Exit strategies are back in vogue. The Afghanistan campaign has not gone terribly well in the past several years and a deadline — of sorts — for withdrawal has been set for the mission in 2014. In the case of Iraq, the Obama administration declared that the combat mission was over following the successful “surge” strategy and removed U.S. troops by the end of 2011. These “exit strategy” deadlines were set against a background of continuing political instability and violence in both countries.

Exit strategy is a term that originally comes from business.1 It is the method by which venture capitalists or the owners of a business shed an investment that they own. The concept gained currency in relation to military interventions in the 1980s and 1990s in what became known as the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. In the aftermath of the disastrous bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in October 1983, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger outlined six conditions for the proper application of U.S. force: (1) U.S. vital interests at stake; (2) a clear commitment to achieving victory; (3) clear political and military objectives; (4) the level of military engagement matches the mission’s key objectives; (5) domestic and congressional support secured prior to the mission; and (6) use of force only as a last resort.2

The concept was refined and amplified by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell just prior to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Fearing another Vietnam-style disaster if U.S. troops were deployed to oust the Iraqi forces that invaded Kuwait, Powell argued that the mission would only succeed if its objectives were clearly identified and attainable, the commitment to achieving those objectives was firm, political support was widespread, and force could be used quickly to overwhelm the enemy and with a minimum number of casualties. As Jeffrey Record notes, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the subsequent “decade of U.S. military interventions in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans, there [was] a rising clamor on Capitol Hill and within the Pentagon for ‘clear exit strategies’ before resorting to force overseas.”3 In 1996, U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake stated that before the United States sends its “troops into a foreign country we should know how and when we’re going to get them out.”4

The concept of exit strategy has also had its critics. Gideon Rose, for example, argues that the concept should be “jettisoned” because “it lumps together several important issues that are best handled separately.” In any intervention, the key considerations are not just whether the “blood and treasure” are being used “in endless futile attempts to impose order and create harmony” but what “interests are at stake,” whether a “stable order” can be left behind, and whether “overcommitment can be avoided . . . through selective intervention.” Rose also believes that the challenge is one of handling “unexpected developments” through well-conceived “contingency plans.” Likewise, Record argues that “the idea of a sure-fire, pre-hostilities road map to post-hostilities military extrication is a delusion. Having a concept of success is always good, but having a healthy appreciation of the difficulties of maintaining it in the face of war’s vicissitudes is even better.”

We argue here in favor of eschewing exit-based strategies driven by political agendas and hastily drafted timetables for withdrawal. But we do so on somewhat different grounds from those that have traditionally been advanced, which focus either on the need to leave a “stable order” in place before foreign troops are extricated and/or to defeat insurgents so that a viable set of political institutions can be established by local authorities. Instead, we argue that decisions about whether to keep a mission alive should be based on what some refer to as a real options perspective, which takes into account the uncertainties of the mission and the costs of both entry and exit. When there are major political uncertainties associated with the payoffs of an exit strategy, we argue that the wisest and most prudent course of action is to wait until there is more information available about the costs and benefits of departure. Persistence in the face of adversity even as one continues to incur losses may well be the rational (and right) course of action, especially if one isn’t sure whether the situation is going to improve anytime soon if one hangs around or get a lot worse if one leaves.

At the same time, “staying put” is not an argument for sticking with a military or political strategy that is failing to achieve its goals. An effective strategy should be flexible and resilient, and based on the achievement of specific, clearly defined milestones rather than the clock. In military terms, the challenge, especially in a country like Afghanistan, is not to look at the problem in terms of winning the war or getting rid of the insurgents. Rather, the objective should be to battle insurgents to a strategic stalemate where they can be held in check (while retaining a firm upper hand) and to increase the incentives for insurgents to come to the negotiating table. That is, there is a clear bargaining element to such a strategy. At the same time, greater responsibility for containing the insurgency should be handed over to local authorities who have developed the requisite capabilities. Politically, such a strategy should also be directed at promoting a nationalist-based leadership that has the support of the people not just in the cities but also the countryside.

A “no exit” strategy is a strategy that does not automatically look for the emergency exit when smoke fills the room and the house under construction seems to be on fire. It is a fire-fighting strategy that first seeks to gather information about the source of the fire, then to control it until the local fire brigade arrives and is ready to take over.

A “no exit” strategy also recognizes that there may be times when intervention is necessary before it is possible to have a well-founded sense of what a “successful” outcome will look like. In the case of an intervention that topples a state’s political leadership, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, it may not be possible to gauge in advance what kind of successor regime can be stood up or how long it will take before the successor can take over security responsibilities. Likewise, it may not be possible to know in advance what the successor regime’s view of the ongoing presence of U.S. forces is. In some instances, a complete U.S. departure might be desired. In others, an ongoing U.S. military presence may be a source of reassurance to the successor regime. That presence, in turn, may take any number of forms, from a military base relatively disengaged from the local population and local politics, to an ongoing training mission engaging U.S. forces with local counterparts, to a more kinetic role for U.S. forces in support of counterinsurgency operations.

