Joe Collins was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations during Bush’s first Bush term, and he was a lonely voice for sanity at the Pentagon back in those dark times. He has a well-deserved reputation for seeing things clearly. And he’s just published a typically incisive Small Wars Journal essay arguing that those, like me, who’ve gotten excited over the prospect of Karzai-Taliban talks, need to take a deep, long breath.

Collins’ bottom line is that the Taliban have had 18 months’ worth of military success, so it’s curious to believe they’d negotiate a peace deal now. If we want one, he contends, we’ve got to start kicking their asses again first. (Most of this is a PDF)

Reconciliation in Afghanistan is fraught with complications.  For one, there is no Taliban per se.  In the south we have Mullah Omar’s “old” Taliban, but in the East, the toughest fighters come from the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami, both of which work closely with Al Qaeda.  Complicating the issue even more, there is now a multi-branch Pakistani Taliban, some of whom operate in both countries.  Ironically, the
Afghan Taliban and its friends seem to be well tolerated by Pakistani authorities who are now in conflict with their own Taliban. … [snip]

To create favorable conditions for reconciliation and later negotiations, we must first step up our military efforts.  General Petraeus is right: we can not kill our way to victory in Afghanistan.  We can, however, create a more pliable enemy, one eager to negotiate, if we defeat Taliban offensive operations and threaten their sanctuaries.  While wizards may imagine ways to do more militarily with less, in the short run, more Afghan and NATO troops, as well as more aid money will be essential.

This is an important reality check to me and my starry-eyed ilk. Interestingly, Collins’ preferred means — a troop increase — isn’t out of step with the emerging consensus on Afghanistan. I’d want to talk to him before reaching this conclusion, but my read of his piece is that negotiation is only unfeasible if we don’t go through a period of increased kinetic activity — which is to say increased anti-Taliban activity. Definitely something to consider. Interestingly from my point of view, Collins doesn’t take up the question of whether the Omar-led variety of Taliban can be cleaved from al-Qaeda, but I always hate when people presume I’m making a statement through omission, so I won’t do that to Collins.