The Lost Art of Exiting a War


The best way to ensure a speedy exit from a war is to have never intervened in the first place. The second-best option is to have an exit strategy. If you have decided to roll the dice in the most complex, destructive, and uncertain activity humans can engage in, one would think having a plan to successfully end that conflict would be more than an afterthought. The past 70 years, in particular, have provided tragically few examples — Vietnam, Afghanistan, and now Syria — of exit strategies actually being contemplated before the war begins.

A recent article for War on the Rocks by David Kampf argues that not only is an exit strategy not necessary until the withdrawal is looming, but that planning for an exit before this point is actually problematic. The article notes that preparing to exit a conflict is a distraction from what’s really important — the planning and execution of the initiating conflict itself. A successful intervention, then, is judged based on achieving initial objectives, not about actually concluding said intervention or even maintaining those objectives years later. Kampf isn’t the first to advance this argument — Gideon Rose argued something similar in 1998. Both think exit strategies are distractions from the early combat strategy of the intervention.

I disagree. While Kampf makes some good points — he laudably emphasizes the importance of defining political objectives before developing a military strategy to achieve them — his article ultimately contains several fatal mistakes. First, it misunderstands the strategic process. Strategy is vital for every phase of conflict, despite vast uncertainty that limits our ability to know what the future battlefield will look like. Next, after arguing that leaders should wait for the right conditions to emerge before planning withdrawals, Kampf doesn’t define those conditions. What are those conditions, exactly, and is it reasonable to expect them to emerge?

And finally, the article mischaracterizes the value of strategy. The author explains that since the future is unknowable, there is no value in developing an exit strategy. Strategy isn’t valuable because it gives you the plan that will undoubtedly be executed — it’s valuable because it forces planners to prioritize interests, anticipate counter-strategies, and make tough choices. It can, and should, be updated as conditions change, but this doesn’t mean strategic planning for later phases isn’t necessary. The article is also bad politics, as it advances arguments that enable the very “forever wars” — decades-long military interventions with no end in sight — the author claims to dislike. With great power competition with China and Russia becoming more important, and counterinsurgencies becoming more difficult, the United States should plan exit strategies before war begins.

Strategy Is Hard, But Worth It

For some, this debate will come down to a mere definitional disagreement. The article, as I understood it, mostly views an “exit strategy” as the logistical plans of moving equipment and personnel out of a region or country. The closest the article gets to a definition is to say an exit strategy is “the disengagement, transition, and ultimate withdrawal from a location.” This is separated from the planning for the desired end state after major combat concludes. However, this is a straw man fallacy. The article assumes a watered-down version of exit strategy before tearing it down. The author’s conceptualization is better understood as exit tactics. In which case, sure, don’t plan the tactics until the objectives have been achieved and the withdrawal is upon us. However, if we are to call it strategy, it must mean more than mere logistics. Thus, a proper understanding of an exit strategy requires it to be linked to political objectives sought before the war begins, and therefore must be contemplated and planned beforehand, just like other phases.

Planning for the end of a war, especially like the one in Afghanistan that has lasted 18 years, might seem unrealistic. Critics argue that so much is unknown about what later conditions will be that developing an exit strategy before a war begins is unrealistic. However, every phase of a military intervention is too early to develop a “realistic” strategy. This is the nature of the strategic process. It is nearly impossible to do because war is complex, unimaginably destructive, and unlimited variables can each change the nature and outcome of the war. In his article, “Is Strategy an Illusion?,” Professor Richard K. Betts said, “To skeptics, effective strategy is often an illusion because what happens in the gap between policy objectives and war outcomes is too complex and unpredictable to be manipulated to a specified end.” The impossibility of strategy does not negate its necessity. Without strategy guiding our action in war, it is nothing more than violence for its own sake.

Developing an exit strategy is not a distraction. The article argues that diverting any thought to a strategy for exiting a war will necessarily divert attention away from the formation of what is really important — the strategic planning for the initial stages of the war. Planning the strategy of the war initiation without consideration for how it will end and forces will leave is itself detrimental to the whole strategic process. Is the political objective to end an opponent’s occupation of another country? This will affect every aspect of strategic planning. The conduct of the war will be heavily focused on counter-force operations to degrade the opponent’s military forces; the military won’t need to engage in statebuilding because you will be reestablishing existing governments; and the exit will be simple because war termination is essentially not chasing a retreating military. Is the political objective the overthrow of a regime and the attempted statebuilding in the territory it once controlled? The war initiation, conduct, and exit strategy then change completely.

To not consider plausible exit strategies is to ignore that the nature of war is unequivocally interconnected. All stages of conflict and diplomacy should be considered at all times, because each will inform the others. They are definitely not distractions.

