Colin Powell’s legacy, defined by two very different wars in Iraq

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell points to Iraqi airbases at a Pentagon briefing on Jan. 23, 1991. Powell became a household name during the first Gulf War.

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Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq’s alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. That evidence proved «flawed,» as Powell said later.

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Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points to a group of American troops at an airbase after his arrival in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 13, 1990. Powell served as chairman under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

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Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points to a group of American troops at an airbase after his arrival in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 13, 1990. Powell served as chairman under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

J.Scott Applewhite/AP

With President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup, Powell and others continued to rise up the ranks. And he eventually became the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a post he held under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Peter Feaver of Duke points out that Powell had the stature to successfully sideline some of Clinton’s proposed policies.

«No chairman before or since had quite the level of political clout Powell enjoyed at his apex,» said Feaver. «He opposed the Clinton-proposed changes in how gays and lesbians could serve in the military and he opposed Clinton-proposed uses of the military in the Balkans. In both these cases, his opposition proved critical in shaping the policies that were eventually adopted.»

Powell, whose parents moved from Jamaica to the Bronx, made much of his immigrant roots. And he also recalled the sting of racism in the South when he was a young Army officer.

«I came into the Army just after segregation ended, and it was still a situation where I could go to Fort Benning, Georgia, to get my infantry and paratroop and ranger training,» he told CBS This Morning five years ago, «but if I went outside of Fort Benning, Georgia, to Columbus, Georgia, it would still segregated. I couldn’t get a hamburger. And it was another few years before that ended. So we’ve come an extremely long way over the last half-century of my public life, but there’s a way to go yet. We shouldn’t think it’s over. We know it’s not over. We see the problems.»

And as the US military struggles to promote and retain a diverse officer corps, many black officers point to Powell as an inspiration and a role model, including the current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, himself a retired four-star Army officer, and the first black Pentagon leader.

«It will be impossible to replace Gen. Colin Powell,» Austin told reporters while on a trip to Europe. «He was a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me, and there’s a hole in my heart right now as I think about his loss.»

Powell’s doctrine of sufficient force and his call to «understand what you’re getting into,» were clearly tested during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Peter Mansoor of Ohio State pointed out.

In that 2011 NPR interview, Powell was asked about his doctrine and the way ahead in Afghanistan. He replied:

«Well, the Powell doctrine … isn’t a doctrine in any Army manual. It’s just the way in which I looked at military operations — says make sure you have a clear political objective and make sure you bring all the tools of national power to bear — economic, financial, political and military, if necessary.

And if you find it necessary to use military force, send in a force that will get you decisive results. I never used overwhelming but decisive. You know what you’re going after and you’re going to put the force behind it.

We didn’t analyze it that way during the initial success after we got rid of the Taliban. We didn’t realize that, that conflict was not over. And so years later, both President Bush and President Obama found it necessary to send more troops in. And so those troops have essentially helped in restoring order in some parts of Afghanistan but not all parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban has not been defeated. And so we will have to stay there a little longer.

But the question that has to be answered is, at what point do you say to the Afghans, it’s now yours? You have a government. You have a president. You have a legislature. You have cabinet officers and governors, and we have helped you create a large army and a large police force. We will stay and provide training assistance and things of that nature, but from here on in, the battle is yours. And everybody pretty much is thinking that this has to happen sometime in 2014 and beyond.»

It would take another decade and two presidents to finally tell the Afghans that the U.S. was leaving.

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