When Are Exit Strategies Viable?
Ending a military intervention is hard. It’s certainly harder than starting one. Every modern American president has learned this lesson, with President Donald Trump being only the most recent, with his attempted departure from Syria and scrapped exit from Afghanistan. After announcing that he wanted U.S. forces to make way for a Turkish invasion of northern Syria, bipartisan outraged ensued. A common critique was that — setting aside the wisdom of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria — the shift in policy was impulsive. In other words, there was no clear strategy.
That exit strategies are necessary before committing troops abroad has become an accepted truism among many people who think and write about strategy. It seems only logical to think troops should not be sent to fight wars before knowing how, when, and under what conditions they will be withdrawn. If there is no viable exit strategy in place, the United States could easily repeat the same mistake again, finding itself mired in yet another seemingly endless war with no way out.
But despite the rationality of the idea, exit strategies preceding military interventions are unrealistic for anything longer than a rapid strike. To put it bluntly, the start of a major intervention is too early to have a realistic exit strategy. It ignores the uncertainty and intractable nature of war, and it does not decrease the duration of an intervention. In fact, exit strategies can often end up making things worse. While the United States should undoubtedly avoid future quagmires, prior exit strategies are not the answer.
Premature and Problematic Planning
Exit strategies should only be formulated when a military withdrawal is looming. Given the profusion of U.S. military interventions abroad in recent years, determining the best time and way for the United States to free itself from foreign entanglements will be crucial. International priorities will adjust and security threats will shift, and sooner or later it will be time to leave. Exit strategies, or the disengagement, transition, and ultimate withdrawal from a location, are essential for maximizing the chances of preserving the gains of an intervention and minimizing the risks of new threats emerging in the wake of the military’s departure.
It first became popular to argue that exit strategies should be a prerequisite for interventions after the Cold War. Advocates wanted to avoid committing U.S. troops to open-ended military campaigns with no apparent national security concerns, fearing a repeat of the failure in Somalia. This thinking was rooted in the post-Vietnam war debates over U.S. intervention abroad and the doctrines outlined by the then-secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, in the 1980s and expanded upon by Colin Powell when he was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the 1990s. Many argued that the United States needed to get in, win the war, and get out as soon as possible whenever it intervened.
The extended wars the United States finds itself stuck in today underline just how hard it is to end an intervention once it begins. You can get in, but you can’t get out. Persistent insecurity and inadequate nation-building make it seem as though the potential risks of leaving are too great to abandon. But the difficulty in getting out of wars does not mean exits need to be foreseen in advance; instead, the difficulty points to the need to carefully choose when and where to intervene in the first place, ensuring that an intervention is in America’s interest and there is a willingness to respond to messy situations that are not envisioned in the rosiest prewar predictions. Successful intervention strategies are not about exits, they are about winning the initial confrontation and planning for the likely aftermath.
Exit strategies should not be confused with preferred end states or fixed political and military objectives for the intervention itself. While initial plans for winning the war and preserving the peace are obviously important, they are not the same thing as determining how to withdraw forces when it is time to leave. Even though they were sold as ones at the time, the surges of military forces into Iraq and Afghanistan were not exit strategies — quite the opposite, really. These were efforts to win minor victories by reducing insecurity to locally manageable levels, not victory laps.
Articulating an exit strategy before operations begin often causes more harm than good. At best, it is a political tool for selling a war in advance; at worst, it creates unrealistic expectations and adversely influences the strategic calculations of all warring factions. Missed deadlines can erode public support at home and timetables can create perverse incentives for opponents to keep fighting in order to better position themselves for when the clock expires. This complicates America’s ability to achieve its goals, and paradoxically makes it that much harder to come home in the future. The downsides of exit strategies are perhaps most obvious in interventions that lead to counterinsurgency campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the same lessons apply to more traditional conventional wars and peacekeeping or humanitarian operations. The open-ended presence in South Korea runs counter to preset exit strategies, and interventions like the ones in Bosnia and Kosovo are less effective if the number-one priority is getting out as soon as possible. More recently, Libya’s continued instability lays bare the risk of intervening when there is no appetite for a prolonged presence.
Besides, any prebaked exit strategy will quickly become obsolete. Things will undoubtedly change after a military intervention commences, and strategies that are based on outdated information or original goals will not work. Conditions change, goals evolve, and political objectives shift. Departures need to properly assess the realities on the ground, including the military balance and capabilities of remaining actors, as this will shape both the pace of withdrawal and determine the best — or least-bad — option available for minimizing future dangers to American interests.
