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Talk When It’s Time

Few outside the Beltway defense community have ever heard of Joe Collins, a retired army colonel who now teaches at the National War College after a stint, from 2001 to 2004, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Rumsfeld Pentagon. But, over the years, I have found him to be a consistent source of clear-eyed thinking about some of our most pressing security challenges. His latest essay on the Small Wars Journal website only confirms that reputation. In it, he pours some cold water on the overheated hopes expressed by so many in recent weeks that negotiations with the Taliban can somehow magically turnaround a failing war effort.

He points out that such talks would have scant prospect of success when the Taliban and related extremists are on the offensive and making gains. “If the Afghan government sits down with the Taliban now, it does so from a position of increasing weakness, and diminished strength,” he writes. “To increase the prospects for Kabul’s success in negotiation, we will have to reverse that condition. How should we proceed?”

His answer:

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.

That strikes me as right. It’s true that,in Iraq, negotiations were successful in bringing many Sunnis over to our side. But they only bore fruit after four years of hard fighting, in which tough soldiers and marines made it clear that Al Qaeda could not win a military victory. As Bing West notes in his illuminating new book, The Strongest Tribe, it was American strength that made possible the rise of the Anbar Awakening movement.

If we are to see a similar “awakening” in Afghanistan, or even in Pakistan, we will have to demonstrate more strength than we have hitherto shown. That will require, as Joe Collins notes, more troops and more aid–and as he knows, but doesn’t say, unfortunately it will also require suffering more casualties in the short-term.

Recall that summer 2007, while the surge strategy was first being implemented in Iraq, saw some of the heaviest American casualties of the entire war. That caused faint-hearted politicians in Washington, such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden, to declare the war lost and to redouble their efforts to end the fighting. Even many Republicans began to look for an “exit strategy.” President Bush wisely ignored the doubters. By sticking to his guns, he made possible an almost-miraculous turnaround, with the U.S. losing only 13 soldiers in Iraq last month.

The question we now confront is whether the next president will have the fortitude to make the tough decisions needed to turn around the war effort in Afghanistan-or will he succumb to the lure of premature negotiations that will signal weakness to our enemies? There is little doubt which way John McCain would go. But on this, as on most matters, Barack Obama remains an enigma. Will he act tougher in Afghanistan than he has in Iraq? His campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, no one can answer that question with any confidence–probably not even Obama himself, at this moment. But if you believe the polls, we should find out before long.



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