Obama's Afghan Exit Strategy? Don't Bet On It.

When it comes to war, Americans are fond of quoting military thinkers like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. But the strategist with the most to say about the current U.S. foreign-policy predicament may be Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre's play No Exit features characters who cannot escape from one another. "Hell is other people," one says. Why is this relevant? Because in both Iraq and Afghanistan, America finds itself involved (some might say trapped) in difficult situations (some might describe them as hell) where its ability to exit successfully depends largely on its local partners. The United States is counting on Iraqis and Afghans to do more so that Americans can do less. But in neither country is it obvious, or even likely, that this will turn out to be the case.

In Iraq, America has committed itself to a hard exit. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have signed a pact under which all U.S. soldiers (still numbering some 120,000) are to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. In his West Point speech, President Obama committed to a "soft" exit from Afghanistan, pledging to begin reducing U.S. forces there by the summer of 2011. Left unsaid is how quickly the number of U.S. troops will come down, how many will remain, and for how long. Most important, there is no mention of what will happen if "conditions on the ground" remain poor or worsen—i.e., if it turns out that the Afghan Army and police aren't ready to take over.

There's every reason to believe that they won't be. The president is clearly hoping the threat of withdrawal will concentrate the minds of America's imperfect Afghan partners. At West Point, the president sought to convey a sense of urgency: "The days of providing a blank check are over." But there is no assurance that this implied threat will work. Afghan President Hamid Karzai may well see it as a bluff, concluding that Obama will not walk away from what he months ago termed a war of necessity, and from interests he recently described as vital to U.S. national security. And Karzai's probably not wrong.

Just look at Iraq. Even with the knowledge that U.S. troops are leaving, Iraqi politicians are squabbling over an election law, which means that the polls scheduled for January could well be delayed. And even if elections do take place, it's not clear that an effective government can be formed. Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia have yet to show a consistent willingness to work together peacefully. There is as yet no accord on how to divide oil wealth. Nor is there agreement on what to do to allow the country's 4 million refugees and internally displaced persons to return safely to their homes. Security has deteriorated of late; we could start seeing a renewed pattern of bombings and violence.

Then what? Iraq is clearly critical to the stability of one of the most troubled and important regions of the world, and to America's core security interests. Rather than risk a slide back into chaos, Obama should reverse his decision to remove all U.S. combat brigades by August 2010. In addition, in the election's aftermath, the United States should offer to renegotiate the bilateral pact that calls for all U.S. troops to leave by 2011. Just signaling a willingness to consider staying on might deter Iraqis from escalating their conflict.

If Afghans can't begin taking over from the U.S. military by the summer of 2011, Obama would face a similarly uncomfortable set of options. Two of them—extending the duration of the surge beyond 18 months and increasing U.S. force levels even more—would be costly by every measure. Opting for either would also cause a domestic political firestorm here. The obvious alternative—scaling back dramatically despite the weakness of the Kabul government and Afghan security forces—would also trigger furious criticism, in this case for damaging American prestige and leaving the homeland more vulnerable to terrorism launched from South Asia.

The only way to square these considerations would be to split the difference: to stay in Afghanistan, but with fewer troops. One idea would be to return to pre-surge troop levels and proceed with a policy of training Afghan military and police forces, improving governance, reintegrating at least some of the Taliban into society, and carrying out specific counterterrorism operations. Counterinsurgency would take a back seat to capacity building. In this case, as in Iraq, a U.S. presence would be required for some time.

All of which is to say that exit strategies are simpler to design than to execute. Too often they morph into endurance strategies. Like the room in Sartre's play, conflicts are easier to get into than out of.