An exit strategy can only be effectively implemented if an operation has been successfully executed.
In turn, an operation can only be considered successful if:
• All planned operational objectives have been met or surpassed
• The enemy’s trinity of gravity has been destroyed (not merely disrupted in the short-term)
• The enemy has lost the will to fight
• The enemy is forced to negotiate from a point of weakness.
The exit strategy is, of course, always part of the overall strategy (or should be) and is indeed, from a military point-of-view, implemented upon the successful conclusion of combat operations. It is therefore usually the final phase of the military strategy. Thereafter follows the continuation of the political strategy aimed at ensuring stable governance, political advancement and so forth.
Military operations that are undertaken without an exit strategy are nothing other than poorly planned military operations as all operations have a beginning and an end. Similarly, all combat operations have a beginning and an end, whether it is a patrol, an attack or a retrograde operation.
When strategists run out of options and hurriedly discuss force level “draw-downs” and “troop surges” it becomes apparent that the strategy was both incomplete and flawed from the very beginning. Had there been a comprehensive sound strategy to begin with, these types of comments would not have been necessary.
The problem is, in my opinion, amplified when it is coupled to an uncoordinated, poorly-planned media strategy. By exclaiming the surges and draw-downs before the successful conclusion of military operations, we add value to and boost the enemy’s propaganda efforts. We both trumpet to the enemy that we planned badly and need more troops or actually tell the enemy that we are unable to sustain our combat operations and therefore need to withdraw.
Either way we bolster enemy morale and embolden their commanders who in turn become even more daring in their actions as we have presented them with additional options. This impact on own forces morale needs no explaining, this apart from having fewer troops in theatre to deal with the enemy.
Had we initially planned in depth and ensured our strategy was intelligence driven, these actions would simply happen without unnecessary fanfare and in the process, may even catch the enemy off guard.
But an additional danger we create for ourselves is alienating those members of the local population who remained neutral and did not actively support the enemy. The local population’s desire to survive, despite all the hardships they may face, will encourage them to, if not actively, then at least covertly, begin to side with and support the enemy. This survivalist approach to supporting the enemy, who thanks to our poor plans, may begin with providing snippets of information and can escalate to assisting in areas such as logistics, communications, early warning and so forth. It can even boost enemy recruitment efforts. This switch of support alters our operational landscape drastically.
In short, whether true or not, we actually tell the enemy that he has won the fight. Again, the psychological impact needs no explaining. Bolstered by what he perceives to be our defeat, the enemy will begin to take control of the local population, especially in areas not extensively patrolled, thus adding to the environmental hostility our troops must operate in.
On the homefront, these perceptions may initially be well received but at their heart lays a certain amount of expectation that, if not met, creates the belief that a deception has taken place. This can lead to anger and pressure to withdraw our forces, even if it implies a withdrawal without much honour.
Conversely, by creating these perceptions, real or imagined, it seems little thought is given to the negative influence this may have on our own operations and how these perceptions may endanger our troops.
I believe this is irresponsible and nothing short of madness.