No Clear Exit Strategy in Iraq

Henry Kissinger, who knows something about wars with fuzzy objectives, passes on some thoughts in an op-ed in today’s WaPo.

Lessons for an Exit Strategy (WaPo, A19) MSNBC

A review of withdrawal strategy therefore seems in order. For one thing, how are the terms “progress” and “improvement” to be defined? In a war without front lines, does a lull indicate success or a strategic decision by the adversary? Is a decline in enemy attacks due to attrition or to a deliberate enemy strategy of conserving forces to encourage American withdrawal? Or are we in a phase similar to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, which at the time was widely perceived as an American setback but is now understood as a major defeat for Hanoi?

For someone like me, who observed firsthand the anguish of the original involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and who later participated in the decisions to withdraw during the Nixon administration, Casey’s announcement revived poignant memories. For a decision to withdraw substantial U.S. forces while the war continues is a potentially fateful event. It affects the calculations of insurgents and government forces alike, so that the definition of progress becomes nearly as much a psychological as a military judgment. Every soldier withdrawn represents a larger percentage of the remaining total. The capacity for offensive action of the remaining forces shrinks. Once the process is started, it runs the risk of operating by momentum rather than by strategic analysis, and that process is increasingly difficult to reverse.


Because of the axiom that guerrillas win if they do not lose, stalemate is unacceptable. American strategy, including a withdrawal process, will stand or fall not on whether it maintains the existing security situation but on whether the capacity to improve it is enhanced. Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.


The ultimate test of progress will therefore be the extent to which the Iraqi armed forces reflect — at least to some degree — the ethnic diversity of the country and are accepted by the population at large as an expression of the nation. Drawing Sunni leaders into the political process is an important part of an anti-insurgent strategy. Failing that, the process of building security forces may become the prelude to a civil war.

Reporter Peter Baker adds to this with an op-ed (er, “Analysis”) on page 1 of the same edition:

In Iraq, No Clear Finish Line

The events of the past week have brought home once again the difficulties confronting the president as he prosecutes what polls suggest is an increasingly unpopular war. With surging violence claiming more U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and the angry mother of a dead soldier camping out near his ranch in Texas, Bush plainly cannot count on indefinite public patience.

Administration officials have all but given up any hope of militarily defeating the insurgents with U.S. forces, instead aiming only to train and equip enough Iraqi security forces to take over the fight themselves. At the same time, they believe that the mission depends on building a new political infrastructure, a project facing its most decisive test in the next three days as deeply divided Iraqis struggle to draft a constitution by a Monday deadline.


In not-for-attribution comments, some administration officials acknowledge the uphill task. One option that will have to be considered eventually, they say, is amnesty that would forgive even insurgents who have participated in violence. Historically, they note, insurgencies end with some form of amnesty.

But they also see hope in recent developments, mainly the decision by leaders of Iraq’s minority Sunnis to participate in the political process instead of continuing to resist the new ruling order. If Iraqis succeed in drafting a constitution by Monday’s deadline, the White House hopes it will defuse sectarian grievances that have powered the Sunni-dominated insurgency. “We’re entering a critical phase in the political process in Iraq,” Bush counselor Dan Bartlett said. “While there’s rightly a lot of focus on the violence and the security, the commanders and Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad are very focused on the political process because the political process will be key to defeating the insurgency.”

War is, as Clausewitz famously described it, the continuation of politics by other means. Wars are fought to achieve political ends, not for their own sake. So, killing the enemy is merely a means to an end: breaking their will to continue fighting.

We reached our initial objective–the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime–with relative ease. Defeating the insurgency and its jihadi terrorist allies has been much more costly with an outcome yet in doubt. Ultimately, though, it will have to be the Iraqis themselves that win that part of the effort. The mere fact of a huge American military presence both spawned and continues to feed the enemy, especially its foreign jihadist element.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Do you really need an operative definition of the word ‘victory’?

  2. anjin-san says:

    When Bush was campaigning during his first run for the White House, he promised he would not commit American troops overseas without a clear exit strategy. Don’t you guys ever get tired of being lied to?