Small Wars

This Week at War: The Long Death of the Powell Doctrine

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Mullen finished off the Powell Doctrine

After a long illness and years of neglect, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finally euthanized the Powell Doctrine. Mullen administered the coup de grâce in a speech he delivered on March 3 at Kansas State University.

During his tenure as chairman, Gen. Colin Powell stated the principles he thought the U.S. government should follow when contemplating the use of military force. According to Powell, the situation should involve a vital national security interest. There should be a clear and obtainable objective. A clear exit strategy should be planned from the beginning. The action should have broad political support. The military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. And the country should use force only as a last resort. Powell's principles were no doubt the product of his negative experiences as an officer during the Vietnam War and the results of Operation Desert Storm, which seemed at the time to be a vindication of his ideas.

Needless to say, the deployments of U.S. military force this decade have obeyed precious few of these guidelines. Powell wrote his doctrine in an attempt to keep the United States from thoughtlessly involving itself in ill-defined and open-ended military quagmires. But critics have argued that modern irregular adversaries have exploited gaps the doctrine left uncovered. By this view, rigid adherence to the Powell Doctrine would prevent the United States from having any effective response to irregular warfare challenges. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have followed its precepts.

So what is the new Mullen Doctrine? For the chairman, the issue of whether the United States will employ military force has long been settled. The issue now is how the United States should apply its national power. Mullen summed up his views this way:

We must not look upon the use of military forces only as a last resort, but as potentially the best, first option when combined with other instruments of national and international power. 

We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner. And we must not shrink from the tug of war -- no pun intended -- that inevitably plays out between policymaking and strategy execution. Such interplay is healthy for the republic and essential for ultimate success.

The Mullen Doctrine accepts that every day for the foreseeable future, U.S. military forces will shoot at, or will be shot at, by somebody somewhere in the world. Given this seemingly permanent state of war, Mullen says that politicians, soldiers, and the public will need to engage in an open-ended discussion that will constantly adjust how the country employs its military forces.

Mullen assumes that the public now accepts that low-level warfare is an enduring fact of life. If he is wrong about this, the Powell Doctrine could rise from the grave.

What is Burma learning from the nuclear "rogues"?

Is North Korea helping Burma build a plutonium-producing reactor? On March 2, the Washington Post discussed this possibility, along with the broader military relationship between the two countries. The article noted that the budding military partnership between Burma and North Korea has the attention of the Obama administration. But as is the pattern with all such isolated and "rogue" regimes, the U.S. government is struggling to achieve diplomatic leverage over the situation.

Could Burma have a clandestine nuclear program? In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a nearly complete plutonium reactor it found in the Syrian desert. A subsequent investigation revealed that the site was a near duplicate of North Korea's Yongbyon reactor and built with North Korea's assistance. With the discovery of the joint North Korean-Syrian project, many wondered where else in the world North Korea may have secret nuclear partnerships.

David Albright, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded that information that Burma is constructing major nuclear facilities is inconclusive and that the regime is not close to establishing any significant nuclear capability. He also notes that trade in nuclear materials with North Korea is banned by the U.N. Security Council.

Albright is hopeful that the early detection of a possible Burmese nuclear effort will enable the international community to stop such a program, in contrast to its failure to do so with the Syrian reactor, with Iran's program, and with Pakistan in the 1970s.

U.S. Sen. James Webb's visit to Burma in 2009 reopened direct talks between the two governments. Such contact is helpful and could be part of a solution, but is not worth much unless the United States and its partners develop some significant leverage to counter the numerous incentives in favor of nuclear proliferation.

"Rogue" states contemplating whether to begin a clandestine nuclear program find numerous cases of positive reinforcement for doing so, and few if any cases of effective punishment. For example, China is a strong defender of state sovereignty and has stood up for this principle by defending nuclear rogues such as North Korea and Iran that most in the international community would like to rein in. Sharing strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, Burma could expect similar protection from China.

Burma has no doubt observed how North Korea has converted its nuclear and ballistic missile programs into lucrative cash businesses. In addition, North Korea has repeatedly extracted food and energy assistance in exchange for promises of good behavior. And Pakistan has exemplified how rewarding a nuclear arsenal can be. Concern over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is a significant factor in the U.S. strategies for Afghanistan and South Asia and is a reason why Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

On the other side of the ledger, there are few examples of the international community effectively punishing a nuclear proliferator. Iran's case remains open and is an opportunity for the U.N. Security Council to change that pattern. Until that happens, Burma and others considering their options will watch and learn.