While political leaders will want to ponder these questions before an intervention, it is hubris to assume that they can be definitively answered beforehand — before, that is, the new facts on the ground created by and in response to the intervention have been assessed. Accordingly, an “exit strategy” is more hope than strategy. A “no exit” strategy, by contrast, focuses on what it is possible to achieve to further U.S. objectives at any given moment.

Sunk costs, exit, and uncertainty

When is it prudent to dispose of a failing enterprise or investment, including an intervention that has turned sour? Common sense would suggest that an irreversible investment — that is to say an investment the costs of which cannot be recouped — should be abandoned when the costs of sustaining the investment are greater than the benefits that come with it. In other words, there is no point throwing good money after bad and the best thing to do is to ignore those sunk costs — even if they involve substantial treasure and lives — and focus on the benefits that will come with exit and expending those precious resources elsewhere. There is a substantial body of research indicating that decision-makers tend to be more preoccupied with costs (as opposed to the benefits) that come with a new course of action. This is because individuals are inherently risk averse. As Welch notes, elites will change policy not to secure gains but to avoid actual, impending, and painful losses. Further, change takes place “when policy fails either repeatedly or catastrophically, or when leaders become convinced that it will imminently do so.”5

In recent years, some economists and business scholars have also argued that uncertainty plays a critical role in decision-making and that when uncertainty about future payoffs is high it is entirely rational and indeed prudent not only to keep one’s options open, but also to stay within the “zone of persistence” (i.e., not to suddenly or precipitously dispose of an asset or failing investment) until the fog lifts and the future becomes clearer.6 If there are no sunk costs or expenditures are minimal, there is no economic rationale for holding onto a losing asset or sticking with a strategy and accepting further losses. However, when significant sunk costs are present, it is “entirely rational to persist and endure some amount of losses” if there is some probability that conditions will improve.

This so-called real options perspective on exit choices also dictates that we should not ignore the value of sunk costs like so much spilled milk, as many economists would argue, because they allegedly have no bearing on net present value (npv). Rather, we should take into account in our decisions the value of persistence and “the fact that exit is rational not when the net present value of remaining [with a given course of action] falls below zero, but when expected losses exceed the value of this option.”7 In the real world of human events, sunk costs are not independent of the future. This is because the activities associated with those costs can change the trajectory of events moving forward. So it is with a military intervention directed at promoting stability and security. What you do now will have an impact on developments later. The relationship between the previous sunk costs of intervening in a conflict and the future costs of re-establishing yourself should you be forced to intervene again are therefore correlated. Consequently, as these costs rise for any future intervention in the same conflict, the probability (and desirability) of exiting now should fall if one is looking at these costs rationally.

A number of corollaries flow from this argument. The first is that it is not just the expected value of future returns (or profitability) that matters, but the general distribution of any future costs and benefits. When there is greater uncertainty about the shape of that distribution, there is, by definition, a greater probability that things might turn around in the future (and if things do in fact get worse — or a lot worse — exit is always an option later on). The presence of high levels of uncertainty therefore should deter a decision to exit, especially when sunk costs are high. When sunk costs are appreciably lower — or decline substantially with the passage of time — exit may become a more attractive option.

A second corollary is that exit becomes a more attractive option if one is able to transfer critical competencies to other military partners without incurring further major losses, especially if the sunk costs one has accumulated in the interim are relatively small. Although such transfers may take time, the inertia of sticking with a particular course of action is not “crippling” in the sense that the “delay” in getting ready to exit is a function of the need to prepare one’s partners properly to assume core competencies.

Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan

Sunk costs and political uncertainty should be at the forefront of any strategic analysis of post-intervention extrication in Afghanistan (and by extension also Pakistan) and elsewhere. As one of the costliest withdrawals in the first half of the 20th century underscores — the end of the British reign in Mesopotamia in 1932 — a premature pullout can rapidly lead to a situation of escalating violence and the “unravelling” of all that one has been trying to achieve, as Rayburn puts it.8

The British occupation of Iraq was unquestionably costly. Thousands of lives were lost as the British tried to quell a Shiite-led revolt, and the mission was not at all popular with a public still weary from the First World War.

British Colonial Secretary Leopold Avery was able to stave off attempts to scuttle the mission from the Conservative government’s Labour critics and a succession of parliamentary challenges in 1925 and 1926. Following a fact-finding mission in 1925, Avery declared that the British would reap a “substantial return” from their investment and that Iraq would “soon be a model of development and democracy for the entire region.”9 But his view was not shared by Sir Samuel Hoare, the head of the Air Ministry, who questioned the mounting costs of occupation and publicly announced, undoubtedly with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s approval, that once a border dispute with Turkey was settled British troops would be pulled out.