Without an Exit Strategy, the Right Conditions for Withdrawal Are Never Apparent

Endless conflicts — like the 18-year-old American intervention in Afghanistan — are enabled by the fact that the right conditions for withdrawal are never apparent. The article makes the case that, “exit strategies should only be formulated when a military withdrawal is looming.” However, what constitutes “looming” conditions? This is why “exit strategy” entered our lexicon in the first place — an inability of the U.S. military to extricate itself from peripheral wars once started. One cannot simultaneously accept the complexity and uncertainty of war, and also argue that such an opportunity to withdraw under ideal conditions will somehow materialize absent said complexity and uncertainty. If we know nothing else about war and conflict (especially in the modern era), it’s that the longer an occupying country leaves it forces the more violence it incites and the more difficult an exit will become. History has not been favorable to occupations and counterinsurgencies since around the 1880s.

Military operations should not be confused with strategy, and vice versa. In his article, Kampf argues that “successful intervention strategies are not about exits, they are about winning the initial confrontation and planning for the likely aftermath.” The author is making himself a hostage to fortune, and providing justification for the exact behavior that has led to the two-decades-long interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Patrick Porter, a professor at the University of Birmingham, said this about the recent decision to pull U.S. troops from the Turkish border: “… Garrisons tend to invite further missions. They become a commitment in search of a rationale.” The operations themselves begin to drive strategic decisions.

Critics of exit strategies argue that troops in these recent so-called “small wars” should remain in country to preserve the gains of the initial intervention. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Richard Fontaine criticized the Powell Doctrine of executing decisive action while having a clear exit strategy. He argued, “there will be cases in which the employment of modest force over an open-ended timeline will be the better strategy.” The article ignores a concept we get from Clausewitz — “culminating point of victory.” This is the point at which forces achieve the maximum amount of military advantage before additional action will come at increasingly unacceptable costs for marginal gains. Leaving troops in regions after successful campaigns, like the United States did in Syria, overshoots the culminating point of victory and is bad strategy. Fontaine, and many others, don’t appreciate that there are more tools in foreign policy than just the military, and past the culminating point of victory those tools (i.e., diplomacy) become the only viable option to secure the peace.

The recommendation of not planning for withdrawal invites with enthusiasm the exact mechanism that leads to indefinite military interventions, the meandering of political objectives from what they were when the war was initiated. U.S. soldiers in Syria soon found themselves a tempting tool to be used by civilian and military leaders in search of new monsters to destroy. They were then intended to counter Iranian, Russian, and Syrian regime influence in the region, objectives that most certainly could not be achieved within acceptable costs (especially with the limited resources committed). Now as troops in Syria are being withdrawn, politicians and analysts are warning about the gains that will be made by Russia and Iran as the United States vacates. This was not the purpose of their involvement in the first place, and shouldn’t be their purpose now.

The True Value of Strategy

Why develop a strategy at all? After all, circumstances will change before the strategy gets implemented and will thus require revisions. Strategy also serves as a mechanism through which we can reasonably judge the costs and benefits. Developing an exit strategy before the war begins allows us to make a more informed decision as to the value and worthiness of actually engaging in the war in the first place. It also allows us to reasonably assess if the war can achieve its aims at all. If you’re unable to develop an acceptable exit strategy before chaos, you will most likely not find an acceptable exit strategy during chaos, and chaos doesn’t often resolve itself.

Critics of exit strategies often complain about the damage done by setting exit timelines, and other public facing declarations. Articulating a strategy for the public in order to sell the costs that are about to come is very different than civilian and military leaders engaging in the strategic process and “articulating” for themselves what the plan for a war will be. We should care much less about how leaders plan to sell a war than we do about what they’re doing to actually insure a war is fought justly and decisively with as minimal destruction of life as possible.

Exit Strategies Are Necessary

Ultimately, exit strategies should be developed before a war begins. Critics of exit strategies argue that successful interventions are about planning for the initiation of the conflict and for the likely aftermath. A lack of any contemplation about how a war plausibly ends enables war planners’ misplaced confidence about what can reasonably be achieved within the costs they’re willing to bear.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The United States is bogged down in conflicts around the world. There are now approximately 67,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia. If America’s poorly executed pullout from northeastern Syria is any indication, having a plan at every stage of a conflict is preferable to not having a plan. The United States should accept the risks and consequences of withdrawing from wars that don’t serve vital interests, especially if Washington is serious about great power competition with China.



Adam Wunische is a researcher covering Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Quincy Institute. He is also a PhD candidate at Boston College and an instructor at the George Washington University teaching classes on international security and military effectiveness. He served in the U.S. Army and completed two deployments to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. On Twitter @AdamWunische.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Keifer Bowes)