The Time Is Now
While contingency planning is essential, planning exits before a military campaign begins is ill advised. Before an intervention begins, the attention needs to be on the battle plan, political objectives, and what comes immediately after the fighting subsides. (Not to mention whether or not an intervention is the right decision in the first place.) What was missing in both Afghanistan and Iraq was a credible strategy for supporting new political systems after the major operations were over and preventing a recurrence of conflict. This stemmed, in part, from faulty assumptions, a misguided belief in rapid, decisive victories, and a complete failure to consider the likely repercussions of toppling existing governments. The United States should be under no delusion that interventions are simple, cookie-cutter affairs, and we’ve clearly found that nation-building takes years (if not decades) and lower levels of insecurity are hard to snuff out.
None of this is to say that getting American troops out of harm’s way is not a priority. The sooner a country stabilizes after an intervention the better. The sooner U.S. troops head home the better. And clear political and security objectives for interventions help guide military strategy and diminish the chance of mission creep. But it is unwise and unrealistic to focus on an exit strategy prior to the intervention. While it could be argued that the opposite of planning a departure too early — waiting until it’s too late — is also a problem, the reasons the Trump administration is struggling to get out of Afghanistan now that it wants to leave and hastily rushing its exit from Syria in the worst possible way have nothing to do with not having exit strategies in place in advance. They have everything to do with a poorly conceived and executed intervention in the case of Afghanistan, and a failure to redefine America’s current interests and strategy in light of current conditions in both.
Exits should be planned when the military and political goals of the mission are achieved, or the projected costs of the status quo (broadly conceived) exceed the expected gains. This is, of course, a difficult decision to make. Policymakers face tremendous pressure and must often choose from a menu of bad options. But once a withdrawal is imminent, exit strategies become credible. Plans should then be based on current interests and formulated using the latest situation on the ground. The prevailing conditions will certainly be different than they were when the military intervention began, and strategies based on obsolete analysis will fail. They also need to reflect realistic expectations, including the extent to which local or other international forces can be relied upon to maintain stability.
Proponents of the intervention will need to reevaluate their pre-established theory of what success looks like. Exits cannot redeem botched interventions and the United States will need to accept risk, as there is no way to ensure enemies or problems will not emerge or reemerge after U.S. troops depart. Once the strategy has been developed, it needs to be communicated clearly and consistently, being sensitive to how public statements will be perceived by different audiences and affect local actors. Messaging will influence the chances of successfully completing an exit. And if there are continuing American interests — security or otherwise — in the country, then diplomatic and developmental efforts should be ramped up as much as possible before military forces are pulled out. None of this happened in Syria.
Focus on the Intervention Strategy, Not the Exit Strategy
Why are we still fighting in South Asia and the Middle East twenty years after we started? It’s easy to blame ongoing U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria on a failure to articulate an exit strategy. But it’s not true. America’s “endless wars” are a result of badly planned and executed political and military missions with grandiose yet unclear objectives that will take years to achieve under the best circumstances. It’s common to think interventions will be easier, shorter, and cheaper than they are likely to be, and the United States often fails to consider the ramifications and likely fallout of its use of military forces. An exit strategy doesn’t matter if the intervention strategy is flawed.
Before its next military intervention, the United States should rigorously define its political objectives and develop a military strategy to achieve them. Exit strategies should be considered while other objectives are being realized, not before. Long-term engagements are not inherently contrary to U.S. interests, so long as the benefits continue to outweigh the costs and the United States keeps updating its goals and strategy in light of current conditions and interests.
Washington will need to pick and choose its battles in the years ahead, particularly if it wants to focus on great-power competition with China and Russia. The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are examples of what not to do. The initial decision to intervene in Afghanistan was understandable given the attacks on 9/11, but the United States soon made mistakes and missed opportunities to negotiate a much earlier exit. And the intervention in Iraq and Syria is a symptom of America’s military-first counter-terrorism approach, in which tactical victories are not turned into strategic success. Despite two decades of investment in blood and treasure, the numbers of jihadist fighters and groups are increasing.
Rather than developing exit strategies, the United States should instead focus on reducing its overreliance on military interventions, and think carefully about where, when, and how to intervene in the future. While the United States should eschew getting bogged down in another Afghanistan or staying in places like Syria indefinitely, exit strategies in advance are not the solution.
David Kampf is a senior PhD fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School.