In March 1927, the Baldwin government withdrew its last battalion. Almost as soon as it had done so, however, the country was attacked by thousands of Wahhabi Ikhan “brothers,” a Salafi sect that sought to dominate the local Shiite population. The leader of Turkey, General Ataturk, who earlier in the decade had led an unsuccessful attack against Mosul, also began to whip up an insurgency against the Iraqi government.

As Rayburn observes,

when the [British] mandate actually ended in 1932, Iraq’s British-built institutions began, one by one, to collapse. With the occupiers gone, Iraq’s Sunni Arab elite used the army not to defend the state against foreign invaders, but to suppress Iraq’s Assyrians, Kurds, and Shiites . . . By 1939, Iraq’s military rulers had become openly hostile to the United Kingdom. When war broke out in Europe, Baghdad opened back channels to the Axis powers, and it finally opened up the country to Hitler in 1941. Faced with the prospect of an Axis stronghold on their line of communication to India, the British were forced to invade Iraq once again. As British troops approached Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and police carried out a final act of official butchery, slaughtering hundreds of Iraqi Jews. There followed a second British occupation of the country that lasted until 1948.

Rayburn concludes that “had the United Kingdom stayed longer the first time around, much of this mayhem could have been avoided.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but the bigger lesson is clear. Had the British been less focused on what occupation was costing and more attentive to the future and what their departure might mean, they might have avoided tragedy and the substantial costs that came with having to intervene in Iraq a second time around.

A succession of U.S.-led and un-supported interventions in Haiti to restore peace and democracy points to some of the same lessons of the British exit from Iraq. In 1990, four years after the fall of the corrupt, despotic, and long-lived Duvalier regime, Haiti staged democratic elections.

However, the newly elected populist but erratic president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was soon ousted by a military coup. After a number of abortive efforts to evict the military from power by negotiation and persuasion, the un Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use “of all necessary means to facilitate the departure from Haiti of the military leadership.” The United States recruited nineteen countries to participate in a multinational force. Just prior to the planned invasion, President Clinton dispatched former President Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell, and Sam Nunn to negotiate a peaceful landing of the multinational troops and the departure of the military regime. Agreement was subsequently reached for a major un peacekeeping operation to stabilize the country and restore democracy in the period from 1994 to 1996.

Both the U.S. operation and the un deployment were based on an approved exit strategy tied to restoration of democratic government, the establishment of a “stable” environment, and the conduct of “free and fair” elections in February 1996, which would mark the end of the mandate. Following the elections, the un presence was reduced to a small international peace force whose main role was to train the Haitian police and build up domestic capacity.10 In January 2000 all remaining U.S. soldiers were pulled out of the country against the background of a deteriorating security situation and mounting domestic violence. Follow-on un missions in the country “were not supported by reliable funding arrangements and were saddled with impractically short mandates.” Foreign assistance to Haiti was also “short-lived” and increasingly “volatile.” As Sebastian von Einsiedel and David Malone further observe, “In the absence of any serious engagement between 2000 and 2004, the political stalemate [in the country] hardened, the economic situation remained dire, and the security and human rights situation continued to deteriorate.”11

In 2004, much of the country was in open revolt against President Aristide, who was ruling by decree and using his henchmen to brutalize the opposition. He was eventually forced to step down. On the same day he left Haiti, February 29, 2003, the un Security Council authorized the deployment of a 3,000 member Multinational Interim Force (mif), later replaced by a un peacekeeping mission, to restore order and stabilize the country.

It was, in Einsiedel and Malone’s words, “deja vu” all over again. It was also quite clear that the earlier withdrawal had been “premature relative to the scale of the challenge” notwithstanding the difficulties the un had experienced dealing with Aristide and its inability to develop effective partnerships with other groups in Haitian society.

Much of the current debate about the U.S./isaf mission in Afghanistan is based on contending assessments about the success of the mission not just in terms of its security components, but also its broader associated political, economic reconstruction, governance, and development assistance tasks. Although a full review of these debates is outside of the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that some of the major independent studies, which have looked at the mission in some detail, generally tend to share the view that the overall picture is mixed if not worse.

Before exiting the highway to bypass a major accident, you need to know what alternative routes are available. And if you don’t have gps, you need to look at a roadmap to figure out the options. Anthony Cordesman offered such a roadmap in a 2010 report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman stated that there was no early-exit option for the Afghanistan mission if it was to have any chance of success — notwithstanding the fact that he had serious misgivings about Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ultimate strategic importance to the United States. “Any form of winning,” he argued, “including the near withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, means that the U.S. will have to help finance Afghan governance, development, and almost all of the costs of Afghan security forces for half a decade more into the future . . . For all the talk of foreign aid and development, it will be well over a decade before Afghanistan can hope to make serious progress with continued U.S. support and aid.”12

Cordesman postulated that the situation in Afghanistan could evolve in four plausible but different ways, assigning a probability to each scenario. They were: (1) the Pangloss solution, where everything works out according to plan — the Karzai government makes the necessary reforms to earn the support of the Afghan people and the Taliban insurgency is reversed (10 percent probability); (2) the “implosion” scenario where everything goes wrong, the Karzai government collapses, and the Taliban gain control of the entire country (20 percent); (3) the “marginal improvement” scenario where the government and Afghan National Security Forces remain weak and incapable of keeping the Taliban at bay without large doses of continuing U.S. support — until those external security guarantees are eventually withdrawn and the situation deteriorates (35 percent probability); and (4) the “Afghanistan-muddles-through” scenario under which regional power brokers wrest power and control from the Taliban, the Taliban are weakened but not defeated, and the central government maintains just enough authority and political legitimacy as a result of political reforms to keep on functioning (35 percent). In the fourth scenario, the U.S./Afghan government and Taliban are locked in a lengthy war of attrition. 

