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How the US Can Avoid Future ‘Forever Wars’

To avoid a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan, US policymakers should look to the Powell Doctrine for guidance.

Over the past two decades, the United States has spent over $6 trillion waging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither military nor diplomatic means have been able to bring either conflict to a successful resolution.

America’s muddled approach to military engagements in the Middle East has harmed its international credibility, its relationships with allies, and most tragically, led to the deaths of thousands of US service members.

If policymakers want to understand what went wrong and prevent similar blunders in the future, they must evaluate these wars through the lens of the Powell Doctrine, a 6-pronged framework intended to prevent unnecessary military interventions and ensure the success of unavoidable wars.

Powell Doctrine

Devised by Colin Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President George
H.W. Bush
, the doctrine requires an affirmative answer to the following six questions:

1. Does the situation threaten a key national security issue?
2. Have all possible non-military means been attempted?
3. Is the planned force size decisive/overwhelming?
4. Is there a clear exit strategy?
5. Does the mission have broad domestic and international support?
6. Are the objectives well-defined and achievable?

Notably, while all of the doctrine’s criteria refer to conditions that must be met before military operations, several tenets – the use of decisive force, the existence of a clear exit strategy, and clear and achievable objectives – also establish standards for how wars are to be prosecuted.

War in Afghanistan

While the war in Afghanistan (2001-present) met the doctrine’s pre-invasion tenets (national security was at stake, non-military methods were attempted, there was broad domestic and international support), it failed to follow the guidelines concerning how the war should be waged.

Instead of utilizing a decisive force size to secure the country after ousting the Taliban – as Powell, then the Secretary of State, advocated for – the US and its allies incrementally increased troop presence in response to a growing insurgency. In 2002, as the Taliban were recruiting and regrouping, there were a mere 9,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.

In this file photo taken on June 6, 2019 US soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit of the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General at the Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak province.
US soldiers look out over hillsides in Afghanistan. Photograph: Thomas Watkins/AFP

Furthermore, the Afghanistan Papers released by The Washington Post showed multiple generations of policymakers failing to evaluate both the military objectives and the exit strategy.

Drawn from a series of interviews with government officials conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Papers provided ample evidence of a war effort at odds with the Powell Doctrine.

Post journalist Craig Whitlock offers a summary of what the interviews revealed: “At the outset… the US invasion of Afghanistan had a clear, stated objective ­– to retaliate against al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of the September 11, 2001 attacks. [But] as the war dragged on, the goal and mission kept changing … Fundamental disagreements went unresolved. Some US officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia.”

In one interview, Nicholas Burns, the former US Ambassador to NATO, said, “After 2003 and 2004, once we were fully engaged in both wars, I can’t remember us ever saying, ‘Should we be there? Are we being useful? Are we succeeding?’”

The Powell Doctrine – the most concrete alternative to the actual intervention that occurred ­­– would have likely resulted in better outcomes. Yet, prior to and throughout the war, the doctrine was not given sufficient attention.

War in Iraq

The war in Iraq (2003-present) represents an even greater abandonment of the Powell Doctrine.

While Powell’s own support for the invasion was a “blot” on his record – as he has admitted – it is not grounds for dismissing the Powell Doctrine. In fact, since the decision to intervene deviated greatly from the doctrine’s framework, the blunder lends even more credibility to it.

Prior to intervention, there was domestic support for the war, but the international support criterion was at best only partially satisfied, with the US lacking the support of the UN and several key allies (France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey).

Once the invasion began, some of the flawed decisions were in direct opposition to the doctrine’s requirements: the troop presence was not sufficient to secure the country, the objectives for stabilizing Iraq were not well defined, and the mission lacked any serious discussion of an exit plan.

Powell aptly summed up the intervention in a 2016 interview: “It wasn’t the Powell Doctrine.”


Although easier said than done, the approach laid out in the doctrine, which implies a thorough review of the facts on the ground and all available options, provides safeguards against unwarranted interventions and decades-long conflicts, such as the war in Iraq.

When the doctrine’s criteria were met – most notably during the First Gulf War and the US intervention in Panama – Washington achieved all of its objectives quickly and without the human, financial, and reputational costs that have come from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite its track record of success, the Powell Doctrine is surprisingly uncomplicated.

The critical difficulty in its implementation is the requirement that policymakers genuinely commit to an honest evaluation of every conflict’s unique circumstances. If politicians and national security experts adopt the approach laid out in the doctrine, it is likely that quagmires will be avoided and any necessary interventions will be swift and successful.

For the sake of the country, policymakers must overcome these obstacles and adopt the Powell Doctrine as their keystone framework for evaluating crises abroad.

Headshot of Artur Kalandarov

Artur Kalandarov is a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society researching foreign policy and the Powell Doctrine. He graduated magna cum laude in Government Studies from Bowdoin. His work has previously been published in The National Interest, JQAS, the Armstrong Journal of History, and a number of academic publications.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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