The Powell Doctrine could have helped us avoid the Afghanistan debacle
We could have avoided the expenditure of over $2 trillion dollars, the loss of the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. servicemen, as well as the tragic and humiliating disaster that is unfolding in Afghanistan if we had applied the Powell Doctrine twenty years ago.
Former Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell provided a list of eight questions that any president must answer affirmatively before authorizing military action by the United States:
- Is a vital national security interest threatened?
- Do we have a clear attainable objective?
- Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
- Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
- Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
- Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
- Is the action supported by the American people?
- Do we have genuine broad international support?
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, it would have been easy to answer all of those questions affirmatively if they were asked with respect to a U.S. attack on al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Once we determined that al Qaeda operated out of a base in Afghanistan, and the government of Afghanistan refused to turn over the leaders of al Qaeda to the U.S., the answers to all of the questions were obvious.
Al Qaeda threatened the vital security interests of the U.S. The objective was clear and attainable. The U.S. expected to defeat and destroy al Qaeda in 60 days or less with a force of special operations personnel at a low cost and with little loss of U.S. lives. All other nonviolent options had been exhausted. Such actions were supported by both the American people and the international community. The exit strategy followed from the nature of the objective. U.S. forces could be withdrawn from Afghanistan as soon as al Qaeda was defeated and all of its forces in Afghanistan were destroyed or driven out of the country.
The government never stated a clear objective for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In retrospect, it seems to have been to overthrow the Taliban government of Afghanistan and to replace it with a Western-style democracy that would never permit an anti-U.S. terrorist organization to operate within its borders. It should have been easy to answer each of the questions posed by the Powell Doctrine in the negative if they referred to a willingness to commit forces to attain that objective.
The weak Taliban government of Afghanistan posed no national security threat to the United States. It was highly unlikely we would have created a Western-style democracy in an impoverished country with a population with low literacy rates, no matter how much time and money the U.S. devoted to the effort. Any attempt to attain that objective through use of military force would be extraordinarily costly in dollars and lives. Since the objective was not attainable, there was no plausible exit strategy. Over time, it was inevitable that the costly and futile military operation would lose the support of both the U.S. public and the international community.
Presidents can avoid future costly and tragic disasters like the war in Afghanistan by applying the Powell Doctrine every time they consider whether to commit U.S. combat forces.
Richard J. Pierce Jr. is the Lyle T. Alverson professor of Law at George Washington University. His work has been cited in hundreds of judicial opinions, including more than a dozen opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
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