Cordesman’s analysis underscored the enormous variability in potential outcomes and the challenge of making predictions in a highly volatile political and security environment. Especially interesting is that he did not rule out the probability that things might turn around if the mission continued. (There is an 80 percent combined probability of “success” with options 1, 3, and 4.) But he also foresaw that “sustaining the present U.S. strategy and military effort . . . over a period long enough to produce meaningful results could easily raise the cost of the war effort . . . from a crs [Congressional Research Service] estimate of $308.3 billion from fy2002-fy2010 by another $632 billion between fy2011 and fy2020.” Cordesman believed that these costs “may be worth paying if the new strategy produces definitive indications of success during the coming year.”13

When he revisited the subject in a report issued in February 2012, he again noted the uncertainty of progress based on available metrics and called for improved metrics to guide decision-making about Afghanistan “in transition, force cuts, transition plans, and continuing the war.” He warned that “U.S. troop cuts are no longer ‘condition-based.’” He noted serious difficulties in standing up the Afghan National Army, but observed that the problems “could all be corrected with time, the needed number of foreign trainers and partners, and adequate funds — but none may be available at the levels and duration required.”14

As the above discussion indicates, exit strategies are often driven by unrealistic deadlines for the completion of complex tasks in the war-torn or violence-ridden environment of societies in transition. They are also driven by worries about the continuing costs of seemingly open-ended commitments. Before throwing in the towel, however, policymakers must also ask themselves what the likelihood of a bad outcome is. Although there are no crystal balls, if the answer is an outcome that is worse than staying, then the prudent course is not to stand down until the fog clears. To paraphrase Rabbi Teitelbaum, disengagement is no different from a giant boulder teetering on the side of a mountain. If it is dislodged and rolls down into rush hour traffic, the resulting explosion and devastation will be catastrophic.

Strategic resilience in the face of uncertainty

A policy of staying the course is not an excuse to do so blindly. Confronted with strategic uncertainty, organizations can adapt to change, mitigate risks, reduce key vulnerabilities, and make midcourse corrections to deal with unpredictable changes in their environment. Sometimes, however, what is called for is a “robust transformation,” defined as a “deliberately transient, episodic response to a new, yet fluid environmental condition”; such a transformation involves a “process of moving beyond immediate strategic effectiveness to reconfigure . . . strategy and organizational arrangements rapidly and radically to respond to uncertainty in a way that enhances future viability.”15

Effective strategy in an environment of uncertainty is also not just about responding in an ad hoc, improvised way to each crisis that comes along. “It is not about rebounding from setback. It is about continuously anticipating and adjusting to deep, secular trends . . . It’s about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious.”16 The reduction of complexity in organizational routines and behaviours is crucial. The old adage “keep it simple, stupid” is especially germane to the competing pressures of innovation and efficiency in responding to a rapidly changing environment in which there is high uncertainty. As Lengnick-Hall and Beck note, strategies and structures must be designed “to achieve specific outcomes.”

A well-defined adaptive and resilient policy structure typically contains three key elements; (1) it identifies the conditions necessary for the policy to succeed; (2) it identifies key vulnerabilities, including both uncertain and certain adverse consequences of the basic policy; and (3) it translates “the necessary conditions for success into signposts that should be monitored in order to be certain that the underlying analysis remains valid, that implementation is proceeding on schedule and according to expectations, and that the necessary policy corrections or additional actions are taken in a timely and effective manner.”17

There is value to having clear signposts or markers of progress in the complex range of tasks associated with military interventions. At the same time, however, the achievement of specific tasks must be located within a broader strategic framework that highlights not only all the things that need to be done and the anticipated time to complete them, but also the key interdependencies and vulnerabilities in those activities as noted above.

As we have seen repeatedly in successive interventions, if efforts to secure a stable security environment fail or are delayed by a growing insurgency, other functions — such as the holding of parliamentary or presidential elections or the pursuit of specific development activities — can be derailed. As projects take longer and longer to complete, the cumulative delay threatens to undermine the entire enterprise.

