Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Do we have an exit strategy?

As a coalition led by the US embarks on a military operation to halt the offensive by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, fundamental questions about exit and strategy are again posed. Are we being drawn into an open ended conflict, a cul-de-sac with mission creep and further entanglement around the corner? Is the next step ground troops? Although the practicalities of terminating a military intervention are far simpler when only air power is involved, the debate on exit strategies does helpfully focus attention on the why and what of the intervention. After all, the hypothesis that 'a good exit strategy depends on a good entry strategy' still stands.

In a recent ICCT publication the link between exit strategy (or ‘transition’, as is now the official label) and long-term counterterrorism policy is explored. Academic research on these two areas is relatively limited, as both fields display a strong focus on the start of the phenomenon, rather than its termination. Thus much has been written on how radicalisation and violent extremism lead to terrorism, and how states decide to launch or participate in military operations. But relatively few books, however, focus on the end of terrorism or the termination of military operations.

While the entry strategy of an intervention should preferably be clearly defined, exit strategies require more flexibility. The popular understanding that an exit strategy should entail a clear and linear road map to withdrawal is misleading and unrealistic. Even if such a plan could be created, the destination may change over time and local actors need to be bought in, or refrained from sabotaging the process, if all is to run smoothly. Using examples from recent military operations, the ICCT-paper identifies four types of military exits and their consequences for implementing a long-term counter-terrorism policy. Whether in media-reporting or policy, much attention is often devoted to tactics and developments on the battlefield, rather than the overarching political and strategic goals and whether events are contributing to their attainment. As such, the ICCT report 'Combining Exit with Strategy: Transitioning from Short-Term Military Interventions to a Long-Term Counter-Terrorism Policy' provides an initial framework for combining traditional military actions with comprehensive counter-terrorism strategies.

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