How Soon We Forget?

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)

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Does anyone remember the Powell Doctrine?  Perhaps not.  After all the American foreign policy Doctrines—Monroe, Truman, Reagan, Bush, etc.—it’s hardly surprising if General Colin Powell’s gets overlooked.

The Powell Doctrine was a Reagan-era outgrowth of the United States’ searing Vietnam experience.  Essentially, it held that, in a conflict, the United States should apply overwhelming force sufficient to achieve its aims—victory—in the shortest possible time.  As a corollary, the U.S. should not enter a conflict without having a clear “exit strategy.”

No one believed that Colin Powell’s idea of an “exit strategy” was to simply “bug out”—or “declare victory and go home”—or to set artificial, pre-determined troop withdrawal deadlines that telegraph to your enemies exactly how long they have to wait you out.

Rather, Powell’s idea of an “exit strategy” consisted of:

  • defining “success” realistically;
  • measuring when it had been achieved; and
  • thinking through the process of disengagement and withdrawal once success was achieved.

For a time, we applied the Powell Doctrine rigorously in limited engagements like Grenada and Panama and then, spectacularly, in Gulf War I.  But we ignored it during the Clinton era peace-keeping operations in former Yugoslavia—Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo—where we were part of a NATO coalition and “success” was not nearly as simple as “victory.”

Needless to say, the Powell Doctrine went “out the window” with the George W. Bush-era engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Far from applying overwhelming force sufficient to achieve a quick and decisive conclusion, in Afghanistan the ‘W’ Administration sought to get by with the minimum force possible, and then to ‘internationalize’ this centerpiece of the ‘global war on terror’ by engaging our NATO allies and other contributors.  In Iraq, as Bob Woodward documents in Plan of Attack, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld sent Pentagon planners back time and again to pare and pare further the forces estimated to be necessary to overcome Saddam’s army.

So, what does all this have to do with the question of President Obama’s announcement of the phase-down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan?  Simply this: if the ‘W’ Administration left the Powell Doctrine on life support, the Obama Administration has ‘pulled the plug’!

OK, to be fair—as the stoic President Obama never fails to remind us—he inherited a bad situation—in Afghanistan, not just domestically.  The definition of “success” was so expansive as to be elusive—Afghanistan being a tricky place to re-engineer, American style, into a stable democracy able to to deny its territory to Al-Qaeda or to keep the Taliban from returning.  And the forces allotted to the task weren’t adequate.  And a number of our NATO allies weren’t pulling their own weight, leaving responsibilities to fall disproportionately on the stalwart and shackling commanders with a baffling patchwork of dos and don’ts applicable to the coalition’s different national contingents.

But with his withdrawal announcement and timetable, Obama has substantially undone much of the good he managed to achieve—belatedly—in surging U.S. forces into Afghanistan 18 months ago.  In his campaign, Obama called Afghanistan “the war we have to win”—as distinct from the wasteful side-show and grudge-match he dismissed W’s Operation Iraqi Freedom as being.  But, in office, Obama quickly became trapped in the anti-war instincts of his Party’s left wing—and perhaps his own.

Obama may have committed to surge U.S. forces into Afghanistan and bought into General David Petreus’s counter-insurgency strategy to secure, control, pacify, and convert the population in the countryside.  But those commitments  came with a concession to his political left: an announced deadline for withdrawal of those forces—itself a half-measure for anti-war die-hards who wanted complete American withdrawal.  Commanders had to be satisfied, even if this deal placed them under a deadline to accomplish the seemingly impossible while they had the extra forces available.  It was certainly better than the alternative—nothing—and there might be some flexibility about the withdrawal deadline and timetable when the time rolled around.

Many might have suspected—but who would have known—that when the time rolled around, the most important consideration for President Obama would not be conditions on the ground in Afghanistan—where combat is becoming more violent as the Taliban tries for a come-back—but Obama’s standing in the polls—where he’s sinking alarmingly in advance of his 2012 re-elect campaign.

Having tried to mollify his Party’s anti-war left  with his promise of a withdrawal deadline accompanying his ‘surge’ decision, Obama seems to have trapped himself—or been trapped by his falling poll numbers—into following through, literally, on his deadline of 18 months ago.

Obama’s June 22 announcement speech didn’t even attempt to relate his withdrawal timetable to his announced strategy for Afghanistan.  It barely suggested how it was connected to achieving U.S. objectives—whatever they’ve become—in Afghanistan.  It didn’t bother to address the adequacy of the remaining forces for the tasks ahead in Afghanistan—or what might be the consequences if they prove inadequate.  Indeed, Obama left it to others in his Administration to convey to the press on background the closest thing to a semi-compelling strategic rationale for his decision: the assertion that we haven’t seen a major terrorist threat emanate from Afghanistan in the last half dozen years, since Pakistan assumed the position as prime incubator for such plots.

Rather, Obama’s announcement—it would give it too much credit to call it a plan—achieves the imperative of the moment: trying to respond politically to a growing disenchantment and weariness with the Afghan conflict—not just among left-wing Democrats but more broadly—to better position himself for re-election in 2012.

So, too few forces left behind in a 10-year-old conflict, tasked to achieve far-reaching, society-shaping agendas that go way beyond military-security goals, without a clear idea of what success would look like, how and when we might achieve or recognize it, or how we will ultimately draw our engagement to a conclusion.  All so that President Obama can claim in a re-election campaign that he “kept his word” about bringing American troops home.

It’s a pity President Obama didn’t pay more attention to that other great African-American statesman, General Colin Powell.  But then again, Obama didn’t have much time to get ready for the job.

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