There is no great mystery here. Much ink (not to mention time in endless interagency meetings) has been devoted to analyzing and discussing the myriad problems of coordination and the failure to achieve coherence when the international community intervenes.18

The strategic challenge in these kinds of situations, however, is not simply to reach a consensus on key objectives and try to marshal resources and bureaucratic and political will. It’s much bigger. It entails, first, figuring out what the logical interdependencies of the overall enterprise actually are (among security stabilization, humanitarian assistance, economic reconstruction, administrative capacity building, promotion of good governance, etc.); second, identifying the resources required to complete each set of activities; third ascertaining where the potential bottlenecks to completion lie; and finally, assessing how disruption of one or more tasks will affect the entire chain.

A “critical path” method explores these interdependencies with the aim of discovering the weakest link(s) and the kinds of bottlenecks and delays that will thwart or delay the completion of a mission.19 Realistic expectations are crucial to the analysis, as is accurate measurement of the impact of delays. Once these effects are better understood, it may be possible to address their root causes, revise schedules and the sequence of “nation-building” tasks, and develop new strategies. But if the overall sequence of tasks is too complicated and too vulnerable to disruptions, this may argue for scaling back the project, reducing ambitions, and concentrating on a few simple tasks that are executable and realistic given local conditions, resource availability, and the fluidity of the general environment. It also means zeroing in on the weakest links in the entire enterprise and focusing one’s energies on fixing them.

In Afghanistan, the “weakest links” that merit special attention as part of a “no exit” strategy are, first, meeting a difficult security situation with a military strategy that has clear, feasible objectives; second, dealing with neighboring countries playing a spoiler role; and third. coping with weak or ineffective leaders. We consider them in turn.

Security stabilization through stalemate

In countries like Iraq, East Timor, and Afghanistan, where societies are deeply divided by culture, ethnicity, or religion, nation-building efforts have been thrown into jeopardy by the failure of external actors to properly understand the impact that delays in managing a local security situation can have on other tasks and activities. Security stabilization, in other words, is the weakest link and typically the greatest source of uncertainty in the entire operation.20

Internationally-provided security guarantees are thus crucial to taming the “security dilemma” in ethnically or religiously divided failed states, and security stabilization must come first in the list of “nation-building” tasks.21 As Barbara Walter argues, third-party security guarantees, which protect different groups and ensure that promises are kept, are key to stabilizing war-torn societies. She distinguishes between “weak,” “moderate,” and “strong” security guarantees. Whereas weak guarantees involve only a political commitment to do something if the peace process breaks down, and moderate guarantees involve very modest troop deployments, strong guarantees typically consist of many thousands of troops that can provide “unambiguous and indisputable demonstration of intent.”22

Kimberly Marten likewise argues that effective security management is the paramount consideration in nation-building undertakings. Comparing recent peacekeeping and enforcement operations with those of occupying imperial powers in the colonial era, she argues that not only must “robust peace operations [be] designed to provide security for the affected populations,” but “‘only when people’s security is assured is it possible for them to invest in the future that brings real ownership to peace process, not political change that is forced from the outside.’”23

Taking the argument one step further, Stephen Stedman argues that the security situation in conflict and post-conflict situations in failed states requires first and foremost effective strategies of spoiler management — that is to say, strategies that deal with those extremist elements or groups in a conflict who have been radicalized, use violence to pursue their aims, are not interested in political compromise, and will, in fact, do anything to subvert the political process. Stedman argues that coercive strategies are required to deal with the “total spoiler” who sees the world in “all-or-nothing terms.” This involves measures that root out and destroy the spoiler and his bases of political support; such measures include the direct application of force, targeted sanctions, and other kinds of penalties that raise the costs of noncooperation and noncompliance.24

In the case of Afghanistan, insurgents can cross borders freely. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have allowed each other’s opponents to use border areas as a sanctuary. The result is that counterinsurgency operations resemble the arcade game of whack-a-mole: Insurgents pop up, are suppressed, then pop up elsewhere. It is also unclear whether the Taliban, which has distinct factions and leaders, is a “total” or “partial” spoiler. Whereas partial spoilers can usually be bought off or coerced to the bargaining tables, total spoilers have to be suppressed and wiped out.

When resources are scarce and one confronts a “whack-a-mole”-style problem, decisive victory is not a realistic option. Expectations about what is strategically and militarily feasible have to be lowered. But this does not mean that the only option is exit, retreat to avoid defeat. Rather, the goal should be to fight the other side to a draw or stalemate while retaining a firm upper hand. There is strong evidence that if a conflict reaches a plateau of “hurting stalemate,” warring parties will eventually come to the realization that they cannot use force to gain an advantage and will entertain other options. At this point, a conflict, to use William Zartman’s phrase, is “ripe for resolution,” insofar as the parties perceive the costs and prospects for continued confrontation to be more burdensome than the costs and prospects of some sort of political settlement.25

The goal of a “hurting stalemate” strategy is not to keep on fighting indefinitely but to exhaust the other side to the point it realizes that escalation dominance is not an option. (And where they feel the pain more than we do.) When insurgents come to this realization, they are more likely to go to the negotiating table of their own volition and without unrealistic preconditions. This could be characterized as a “firm upper hand” strategy, where the use of force is specifically tied to concrete bargaining objectives and eventually securing a negotiated political outcome to the conflict.

