WASHINGTON -- When he became secretary of state, Colin Powell had a clear idea of the kinds of wars the United States should fight and should avoid.
By most of his standards, Afghanistan would have fallen into the ''don't go there'' category.
When American forces are committed, Powell has favored ''exit strategies'' and the use of decisive force to achieve early victories. Another guidepost: Stay away from the ''quicksand'' of nation-building.
None of these preconditions have been met in the American military commitment in Afghanistan, but Powell nonetheless seems to have no qualms about President Bush's decision to use force.
And why should he? Pessimism about the war has been draining away in recent days as the once-cornered anti-Taliban forces, aided by American air strikes, now control 50 percent of the country. To the extent that the Taliban seemed invincible, that no longer is the case. They have fled the capital.
In Powell's biography, written two years after he stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, he wrote: ''We are currently witnessing the chaos the occurs when states revert to anarchy, tribalism and feudalism, as in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone. ... Often, our desire to help collides with the cold calculus of national interest.''
Nowadays, the United States is hip deep in the ''anarchy, tribalism and feudalism'' of Afghanistan. But unlike the African countries Powell mentioned, ''the cold calculus of national interest,'' as Powell sees it, dictates a military response in Afghanistan. If there is no exit strategy, so be it. Those responsible for 5,000 Americans killed on Sept. 11 must be held accountable, he believes.
Powell's cautious view of U.S. military intervention was a product of the war in Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. During his second tour, in 1968, American soldiers were dying at the rate of more than 100 a week. Eventually, enemy forces prevailed.
Thanks to technology, Americans now can intervene with force without high risk of casualties. There were no U.S. combat casualties in Kosovo during 78 days of aerial bombardment in 1999 and there have been none in Afghanistan since the air war started 38 days ago.
Powell has called the air campaign there an essential element of a multifaceted strategy to defeat terrorists.
Days after the bombing started, Powell made clear his backing for Bush's decision. ''We have destroyed terrorist camps so that they will not be used again, cannot be used again. We have gone after Taliban airfields and other air defense systems so that we have free range over the skies of Afghanistan.
''And we will continue to look for terrorist facilities so that we can destroy them and make them unusable for future terrorist planning, training or actions.''
Powell and his team are making accelerated efforts to form a broad-based government, hoping to end the instability that has plagued Afghanistan for 23 years. This activity is commonly called ''nation-building'' -- a concept that the administration rejected when it took office.
Until now, Powell's models for military intervention were Panama in 1989 and Iraq in 1991. Massive force was used, U.S. casualties were limited and victory came quickly.
When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell saw danger in military involvement in Bosnia.
''My constant unwelcome message at all the meetings on Bosnia was simply that we should not commit military forces until we had a clear political objective,'' he said.
At one meeting, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, lit into Powell, suggesting that U.S. military force was an appropriate response, given the atrocities then being committed by Serbs in Bosnia.
''What's the purpose of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?'' she asked, according to Powell's book.
''I thought I would have an aneurysm,'' Powell said.
But Afghanistan is a wholly new conflict. Sept. 11 showed that people thought to have been powerless have a capacity to inflict mass slaughter on innocent Americans, forcing Powell to rethink his views on how and when American power should be used.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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