The Perils of Exit Planning in Afghanistan

Politics often trumps conditions on the ground when it comes to planning troop withdrawals, says Richard Caplan.

By: /
3 March, 2014
By: Richard Caplan
Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford

U.S. President Barack Obama’s warning last week to his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai, that the United States might withdraw all of its troops from the country by the end of the year unless Karzai signs a bilateral security agreement, demonstrates the difficulties of planning an exit strategy. The security agreement would offer legal protection for U.S. troops remaining in the country (Canada, for its part, is slated to withdraw the last of its troops by March 12) as well as define a post-2014 NATO training and counterinsurgency mission. A complete U.S. withdrawal would clearly weaken Kabul’s already tenuous hold on power, making it even more vulnerable to resurgent Taliban forces, and thus risk another civil war. Although Karzai has accepted the agreement in principle, he wants to shift responsibility for signing it to whoever emerges victorious from the upcoming presidential contest on April 5, 2014. Karzai, who has served two terms, is obliged to stand down after the election.

As this crisis makes clear, the timing and the nature of exit strategies are often influenced by political factors that may have little to do with conditions on the ground that ideally should be driving decision-making. In some cases, local pressures for a more rapid transfer of responsibility from international to national actors have resulted in an accelerated transition for which the country, in effect, was not adequately equipped. In both East Timor, under UN administration, and Iraq, under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, growing frustration and impatience with the international authorities led to a highly compressed process of political transition. In other cases, pressures from troop-contributing countries for burden relief have resulted in a premature withdrawal of forces that compromised a fragile peace. In Sierra Leone, for instance, budgetary pressures played a decisive role in establishing Nigeria’s timetable for exit in 1999, when ECOWAS—the West African security organization—was keeping the peace there.

It can be very difficult to exert influence over these political factors. In the case of East Timor, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made strong and explicit appeals to member-states to slow the pace of withdrawing peacekeeping troops, but these appeals fell on deaf ears. The consequence was renewed violence in 2006, which a larger UN security presence might have prevented. Similarly, in the case of Afghanistan, the United States has repeatedly appealed to Karzai to sign the agreement to allow U.S. forces to remain amid fears that withdrawal might have deleterious consequences. But Karzai has thus far been unwilling to budge. There’s not much that can be done in such a situation but we need to be aware that exit strategies, like state-building more generally, are not just technical-administrative challenges. Politics play an important role.

Of course, U.S. decisions have been driven by political considerations too. The 2010 NATO Lisbon Declaration regarding Afghanistan stated that the “transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven.” That’s a sound approach: the pre-requisite for an exit strategy should be a sustainable outcome, not an arbitrary time limit. And such an approach has been employed successfully before: in the Western Balkans, for instance, NATO forces have linked draw down and withdrawal to tangible improvements in the strategic environment in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. In the case of Afghanistan, by contrast, draw down is taking place against the backdrop of deteriorating security conditions. Thus, the 2014 deadline is clearly a political one.

Exit need not—indeed should not—mark the end of all international involvement in Afghanistan. As Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, put it recently: “the very best exit strategy [for Afghanistan] is not to have an exit strategy, signalling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run.” A number of operations have in fact seen the adoption of systematic follow-on measures taken in the wake of draw down to reinforce peace- and state-building achievements or, in the absence of achievements, to mitigate the effects of adverse developments. For example, during the termination of the UN Civilian Police Support Group in Croatia—itself a successor to the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES)—the UN transferred important monitoring activities to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1998. In Afghanistan, a residual U.S. presence—if one is established—will allow U.S. troops to train and support the Afghan military and to conduct missions to combat the Taliban, including special operations raids and drone strikes. It is because of the controversy surrounding the latter that Karzai is seeking political cover and avoiding adding his signature to the agreement.

Precisely because of these political and related difficulties, not everyone accepts that it is actually possible to plan effectively for exit. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men,” we know, often go awry. To a large degree, exit planning, like peace- and state-building, is an art, not a science. That does not mean, however, that exits must be entirely hostage to fortune. It is important to appreciate the political constraints within which Karzai is operating and to ensure that the inevitable delays in signing a bilateral agreement do not impinge on planning for a new strategic context in the country and in the region.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter