Libya Exit Strategy
Tom Ricks doesn't understand why we need an exit strategy in Libya.
Thomas Ricks has been covering military affairs for major publications since I was a high school sophomore and is one of the best. His two books on the Iraq War, particularly Fiasco, are must-reads for students of modern war, as is his Best Defense blog at Foreign Policy‘s website.
So I’m very distressed to see him repeatedly fail to understand an elementary concept on war planning, the requirement for an exit strategy.
He threw this in as an aside in a Monday posting:
I grow weary of talk of an “exit strategy.” It is a canard and a false concept. Can anyone remember the last time there actually was an exit strategy going in that actually worked? Military actions aren’t interstates.
He compounds the error today, making a bizarre analogy between war and divorce and concluding, “There is a basic contradiction here between these officers’ insistence on clarity and the ambiguous and uncertain nature of warfare.”
It’s a fundamental precept of national security policy going back to at least the writings of Carl von Clausewitz that wars are fought to achieve political ends and it follows that military strategy must be tailored to achieve political ends. Indeed, countries can lose wars in which their armies are absolutely dominant on the field of battle–as American forces were in Vietnam–if the fighting does not achieve the sought political objectives.
In order for military planners to match tactics and strategy, they must know what the end game is. In the case of total war, such as we fought in World War II, that’s pretty simple: The unconditional surrender of the enemy. In the case of humanitarian interventions, counterinsurgencies, and stability operations, however, it’s much harder.
The concept of an exit strategy is designed to spotlight this dilemma. Simply put: How do we know when we’ve won the damn thing and can stop fighting?
In the case of the ongoing “kinetic operations” in Libya, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is the authorizing document. After the requisite listing of whereofs and therefores, it outlines the crux of the mission as “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”
That sounds simple enough, right? It would seem to pointedly preclude a long nation-building exercise such as those undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan or even a drawn-out peacekeeping mission such as we saw in the former Yugoslavia.
Other provisions of the Resolution call for a no-fly zone, which has been rendered moot by the near annihilation of Libya’s air force. And coalition forces have destroyed tanks moving in on population centers. Presumably, Gaddafi will run out of tanks, too, if he keeps it up.
But what exactly constitutes a “threat of attack”? Is this an indefinite exercise? The most obvious way to achieve it is the overthrow of the Gaddafi government–or, to use modern parlance, “regime change.” But the Obama administration is very adamant that this is not the goal. And, if it is, I’m more than a little skeptical that we’ll be willing to simply let things work themselves out instead of staying around to help establish a follow-on government.
Also, since this is a civil war with rebel forces actively seeking to topple Gaddafi, it’s not at all inconceivable that anti-Gaddafi forces will also pose a threat to civilians at some point. Will we go after them, too? The Resolution would seem to demand it. We had mixed experience with that in Kosovo, incidentally.
The bottom line is that the colonels Ricks is hearing complaining about the lack of an exit strategy aren’t asking for all the answers, just the most important one: What are they fighting for?