In Afghanistan we are not there yet. The Afghan conflict is eleven — if not 180 — years old. Yet there is little evidence the war has reached a painful stalemate, at least for the Taliban. If anything, the Taliban have been emboldened by the prospect of a nato pullout. The Taliban are increasingly viewed as a force for national liberation among different tribal groupings. Much of the available evidence points to a troubling, escalatory dynamic.

The absence of any kind of reasonably unified coalition among Taliban forces is another problem.26 The Taliban are a disparate, loosely affiliated, faction-ridden entity unlikely to prove a reliable negotiating partner. Peeling off moderates may hold out some hope for serious negotiations, but the presence of so many factions means there are also many potential spoilers who could easily wreck any kind of nascent peace process.

isaf should therefore stay the course with a punishment strategy directed at creating a military stalemate conducive to sustainable negotiations. At the same time, the goal must also be to train Afghan security forces so that they can assume greater responsibility and eventually take ownership of counterinsurgency operations. isaf’s departure should only take place when the Afghan government and its defense forces are ready for a transfer of these critical core security competencies.

Engaging hostile neighbors

A “no exit” strategy also must seek to get neighbors to play a constructive as opposed to spoiler role. The problem of engaging hostile, partisan, or indifferent neighbors in a diplomatic process to end conflict and stabilize a situation is not a new one, but it is never easy. It entails persuading rivals that that they do indeed have a common problem that can only be resolved together.

The problem for Afghanistan is that Pakistan is interested in having a friendly and even Taliban-dominated government in Afghanistan, both to contain its own Pashtun question and to avoid a pro-Indian government in Kabul. Pakistan has not been on especially friendly terms with Hamid Karzai’s government. India’s interest is the reverse, to eliminate Pakistan’s influence, principally by cooperating with the Northern Alliance. Iran’s interest lies less in Afghanistan’s form of government than in the elimination of the U.S.-nato presence there. Although Iran has never had a close relationship with the Sunni al-Qaeda, it has developed a strong link within Karzai’s government. China’s interest lies in preventing a militant religious movement from controlling Afghanistan because of the danger it sees in increased influence of religious movements in its western provinces, and also in avoiding Indian dominance in the area. Tajikistan’s and Uzbekistan’s interests favor the Tajik and Uzbek elements in the Northern Alliance. The U.S. has an interest above all in destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but also in securing the withdrawal of its troops (possibly mutually exclusive goals); democracy lies somewhere in its ideological vision but stability is more important, if undefined.

Forging a pact among these clear strategic rivals in the region seems an insuperable challenge. But such pacts have been forged before in other hot conflict zones. In the early 1990s, the five permanent members of the un Security Council plus the neighbouring countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (asean) had rather divergent and even contradictory interests over the future of Cambodia.27 The U.S. skillfully brought these many countries together into an agreed solution. In much of the first decade of the 2000s, North Korea singlehandedly held off a group of world leaders as it pursued its nuclear security objectives. But the five most concerned nations, with often diametrically opposed interests, came together in the six-party talks organized by China and the United States. Though the North Korean nuclear problem persists, the six-party talks did produce some basic documents necessary for any further progress.28 In the 1960s, the leading countries of the old (colonial) and new (Cold War) world order managed to overcome their differences to negotiate a solution to the beleaguered position of Laos, albeit one that failed to last.

Whatever happens inside Afghanistan, it will not be stable without a “Great Jirga,” a meeting of the surrounding and distant powers to consecrate an internal settlement and establish relations with it. However, given that the divergence of regional interests surpasses even those implicated in the cases of Cambodia, North Korea, or Laos, extraordinary diplomatic skill and leadership will be necessary.

Cultivating leadership

Much attention has been devoted in recent years to promoting democracy, accountable political institutions, and economic development in war-torn societies. Under the Bush administration, the mission of U.S. military forces enlarged from war-fighting to post-combat stabilization and reconstruction. The apparent model of nation-building efforts in countries like Iraq was the successful rehabilitation of Japan and Germany following the Second World War. Under President Obama, however, much of this earlier ambition was scaled back, reflecting the reality that democratization is a process of slow cultural, social, and political development and does not simply revolve around the exercise of the franchise and the holding of free elections. It also involves the creation of a supportive civic culture, where citizens learn to become active and intelligent participants in society and the political life of their country, and a middle class. Further, democracy can only develop in a society with a strong and well-functioning administrative, police, and judicial apparatus that is responsive to the needs and welfare of the public and generally free of corruption and cronyism. It also requires leaders who can rise to the challenge of building new institutions while rallying the people around key nation-building tasks.