J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: Baradar's Game

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Could Mullah Baradar arrange a truce in Afghanistan?

On Feb. 15, the New York Times revealed that Pakistani and United States intelligence officers captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's second in command. According to the Times, the capture occurred in Karachi several days before the publication of its article. Both Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers were interrogating the Taliban leader.

What was Baradar doing in Karachi? The United States and Pakistan have greatly expanded the employment of drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. The countryside might now be so dangerous that Taliban leaders such as Baradar might now be forced to take their chances in cities, away from the drones' hunting grounds. But avoiding detection in the cities is even more challenging. If the drones are eliminating the countryside as a safe haven, the survival options for Taliban leaders may now be running out.

Could Baradar's capture have actually be a defection? Seeing his life expectancy running short, he might have opted for the safety of capture. Another twist on this scenario is the possibility of a rift inside the Afghan Taliban's leadership; Baradar may have defected to avoid assassination at the hands of his comrades.

Much of the commentary on Baradar's capture has focused on the role of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI has been the Afghan Taliban's sponsor and protector in the past. Yet now the ISI is publicly involved in Baradar's capture (or defection). Does Baradar possess some long-term value to the Pakistani government?

A follow-up story in the New York Times revealed that prior to his capture, Afghan and U.S. officials had indirect contact with Baradar and had negotiated with him, presumably about reconciliation. According to the piece, the Pakistani government was not a party to these talks.

In the long run, U.S. and Pakistani interests regarding Afghanistan diverge. Pakistan maintains a permanent interest in the greater Pashtun region, and a weak Afghan government in Kabul is to their advantage. The United States seeks a strong government in Kabul. Even more important to Pakistan: In the long run the United States will inevitably tilt toward India.

But in the shorter run, there may be some convergance. Similar to the forthcoming U.S. exit from Iraq, the Obama team is hoping for a political settlement in Afghanistan that leads to a relative calm, at least long enough to allow most of the U.S. military forces in the country to gracefully exit. For its part, Pakistan might also prefer a truce. Pakistani leaders may worry that an escalating ground war in Afghanistan and a drone campaign on Pakistan's frontier could eventually obliterate the Afghan Taliban's command structure, crippling Pakistan's influence inside Afghanistan. By this reasoning, both the United States and Pakistan would have an interest in a truce occurring sometime soon.

Might Baradar be the man in the best position to bring about such a truce? If he was able to convince most of his comrades to cease fire, Pakistan is in a position to reward him. U.S. officials would hardly frown on such a settlement, as long as it lasted long enough for Washington's purposes. The biggest loser might be Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But few in the White House seem concerned for his feelings these days.

What will get Iran to change course?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Saudi Arabia on Feb. 15 to talk Iran with Saudi leaders. Her message to the public in the region was that Iran was turning into a "military dictatorship." Clinton asserted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was assuming ever greater control over Iran's economy, military, and politics.

Clinton is hoping that her message -- which she stated to reporters on three separate occasions - will induce Arab states around the Persian Gulf to rally against Iran. U.S. officials have long sought greater defense cooperation among the Arab states. These officials have dreamed of a strong Arab defense alliance balancing Iranian power and thus providing a stable end-state for the region.

Alas, suspicions among the Arab states run almost as deep as suspicions about Iran's intentions. And if Clinton was calling for greater Arab energy, cooperation, and self-help regarding Iran, she muddled her message with this reasoning:

Iran's neighbors, she said, have three options. "They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is willing to help defend them," she said. "I think the third is by far the preferable option."

If Clinton's preference is for the United States to be the principal military defender of the Arab states, those states won't have much incentive to either get energized about the problem or overcome their suspicions and cooperate with each other.

On Feb. 8, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met in Paris with French leaders to discuss the Iran problem. At the press conference, Gates concluded, "[W]e have to face the reality that if Iran continues and develops nuclear weapons, it almost certainly will provoke nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This is a huge danger.  The key is persuading the Iranian leaders that their long-term best interests are best served by not having nuclear weapons, as opposed to having them."

Gates seems to be saying that the threat of a regional arms race aimed at Iran might do a better job of changing minds in Tehran than any measures taken thus far. Iran's leaders discount this possibility because they know that nonproliferation is a very important U.S. policy goal. Clinton's analysis of the available options quoted above also seems to discard an arms race as a policy alternative.

But what if, by Gates's logic, it is the only policy that might change Iranian behavior? Credibly threatening Iran with an arms race might be the only way to avert such a race; nothing else tried so far has worked.