul government, whose leader, President Ashraf Ghani, fled the country at the first difficult moment.

Washington failed to follow the Powell Doctrine, a strategy based on rich military experience. The U.S., therefore, suffered a serious loss of prestige and military authority in Afghanistan.

Amid a chaotic retreat, America relinquished political terrain to the same extreme Islamic force that it removed from power 20 years ago in a lightning war. We cannot say yet whether Afghanistan will once again become a hotbed of international terrorism. After a costly Afghan failure, however, Washington must finally admit one thing: The military is not suited to exporting democracy and foreign nation building, something Colin Powell repeatedly warned about.

About this publication

About Adam R. Johnson 28 Articles
Graduate student working on his MA in International Security at the University of Denver - Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Raised in Budapest, Hungary, Adam enjoys utilizing his Hungarian language skills and hopes to use it in a future career in homeland security.

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