The challenge of promoting and cultivating strong local leadership has figured less centrally in the attention of the international community and those doing the intervening than perhaps it should. To the extent that it does, it is a “hidden” preoccupation, the subject of hushed conversations and diplomatic murmurings behind closed doors (as the Wikileak revelations attest). No matter how flawed an electoral process is or how weak and incompetent those catapulted into high office are, publicly expression of the desire to change horses in the middle of a race going badly is generally considered bad form. Instigating leadership changes is even worse, widely seen as a relic of Cold War rivalry and a discredited era of U.S. foreign policy when the not-so-hidden hand of the cia was behind coups in the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

However, there are other ways to promote local leadership short of doing away with those who are feckless, incompetent, uncooperative, or hostile. There are some important lessons from the era of decolonization where some successful handovers did occur. These handovers were accompanied by the emergence of strong, charismatic leaders who were able to unify the local populace, weather ensuing political storms, and build strong states.

As Tony Smith, a careful observer of French and British decolonization processes, observes: “For whatever their values, what Bourguiba, Ataturk, Sukarno, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, and Houphouet-Boigny all shared was their leadership at the moment of national independence over groupings both traditional and modern in values and structure with a scope so broad that the split between the countryside and the city was overcome.”29 Such leadership proved crucial to securing political stability following the departure of colonial masters. When such leadership was absent, institutions were less resilient and less able to withstand the assault of minority and factional politics that tore many new nations apart.30 As the American experience with Ngo Dinh Diem and the series of military strongmen who ruled South Vietnam after his assassination illustrates, the U.S. was never able to find a reliable, credible, and legitimate partner in South Vietnam, which circumscribed options for the war effort. It also made Vietnamization an untenable strategy.

The colonial powers were able to influence the process of strengthening local elites “by their attention to grooming their successors.” As Smith notes, “For virtually every nationalist movement harbored a civil war whose divisions allowed the colonial authority a strong voice in local affairs. By deciding with whom they would negotiate, by what procedure they would institutionalize the transfer of power, and over what territory the new regime would rule, Paris and London decisively influenced the course of decolonization.”

More attention today needs to be paid to leadership development in countries where the international community has intervened. It will require negotiating with and cultivating those who show real political talent. This requires diplomatic flexibility and a willingness not to overcommit to one particular leader. Countries like Afghanistan need leaders who can bridge social and ethnic divisions and the urban-rural divide. Leadership grooming and succession are thus the necessary accompaniments to a strategy of institution-building, as the British and French clearly understood in some of their own earlier nation-building efforts.

Staying power and the power of staying

It is worth noting that in many successful cases of intervention, “exit” has not been a central imperative of the strategy. U.S. troops remain stationed in Germany and Japan more than 60 years after the conclusion of World War II. Their presence remains largely welcomed by the German and Japanese governments and populations. U.S. forces stayed as a stabilizing element through thin and thick: from the immediate postwar conditions of political and economic collapse to the extraordinary prosperity of more recent times. It is tempting to view the reconstruction of Germany and Japan with hindsight as somehow foreordained. Yet at the time, uncertainty prevailed about what the future held for either country.

The United States similarly kept forces in place in South Korea in support of the 1953 armistice. At the time and for decades subsequently, the South Korean government was authoritarian. Yet as the economy rebounded, conditions for a transition to democracy began to take hold. It was not knowable in 1953 that the South Korea of 2011 would be democratic and prosperous. But the United States, having invested blood and treasure in preventing the communist North from conquering the South, was rightly unwilling to look for a hasty exit. The presence of the United States as a steadfast ally surely encouraged positive political and economic developments.

The United States also has a history of leaving when asked. Following the “people power” revolution in 1983–86 that brought an end to Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian government, the Philippines government support for an ongoing U.S. presence at the strategically valuable Clark Air Base declined, and the U.S. closed the base in 1991. The extensive presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia in the decade following the 1991 liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s military occupation became an ongoing political liability for the Saudi government, and the 2003 Iraq war provided an opportune pretext for their departure.

Rushing to the exit can have consequences beyond those merely local. Reputation matters for states. A record of fecklessness will undermine the willingness of other governments to take risks in the interest of cooperation in areas of mutual interest. An impression of weakness or unwillingness to persist under adversity can embolden adversaries, rightly or wrongly. Miscalculation can be costly. A “no exit” strategy, by contrast, may discourage adversaries from continuing their resistance and instead bring them to the negotiating table.

What is to be feared most in failed states where the international community has intervened is an outcome like Somalia — a “stateless” piece of real estate where anarchy reigns in the truly Hobbesian sense. When things go wrong, such territories can becomes a breeding ground for terrorists, piracy, and other exportable ills for which there is no authority to hold accountable, and thus no one to punish for unacceptable behavior internationally.

Today, there is a risk of more Somalias if the international community — fearing the mounting costs of engagement — decides to prematurely exit from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Haitis of this world. These are territories that run the double risk of being both stateless and leaderless.

