Colin Powell on Afghanistan and ClausewitzBrenner

Below are references to Afghanistan in Colin Powell’s (with Joseph Persico), autobiography, My American Journey, 1995. I’ve also appended a discussion of Powell & Afghanistan from Howard Means; bio, Colin Powell: Soldier/Statesman-Statesman/Soldier, 1992. It clarifies material in Powell’s opus.

Some quotes are in context, to give readers a feel for where Afghanistan fit into his thinking at the time of the crucial US involvement with fundamentalism, 1979-89, when purblind patronage converted an ideology identified throughout Islam with backwardness, intellectually & militarily, into a triumphalist movement, capable of forcing the Soviets out of their country. Bin Laden & the Taliban are the “blowback,” the CIA’s own term for unforeseen negative consequences from its crimes.

Now that Bush & Powell have hit Kabul, it is helpful to know something of how Washington thinks. As crusader George W doesn’t think better than he speaks. Powell is the key player, with military professionalism and diplomatic position. Therefore I have also included his references to Karl von Clausewitz, as these give some understanding as to how he sees war, in light of the Prussian genius’ justly celebrated dictum, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”

If you haven’t read Clausewitz’s book, On War, do so, ASAP. When Powell says it’s “like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries,” he’s on target. Powell refers to the presentation of Clausewitz’s theories, before the cavalry-era examples. If memory serves re a book read decades ago, that’s ca 140 pp. Hardly much of a read for a War & Politics for Dummies praised by both Powell and Karl Marx.

Powell’s political limitations emerge in his seeing Afghanistan as a logistic Problem. While he, the civilian Defense Secretary’s military guy, fought the important war, within Congress (re: militarily budget priorities against the Soviets, worldwide), clearly, he hadn’t a clue as to what government should replace the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

However, Clausewitz sees war as coming out of politics. An alternate reading of Clausewitz to Powell’s stunted interpretation would have the German saying that if the US, in 1979, didn’t have a viable Afghan government on board to replace the Stalinist Kabul regime, militarily forcing the Soviets to withdraw couldn’t produce political victory in Afghanistan, regardless of the subsequent political disintegration of the USSR. In other words, the US fought two political wars in one military conflict. It beat the Soviets. But it was destined to lose in Afghanistan, unknowingly, to its own creation.

The best analogy to the US/bin Laden relationship is that between the German capitalists and Hitler in 1933. They were backing a kick-ass anti-Marxist. Killing Jews never entered most of their heads. But disaster is what you get if you play around with militarist fanatics. The Democrats and Republicans nurtured snakes at their bosom. Now we all got bitten.

The US beat that day’s economically declining foe by tooling up today’s military enemy. It gave fundamentalism unrestrained leave to take the country, destroy what progress, particularly re women’s rights, the USSR defended, however well and badly, and establish an Islamic equivalent of a Crusader or Zionist state, a sovereign entity from which to expand, as triumphant fanaticism always tries to.

Today Bush & Powell, with the support of the Democrats, militarily war on their own creation. But, given their obviously disastrous Afghan record, who can have any confidence that they will have any lasting political success? What will they do with the country if they take it and/or kill bin Laden? What will be their relationship thereafter with the Muslims of the world, 19.3% of the planet?

Note well: The key players in the present drama are Powell, the American people and the world Muslim public. As Powell’s a military pro, he read the required text, even if he misunderstands it. If we are to beat him at his game, we must be more professional. That means this antiwar movement must read off the same page from Clausewitz that he does, but better than he does.


Colin Powell (with Joseph Persico), My American Journey, 1995. p 250:

“I had supported Jimmy Carter in 1976. This time I could not…. [O]n the whole, the vibrations coming out of the Carter White House were not comforting to the military profession…. [Then] Carter withdrew the meat cleaver and started to build up the country’s defenses, but it was too late. By then, the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had made his administration look naive in its expectations of a harmonious era of East-West relations in which we could drop our guard…. That November 1980, I checked my absentee ballot for Ronald Reagan.”

pp 296-7:

“As one committee chairman put it to me, no matter how high-flown the debate, at the end of the day, he had to have one vote more than 50 percent, or no budget passed. And what swung votes was what some people called pork and others called national defense. I soon understood the difference. Pork was national defense spending in another member’s district.”

