The window for the US and ISAF to execute a successful strategy in Afghanistan may be closing. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently confirmed that informal negotiations are going on with the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan. Karzai told CNN that the Taliban can rejoin the government if it accepts the country's constitution. If successful, the negotiations could bring peace inside Afghanistan and thereby increase the pace of the planned withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), predominately enabled by United States (U.S.) troops.
These negotiations underscore some of the challenges associated with President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy, whose turbulent birth is detailed in the new book, Obama's Wars. The author, Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward, chronicled 20 months of battles within the Obama White House and the belief of many in the national security team that the President's strategy would not work -- a mid-sized troop buildup coupled with a publicly announced date for withdrawal of those troops.
One of the most striking things to me about Woodward's reporting is that no high-level Afghan voices were included in the White House deliberations. According to the book, no one asked what the troop withdrawal deadline would mean to the Afghan people. If the Afghan perspective had been cultivated, strong consideration would have been given to the impact of an announced troop withdrawal date on the ability to mobilize popular support.
It may well have been important for President Obama's domestic American audience not to create the perception of a blind, open-ended military commitment. However, publicizing wartime goals and timelines revealed America's intent to our mutual adversaries. Unsure about the long-term ISAF commitment to them, the Afghan population has been hesitant to support our goodwill efforts to develop and rebuild the war-torn country. The personal and family risks to those who aided U.S. forces in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and a host of other countries where the U.S. military engaged, but left before the job was done, is hard for America's Afghan friends to ignore. The Taliban has been content to sit back and wait, secure in the knowledge that its patience will eventually pay off with victory. The current negotiations could be just a ploy by the Taliban, a strategy to speed the ISAF withdrawal and increase its influence within Afghanistan. Many Afghans are worried about this possibility.
We need to remember why the ISAF originally committed troops into Afghanistan. The main objectives were to defeat al Qaeda and prevent it from having a safe haven in Afghanistan and to prevent a cascading radical Islamic revolution in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
As ISAF members prepare to attend the NATO Lisbon Summit next month, their main concern should be on how they can achieve these stated objectives. While Afghanistan is not Iraq, the same principles of demonstrated commitment apply in winning over the local populations. The economic, social and political needs of Afghan tribes and villages must be included in Washington's decision-making.
The Afghan first program which emphasizes using Afghan contractors to maximize employment of Afghans and to assist with training and capacity building is the type of program that ISAF should expand to assist with winning over locals. ISAF's current plan for Afghanistan can only be successful if it is implemented to its fullest extent.
We must remember the words of Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that "resolve is a force multiplier." The Afghan government, the Taliban, and regional nation-states are all hedging their bets on the reliability of the American and NATO's commitment to the country. So are villagers and tribal leaders across the country. It is essential that the Obama administration acknowledges and specifies the level of sacrifice that is still required to meet our strategic goals in Afghanistan. Once they articulate this clearly, the military and the private sector in Afghanistan can engage in a constructive dialogue on the best way to meet the President's challenge.
Hamed R. Wardak is the chairman, president and founder of NCL Holdings, LLC, a global provider of air, ground and secure logistics support in complex environments, like Afghanistan, Mexico and Colombia.