Many lives have been lost and much treasure spent on what increasingly looks like “mission impossible” in countries like Afghanistan. After eleven years, it is still too early to say what the future holds. Nonetheless, as we have argued here, any decision to exit and finally disengage must be attentive to both the upside and the downside of withdrawal. At the same, we argue that the mission has to be recalibrated and ambitions scaled back. The formation of a stable democratic government is too stringent a requirement for a country like Afghanistan. So too is the notion that the Taliban can be decisively defeated. But there is a higher degree of probability that the Taliban can be fought to a draw given time, staying power, persistence, and patience. This in turn will help create the right conditions for negotiation and a political settlement. Such is the ultimate goal of a “no exit” strategy.

1 Carolin Decker and Thomas Mellewigt, “Thirty Years After Michael E. Porter: What Do We Know About Business Exit?” The Academy of Management Perspectives 21:2 (2007).

2 Kenneth J. Campbell, “Once Burned, Twice Cautious: Explaining the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine,” Armed Forces and Society 24:2 (1998).

3 Jeffrey Record, “Exit Strategy Delusions,” Parameters 31:4 (2001–02).

4 Gideon Rose, “The Exit Strategy Delusion,” Foreign Affairs 77:1 (1998).

5 David A. Welch, Painful Choices: A Theory of Foreign Policy Change (Princeton University Press, 2005), 46.

6 Jonathan O’Brien and Timothy Folta, “Sunk Costs, Uncertainty and Market Exit: A Real Options Perspective,” Industrial and Corporate Change 18:5 (2009). Available at http://homepages.rpi.edu/~obriej8/Res/icc09.pdf (this and subsequent links accessed Nov. 5, 2012).

7 O’Brien and Folta, “Sunk Costs.”

8 Joel Rayburn, “The Last Exit from Iraq,” Foreign Affairs 85:2 (2006).

9 Quoted in Rayburn, “Last Exit.”

10 Kevin M. Benson and Christopher B. Thrash, “Declaring Victory: Planning Exit Strategies for Peace Operations,” Parameters 26:3 (1996).

11 Sebastian von Einsiedel and David M. Malone, “Peace and Democracy for Haiti: A un Mission Impossible?” International Relations 20:2 (2006).

12 Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Grand Strategy in the Afghan, Pakistan, and Iraq Wars: The End State Fallacy” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2010).

13 Cordesman, “Grand Strategy,” 14. See also Anthony H. Cordesman, “Two Winnable Wars,” Washington Post (February 24, 2008).

14 Anthony H. Cordesman, “Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012).

15 Cynthia Lengnick-Hall, and Tammy E. Beck, “Adaptive Fit Versus Robust Transformation: How Organizations Respond to Environmental Change,” Journal of Management 31:5 (2005).

16 Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution (Penguin Books, 2002); Gary Hamel and Lissa Välikangas, “The Quest for Resilience,” Harvard Business Review (2003). Available at http://hbr.org/2003/09/the-quest-for-resilience/ar/1.

17 Warren E. Walker, “Uncertainty: The Challenge for Policy Analysis in the 21st Century,” rand Paper p-8051 (rand Corporation, 2000).

18 Robert B. Oakley, “Developing a Strategy for Troubled States,” Joint Force Quarterly 96:12 (1996); Roland Paris and Timothy D. Sisk, The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations (Routledge, 2009).

19 See, for example, Ted Klastorin, Project Management: Tools and Tradeoffs (Wiley, 2003); and Dragan Z. Milosevic, Project Management Toolbox: Tools and Techniques for the Practicing Project Manager (Wiley, 2003).

20Stephen John Stedman, Donald Rothchild, and Elizabeth M. Cousens, eds., Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Lynne Rienner, 2002).

21 Philip G. Roeder and Donald Rothchild, eds., Sustainable Peace: Powers and Democracy after Civil Wars (Cornell University Press, 2005).

22 Barbara F. Walter, “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement,” International Organization 51:3 (1997); see also Barbara F. Walter, “Designing Transitions from Civil War: Demobilization, Democratization, and Commitments to Peace,” International Security 24:1 (1999), and Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton University Press, 2002).

23 Kimberly Zisk Marten, Enforcing the Peace: Learning From the Imperial Past (Columbia University Press, 2004).

24 Stephen John Stedman, “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes,” International Security 22:2 (1997).

25 William I. Zartman, Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa (Oxford University Press, 1985); William I. Zartman, “Analyzing Intractability,” in Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall, eds., Grasping the Nettle (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2004).

26 Antonio Giustozzi, Negotiating with the Taliban: Issues and Prospects (The Century Foundation, 2010).

27 Richard H. Solomon, Exiting Indochina: U.S. Leadership of the Cambodian Settlement and Normalization with Vietnam (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2000).

28 Charles L. Pritchard, Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb (Brookings Institution Press, 2007).

29 Tony Smith, “A Comparative Study of French and British Decolonization,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 20:1 (1978).

30 Joseph C. Miller, “The Politics of Decolonization in Portuguese Africa,” African Affairs 74:295 (1975); Gilbert M. Khadiagala, “Negotiating Angola’s Independence Transition: The Alvor Accords,” International Negotiation 10 (2005).

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