US Re-Defines Its Rules for War

America's top military leader argues overwhelming military force can be “counterproductive”

U.S. attacks in Afghanistan by Air Force drones like the  MQ-9 Reaper have been cut in half to prevent the civilian casualties that can turn into Taliban propaganda victories.
U.S. attacks in Afghanistan by Air Force drones like the MQ-9 Reaper have been cut in half to prevent the civilian casualties that can turn into Taliban propaganda victories.



America’s top-ranked military officer has laid out new principles to govern how the United States will wage future wars. 

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The new rules - outlined by U.S. Joint Chief of State Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen – draw upon recent experience in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They favor an approach that values a more restrained use of force -- one that safeguards civilian lives.

Powell Doctrine Superseded

Until now, U.S. fighting forces were governed by rules of war enunciated by General Colin Powell in the run-up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

The so-called Powell Doctrine held that the American military should be sent to war only when a vital national interest was at stake, when support from the public was assured, and when “overwhelming force” was committed to the effort.

Admiral Mullen argues the use of overwhelming force can be “counterproductive.”

Afghan Reaction

Reaction to the new policy announced last week is generally favorable.

Afghan journalist Nabi Misdaq says it is wise to restrict the use of combat force in Afghanistan, where civilian deaths have outraged the local population and have only strengthened the power of the insurgency.I

It has been the feeling of Special Forces, of CIA people who have been in the country for many years, that force does not pay and it is making them more enemies,” Misdaq said.

Misdaq said the way Western forces have waged war in Afghanistan goes against local value.  Bombing in which civilians are killed, and nighttime home invasions, he said, have been a major source of resentment.

“All this is totally against the honor of the Pashtuns.  It is against their Pashtunwali, their code of behavior,” said Misdaq.  Such policies, he contends, have the effect of creating more enemies every day. 

Misdaq quotes a Pashtun proverb that he said sums up the feeling in Afghanistan:

"As a friend, I will go with you to hell, but as an enemy, I will not go with you to heaven.”

Misdaq suggests the U.S. military is now beginning to appreciate that sentiment.

A British View on the Use of Force

“The British have been pleading with their American counterparts for quite a long time to readjust their policy on the use of overwhelming force,” said British journalist Ian Williams from his post at the United Nations in New York.

Williams said he thinks the main point of the Mullen Doctrine is “Let’s not be doctrinaire….let’s consider the circumstances each time.”

The Powell strategy for waging war at the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was labeled by military leaders as “shock and awe.”  The objective of confronting and destroying the armed forces of another state, according to Williams, is no longer applicable.

“It is not what most wars are about nowadays,” said Williams.  “The essence of terrorism,” he said, “is that the terrorists are trying to provoke the state into recruiting people for them.

Williams strongly disagrees with those who call Admiral Mullen’s new philosophy “naïve” and claim it will only perpetuate war and conflict. 

“There are occasions when overwhelming force is necessary,” said Williams. “But above all, you have to bear in mind that every time you have what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage,’ you are making enemies – and you are not winning the war.”

A Regional Reaction from Pakistan

In Pakistan, where the war on terror and insurgency has reportedly taken tens of thousands of lives, the Mullen Doctrine is being met with considerable relief.

“Admiral Mullen’s very sensitive and sensible directives are welcomed,” said former Pakistani diplomat and journalist Akbar Ahmed.  “The earlier strategy of going all out, all guns blazing, has not really worked,” he observed.

“I know that words like ‘respect’ and ‘dignity’ are being used consistently by people like Mullen and his field commanders – such as General [Stan] McChrystal – and that really is the way to go because America has to be there for the long haul,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed, who chairs the department of Islamic studies at the American University, said he thinks it is not too late to reverse the anti-Americanism that has been building for nearly a decade in some areas of the world as a result of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Misdaq, Williams and Ahmed were interviewed on VOA Radio's International Press Club

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