“It was not easy to stand up to members of congress, since we needed their votes. But the line had to be drawn somewhere. Once, while serving as Weinberger’s military assistant, I got a call from Congressman Charles Wilson of Texas. Charlie Wilson was a defense stalwart and a particular rainmaker in winning aid for the mujahedin who were fighting the communist regime and Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Charlie had earlier called our Legislative Affairs Office to arrange military transportation for a trip to the region. He wanted to bring along his girlfriend. He had, quite correctly, been turned down. He then called me. He complained about nitpicking bureaucrats, and I knew I would straighten them out. I was well aware that Wilson was a vote we counted on, and I took a deep breath before answering. “Charlie,” I said, “that’s unauthorized use of government aircraft. The Secretary cannot approve it.”

“The girlfriend episode marked my first serious run-in with a member of Congress, and I came away with this conclusion. You can afford adversaries, but not enemies. Today’s adversary may be tomorrow’s ally. I managed to remain friends with Charlie and to accommodate his substantive requests. And we continued to get his vote on key issues.”

pp 338-9

“The next big question was what to do about the contras, who were still fighting the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The backdoor aid to the contras that Ollie north had arranged to get around a congressional ban had created the messiest part of the Iran-contra affair. But that fact did not detract from the justice of the contra cause. How to deal with the contras, however, produced a fault line that split the administration right down the middle, even among those who supported them. George Sultan at State saw the contras as useful for keeping pressure on the Sandinistas to come to the bargaining table, where we hoped to persuade them to democratize their country and stop exporting communism. Cap Weinberger saw the contras in a romantic vein, like the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. To him, these Nicaraguans were freedom fighters deserving our full support in a serious bid to throw off the Marxist yoke in Managua.”

pp 340-1:

“Overarching all other concerns was our relationship with the Soviet Union. Our defense strategy and budget were almost wholly a reflection of Soviet capabilities and intentions as we read them…. Our choosing sides in conflicts around the world was almost always decided on the basis of East-West competition. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, however, was turning the old Cold War formulas on their head. Gorbachev appeared to be more intent on solving the Soviet Union’s internal failings than in embarking on fruitless adventures from Angola to Afghanistan…. Only by reducing East-West tensions could he cut the Soviet Union’s voracious defense spending and turn the country’s resources to crying civilian needs…. Ronald Reagan was operating from a position of political and military strength.”

“It was now time for substance over ceremony. Gorbachev still wanted to derail SDI, and he wanted to make a pitch for economic aid for his country. We wanted the Soviets out of Afghanistan and wanted Jews to be free to leave the Soviet Union. I had arranged for the principals…to meet in the Oval Office at 2:30 PM. But the State Department wanted so many people included…that, at the last minute, George Shultz asked to move to the much larger Cabinet Room. My antennae started quivering. Sudden changes threw Ronald Reagan off his form. Unwisely, I yielded to Shultz.”

p 377:

“We were going to Moscow with high hopes. On May 15, the Soviets had started to pull their troops out of Afghanistan. And during this summit, we expected to complete the nuclear arms reduction breakthrough…. We expected approval, but not without a fight from conservatives, Republican and Democrat. The treaty was bitter for these people to swallow because we would have to give up some weapons and because a residue of distrust of the Soviet Union persisted.”

p 481:

“He was most moved, however, at our last stop…the Vietnam Veterans Memorial…. Moiseyev was quiet as we trooped along the wall. At the end he said, ‘We need to do more. We don’t remember enough.'”

