Twenty years after the brief, but bloody Gulf War, the US looks back on a campaign that averted a second Vietnam as it braces for another potential quagmire in Afghanistan.
Operation Desert Storm, a 40-day war that pounded former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, was part of a military doctrine spelled out by the most senior military officer at the time — General Colin Powell — only to be forgotten decades later in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.
Scarred by a humiliating defeat in Vietnam where he had served as a young officer, Powell laid out clear criteria before deploying US troops to the battlefield: clearly identified political and military goals, vital US national security interests at stake and broad US and international support.
Once he felt those conditions had been met, Powell sought and obtained presidential approval for an “overwhelming force” to ensure victory, said military expert Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War saw a rigid application of the “Powell Doctrine,” which the general later said meant exhausting all “political, economic and diplomatic means.”
Over 500,000 coalition troops from dozens of allied nations were poured into the Gulf for the war that began with an extensive month-long aerial campaign followed by 100 hours of operations on the ground with the sole objective of ousting Iraq from Kuwait. However, this rigid doctrine struggled to fit the nation-building and humanitarian military missions of the 1990s that unfolded in places like Somalia and the Balkans.
It was eventually set aside, analyst Michael Cohen said.
The arrival of new technologies and the growing role of intelligence and communications on the battlefield triggered a “revolution in military affairs,” according to Korb. Conflicts were seen as requiring fewer boots on the ground than ever before.
In 2001, Special Operations forces and CIA agents coupled with aerial bombardments ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan and two years later, fewer than 150,000 US troops were deployed to get rid of Saddam.
However, in both cases, there was no initial plan for the long months and eventually years that followed to put Afghanistan and Iraq back on their feet.
Korb called it a “deliberate” move on then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s part.
“He didn’t want any part of -nation-building, plus the neocons [neoconservatives] believed [preeminent Iraqi politician Ahmed] Chalabi would take over. They didn’t really do any planning for the post-war period,” Korb said.
In Iraq and Afghanistan alike, insufficient numbers of US and coalition troops coupled with governments too weak to bring their authority to bear on the population faced a growing insurgency that forced the US to accept a long-term and reinforced military presence.
A troop surge that brought to 170,000 the number of US troops in Iraq in 2007, coupled with the so-called Sunni Awakening that saw tribal leaders unite to maintain security and a ceasefire by Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, the Mehdi Army, eventually helped contain the violence.
In Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama has escalated the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, swelling US troop numbers to 100,000 with plans to begin drawing down US forces in July and transfer security to Afghan forces in 2014.
Cohen sees these wars as a reaffirmation of the Powell Doctrine.
“Perhaps the most important, yet unstated element of the Powell Doctrine was the understanding that open-ended conflicts defined by anti-guerrilla and counterinsurgency operations were rarely in the US national interest,” he wrote in an article for the New America Foundation.
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