The search is on for graceful strategies for exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from victory, history suggests, there are none.
In the midst of negotiating the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, a Western diplomat confided to United Nations mediator Diego Cordovez, “The Russians would like to get out of Afghanistan, but they don’t know how. And we in the West would like to cooperate and help them, but we don’t know how either.” The Soviet experience is not unique. Historically, it has always been easier to launch a military intervention than to end one, especially when the effort has not gone well. From the United States in Vietnam to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to Israel in Lebanon, intervening powers have often found it exceedingly difficult to extricate themselves from bad situations. As the United States is learning in Iraq, even when you are determined to make an exit, it is easier said than done.
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David M. Edelstein is an assistant professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, the Security Studies Program, and the Department of Government at Georgetown University, and the author of Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation (2008). This article is drawn from his research on exit strategies as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center during 2008–09.more from this author >>