The Exit Strategy Fantasy

In October of 2001, it was abundantly clear to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their NATO counterparts that the internationally-unrecognized Taliban rulers of Afghanistan would continue to collude with and protect their Al-Qaeda guests/enforcers, rather than comply with strongly worded requests to arrest and hand over Al-Qaeda’s leadership.  Invasion was widely acknowledged as the only option that would allow for the US and its allies to kill or capture Al-Qaeda’s leadership, destroy their training bases and cadre, and gather intelligence sufficient to allow them to shut down Al-Qaeda’s worldwide web of terrorists.  Everyone involved in planning and conducting these operations understood that the Taliban regime would be destroyed, and likely replaced with a coalition government centered on the Northern Alliance.  The plan was simple: go in, kill & capture, follow-on intelligence and stabilization operations as required, and exit. At the time, only a few foresaw that this approach was doomed from the outset, and would waste huge quantities of gold, blood, and national will over the next decade.

The principle cause of the failed US strategy in Afghanistan was the contemporary fascination with a fantasy called ‘exit strategy’. Wars arise from conflicts of interest so substantial that nations are willing to resort to force of arms to impose their will and achieve their strategic objectives.  Once victory has been attained on the battlefield, ongoing threat of military force is usually necessary to prevent eruption of more hostilities. For the majority of US history, its political and military leaders understood that victory in war would allow the US to impose its strategic will on the conquered, and would require occupation for as long as the casus belli remained relevant.

In US history, almost all successful wars have been prosecuted to battlefield victory and followed by a prolonged (generally endless) occupation by US forces.  That US strategic interests were at issue has made the follow-on occupations politically uncontroversial. Indeed, if a long-term occupation by US forces would be unacceptable to either the US populace or the occupied lands, it is unlikely that military action would advance US interests.  Contrarily, in those instances in which US forces were withdrawn after battlefield victory, the battle-space they vacated was often occupied by the modern horsemen of the apocalypse –  misgovernment, political oppression, and poverty.  Successful wars followed by US occupation? The American Civil war, the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, World War 2, and Korea are all good examples. The more obscure campaigns that the US undertook in The Phillippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba in the early 20th century all entailed campaigns that lasted in excess of 20 years. Each of these concluded with an occupation, or the understanding that US forces would return at need (sometimes referred to as off-shore balancing).  The jury is still out on the outcomes of Bosnia (US forces technically withdrawn 2004), Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  It is worth noting that the Indian wars were longer and bloodier than most of these wars, and were waged in remote locations against peoples with radically different language and culture than the rest of the US (the subsequent internal occupations indicate how extremely resistant some cultures can be to change).  Conflicts in which the withdrawal of US combat forces failed US security interests and the populace of the countries from which they were withdrawn? The short list includes the Mexican War, World War 1, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.  Operation Uphold Democracy, the US invasion of Haiti from 1994-95, was too brief and decisive to be counted as a legitimate war, but is an almost hilarious example of the folly of the Exit Strategy Fantasy.

The understanding that strategic victory requires occupation helped prevent the US from becoming entangled in conflicts in which it had no enduring security concerns, notably in South America, Africa, and South Asia.  It was only in the late 20th century that the fantastic, unproven notion that the limited use of arms over a short period of time could produce an important and enduring change in the status quo, and US political and military leaders began to make war plans predicated on this unproven theory.  Afghanistan 2001-2010 and Iraq 2003 are examples of the folly of this thinking. With few exceptions, if it’s worth a war, there is no exit strategy.

The exit strategy fantasy alone was not sufficient to generate the failure in Afghanistan over this period. The ongoing failure of the international system to develop a consensus about how to deal with terrorism was also a major driver of the US failure.  Terrorism as a problem arose almost in parallel with the modern nation-state.  The US campaign perpetuated many of the failed strategies of the previous 100 years. World War One had many causes, but its immediate precipitant was the problem of sanctuary. Serbia gave sanctuary to members of the Black Hand, an anarchist terrorist group that conducted operations against Austria-Hungary, including the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum was intended to compel Serbia to act against the terrorists to whom it had given aid and sanctuary.  The historical predicament and the Ultimatum have lost none of their relevance over time. It is easy to imagine the Israelis rendering a similar list of demands to the Syrians, Lebanese, and Egyptians, or the US to the Pakistanis.  World War One concluded without meaningful precedent for dealing with this problem, which persists unto this day.  US entry into Afghanistan in 2001 was preceded by an ultimatum that was strikingly similar to the one that brought about World War One.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union employed a strategy of state sponsorship of communist insurgents and terrorists. Soviet military and intelligence personnel armed and trained these proxy combatants in fringe states, most notably Libya and Syria. As a group, the Western powers were reluctant to take action against terrorists in these sanctuary countries, until President Reagan authorized a series of military actions (including Operation Prairie Fire and Operation El Dorado Canyon) against Libya from 1981 to 1989.  The reaction of the international community was mixed; the use of the US military in these strikes condemned widely, and praised only quietly.  The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union ended the era of state sponsored communist terrorism. As the Soviet threat waned, the Iranian threat arose, supplanting state sponsored communist terrorism with state sponsored religious terrorism.

The 1980s heralded in the modern era of terrorism, which included mature transnational terrorist organizations (e.g. PLO, LTTE, and ETA), European sanctuary, and suicide terrorism.  In the 1980s, most western European countries allowed known foreign terrorists the privilege of unrestricted travel and, often,  permanent residency as political refugees. All that was required was that the individual forswear operations against their host country.  Terrorist groups operated openly or nearly so in many European countries.  LTTE and Palestinian terrorists had little or no fear of legal complications. In Europe and Canada, terrorists were free to agitate for their causes, recruit, and, most importantly raise and transfer funds.  Petrodollars funded Middle Eastern terrorists, whereas old-fashioned intimidation was employed by the Tamil Tigers of Elam to raise huge sums. In both instances, the money raised was used to fund suicide terrorism, which terrorist organizations came to realize was especially effective against liberal democracies. The 80s and 90s were hence a period of richly funded, minimally impeded suicide terrorism, directed almost exclusively against liberal democracies.  The European powers accepted no responsibility for the mass murders planned on their soil, paid for with funds channeled through their banking system, and often conducted by people who subsequently sought refuge there. The liberal democracies that were the targets of these organizations learned many lessons. First, that as long as terrorists had sanctuary, it would be difficult or impossible to wipe out their organization.  Second, as long as terrorists had unrestricted access to funds and the international banking system, that they would be able to purchase, weapons, recruit fighters, and obtain training. Third, that in most instances, narrow claims of law-enforcement were much less objectionable to the international system than any military operation by a targeted country. Hence, anti-terrorism transformed from a military activity into a law enforcement activity.

In the 1990s, Al-Qaeda arose in the midst of this international system, and established an extensive training system in failed-states around the world, including Sudan and Afghanistan.  The US invasion of Afghanistan was conducted to deprive Al-Qaeda of its failed-state base and training center, and succeeded in this limited mission. Simultaneous operations that deprived Al-Qaeda of its access to the international banking system badly damaged its ability to raise and transfer funds in opposition to US operations.  Why wasn’t Al Qaeda wiped out? First, they continued to obtain funding from sympathizers around the world, especially in Saudi Arabia.  Secondly, Pakistan and the ISI continued to provide funding, sanctuary, and training to both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Thirdly, the Taliban were successful in thwarting the US hyperpower, an accomplishment that conveyed great credibility, and made it clear who would rule the region when the US made its inevitable withdrawal.

Why did the US strategy in Afghanistan from 2001-2010 fail?

  1. Because Pakistan afforded both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda sanctuary. Because Iran continued to do everything in its power to frustrate the US in Afghanistan, with out fear of consequences.
  2. Because the ISI protected both, and continued to train and equip both. Because the ISI remained a conduit into the international banking system for both, even after all other access had been severely restricted.
  3. Because the US lacked the will to carry the fight into Pakistan (although Pakistani cooperation increased dramatically after the assassination of Bhutto).
  4. Because the US had no intention of enforcing its strategic and security interests over the long term, and communicated this message clearly to its adversaries. The Exit Strategy Fantasy enabled our enemies far more than any other element of our strategy. They knew they just had to bide their time. The sad calculus was this: that the US would rather see the Taliban rise from the ashes and rule the wasteland known as Afghanistan than rule that wasteland for the 100 years that might be required.
  5. Because the culture of eastern Afghanistan is as resistant to change as the culture of the American Indians, who after 100 years of internal occupation have adapted little or not at all to the modern world.  The ability to militarily occupy does not necessarily convey the power to culturally change or assimilate.

It is worth noting that while the US floundered in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, hardly a military superpower, finally prevailed in their decades long civil war with the LTTE.  How did this happen? The international community finally acknowledged the obvious, that the LTTE were terrorists, and cut them off from the international banking system. Many countries also arrested and prosecuted their enforcers/fund-raisers. Importantly, India finally got of the habit of providing sanctuary to the LTTE. The final campaign was long and bloody, but once the LTTE was restricted to the resources it could muster on the island of Ceylon itself, the outcome of this war was not in doubt: the modern nation state crushed its insurgents and ended both the civil war and the long campaign of suicide terrorism that accompanied it.

Fringe is a University of Chicago Alum, and is employed as an academic. He has been a student of military history and military affairs since his childhood. He knows strategists, and understands the difference between a strategist and a student of strategy. He has published on many topics and in many venues, including articles about modern warfare.

3 thoughts on “The Exit Strategy Fantasy”

  1. I’d suggest two counter examples. Though not disagreeing completely.

    The first example is Vietnam. Though considered a loss, and the rapid withdrawal of troops standing to that as evidence. The modern Vietnam is considered to be wonderful country. The Ho Chi MIhn Trail is now a golf course ( . It could be argued, that the satellite nation state model, if ever true bankrupted the communist block. It could also be argued that the abandonment of Vietnam by the United States allowed it to succeed.

    The second example is Korea. Though the economy has flourished in South Korea it is not a haven of social and political enlightenment. Since the end of hostilities South Korea has worked at cross purposes on numerous occasions against the United States. Including attempting to corrupt the United States political and military processes. See Korea Gate in the 1970s for examples of South Korea kidnapping United States citizens for rendition to South Korea. (

  2. Do you think ordinary Americans want to occupy Afghanistan for 100 years (or whatever it takes) to change their culture so that it will no longer be hostile to the West?

    The comparison with Sri Lanka makes no sense. The Tamils are migrants who challenged the host nation’s existence. Sri Lanka could not stop making war against them because a negotiated settlement with a partition or outright independence would have doomed their state. Sri Lanka had to win. The US does not have to win in Afghanistan if you define victory as the conversation of the local peoples.

    Sometimes long occupations fail even when the local culture is almost extinguished. The English and Orange immigrants failed in Ireland even after the local people had lost their language and aristocracy.

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