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No Way Out: Exiting Afghanistan and Iraq

• October 03, 2011 • 4:00 AM

It’s hard to find an exit when you don’t know what leaving means, as the U.S. has found in winding down its on-the-ground military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. forces launched an offensive in Afghanistan with the aim of dismantling the al-Qaeda terror network and driving the radical Islamist Taliban government from power.

That was a decade ago, and the war goes on.

Today, the U.S. finds itself facing a clear but intractable question: How do we end wars? As the “long wars” of Afghanistan and Iraq rumble on, the answer becomes more elusive and more vague. In an August 2010 speech, President Obama described how the world had entered a new era, “an age without surrender ceremonies.”

Perhaps Obama remembered that President Bush declared an end to major combat missions in Iraq in May 1, 2003, during a televised address in front of a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished.” Eight years later, America’s role in Iraq appears to finally be winding down.

The Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in its most recent report wrote, “The assumption that war and peace are distinct and identifiable conditions may not hold.”

The Pentagon is on the same slippery slope. “Today you will search in vain for any definition of victory in American military doctrine,” Roger Spiller wrote in the recent anthology, Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars.

The problem of ending wars so consumed the U.S. Army that it commissioned a study of how wars end in 2009. Introduced a year later by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey (today the military’s top adviser to the president), the study sadly left the question open. “Whatever happened to good old fashioned victory?” Dempsey wondered in his introductory remarks.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell stated that no war should begin without a clear exit strategy. As he explained in 1992, “When the political objective is important, clearly defined and understood, when the risks are acceptable, and when the use of force can be effectively combined with diplomatic and economic policies, then clear and unambiguous objectives must be given to the armed forces.”

The results of the first Gulf War appeared to confirm his logic. President George H. W. Bush mustered a powerful alliance to fight “the mother of all wars” and kept to his goals. The war ended when the forces of Saddam Hussein were driven from Kuwait as promised.

The war didn’t actually come to a complete halt because the U.S. and allied air forces flew missions over Iraq to enforce the peace for 12 more years, and they sometimes engaged in combat. But that was a far different matter than an invasion of Iraq.

The “Powell Doctrine” had grown out of the military’s experience in Vietnam, where the battlefield could be anywhere, and the enemy wore civilian clothes, living and fighting in the midst of the civilian population, much like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even classical warfare may start out with one goal but shift objectives as combat operations develop “mission creep.” In Iraq, for example, “Trying to define a satisfactory ending has morphed many times,” says Col. Matthew Moten, the editor of Between War and Peace. “We would all be better off if we’re trying to determine how to end a war if we first thought about what victory or success looks like.”

Even if the military reaches its goals, victory is not assured. In Iraq, the congressional resolution for invading that nation stated that the U.S. was to depose Saddam Hussein and destroy his weapons of mass destruction. Hussein was toppled in short order and there were no WMDs. But rather than those facts seeing a quick end to hostilities, a civil war and an insurgency engulfed U.S. forces.

In Afghanistan, a NATO force spearheaded by the United States met its initial goals relatively quickly, deposing the Taliban and driving out al-Qaeda. But that did not bring peace. The U.S. now finds itself harried by the Taliban, undermined by our ally, Pakistan, and faced with a new enemy, the Haqqani Network, named for Afghan warlord Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, who helped (with American backing) drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989.

“In my own opinion, wars like these take an enormous amount of effort and money and patience,” says Moten, a historian at West Point. “The American body politic is not good at those things. The next time we get involved in an insurgency, we need to take a step back and ask whether that accords with our national interests.”

America’s latest war termination strategy views stability as an indication of victory—but does not require complete stability. “In Iraq we’re going to come to a ‘stopping place,’” says Moten, “but I don’t know that we’ll be able to leave Iraq in such a way that it’s going to be completely stable.”

In the anthology of Between War and Peace, Spiller suggested that ending a war may create a new set of problems. “The course by which a war ends, if embarked on without care, can be as dangerous to a nation’s vital interests as the war itself, regardless of the war’s military results.” In other words, America’s “vital interests” in the Middle East—oil, for instance, and political stability—may be in greater jeopardy when these conflicts end than when they began in a flourish of “shock and awe.”

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Jeff Shear
Jeff Shear is the author of "The Keys to the Kingdom," an investigation into a weapons deal, Doubleday, 1994. He has been a Fellow at The Center for Public Integrity, in Washington, DC and staff correspondent for National Journal, covering fiscal policy. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other national publications.

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