“I knew he was not speaking of World War II, which is commemorated in practically every Russian village. He was thinking of the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, Afghanistan, which had cost over 13,000 lives and which his government blotted from public awareness as though it had never happened, leaving only the families of the dead to grieve. The visit to the wall brought us together as brothers in the profession of arms, no matter what flag we served, ‘content to fill a soldier’s grave,’ as the old poem goes.”

p 207:

“That wise Prussian Karl von Clausewitz was an awakening for me. His ‘On War’… was like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries. ‘No one starts a war, or rather no one in his senses should do so,’ Clausewitz wrote, ‘without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to achieve it.’ Mistake number one in Vietnam. Which lead to Clausewitz’s rule number two. Political leaders must set a war’s objectives, while armies achieve them. In Vietnam, one seemed to be looking to the other for the answers that never came. Finally, the people must support a war. Since they supply the treasure and the sons, and today the daughters too, they must be convinced that the sacrifice is justified. That essential pillar had crumbled as the Vietnam War ground on. Clausewitz’s greatest lesson for my profession was that the soldier, for all his patriotism, valor, and skill, forms just one leg in a triad. Without all three legs engaged, the military, the government, and the people, the enterprise cannot stand.”

p 303:

“Weinberger addressed the national Press Club on November 28. I went with him to hear him describe the tests he recommended ‘When we are weighing the use of US combat forces abroad. (1) Commit only if our or our allies’ vital interests are at stake. (2) If we commit, do so with all the resources necessary to win. (3) Go in only with clear political and military objectives. (4) Be ready to change the commitment if the objectives change, since wars rarely stand still. (5) Only take on commitments that can gain the support of the American people and the Congress. (6) Commit US forces only as a last resort.’

“In short, is the national interest at stake? If the answer is yes, go in, and go in to win. Otherwise, stay out. Clausewitz would have applauded.”

p 419:

“I consoled myself with the words of Clausewitz: ‘The vividness of transient impressions must not make us forget that such truth they maintain is of a lesser stamp.'”

p. 444:

“The night the coup ended, I left the Pentagon feeling good. I had applied Clausewitz’s teachings, or Weinberger’s Maxim No. 3, and my own rule in forming military advice: take no action until you have a clear objective. We had applied restrained, proportionate, calibrated force, linked to a specific goal. And it had worked.”

Howard Means, Colin Powell: Soldier/Statesman-Statesman/Soldier

pp 208-10:

“Perhaps the most compelling testimony to Powell’s capacity as an honest broker comes from someone who might be construed as a hostile witness. Michael Pillsbury was Assistant Under-Secretary of Defense…until 1986, when he was fired for allegedly leaking classified information regarding the US effort to supply Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to rebel forces in both Afghanistan and Angola.”

“Pillsbury says…. ‘[I]f Colin Powell wasn’t present there wouldn’t be any follow-up…. He was very well known for his skills as a referee.'”

“In the particular instance of supplying Stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels, it was Powell’s own Army that was most opposed, Pillsbury goes on. ‘The Stingers were being taken from the Army; that was one of the biggest obstacles we faced. The Army was extremely bitter and opposed. It fell to Colin at several points to adjudicate…. [T]he Joint Chiefs had raised two big points. One was that there were only a few thousand Stingers then in existence, and they felt we should have Stingers before we gave them to foreigners…. The second big issue was that if the Stingers should fall in the hands of the Soviets in Afghanistan, they could study the technology and make copies and would be able to shoot down American fighters in Europe in a World War Three and we would lose World War Three.'”

“Under our system the Joint Chiefs are not permitted to know what the CIA (to whom the missiles were to be provided for shipment to Afghanistan) is doing.”

“‘On the Hill we all thought the uniformed military officers were hawks,’ Pillsbury says, ‘and nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of left-liberals wear uniforms with four stars on their shoulders. Colin had heard Reagan talk for years about the Afghan rebels and their suffering. If he was a hawk he would have just said, Mr. Secretary, I think you should just sign here (approving the Stingers for the rebels). A dove with guile would have killed it without telling us why. Here’s a case study of Powell’s style: he’s not a hawk; he’s not a dove; he’s an owl, in between.”

Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at