Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Jeff Shear

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.