Afghan Culture Lessons Help U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — A select num­ber of ser­vice­mem­bers are learn­ing ways to become experts in Afghan cul­ture through the Afghan Hands Pro­gram.

“We don’t land in Afghanistan as experts, but the vision is that we become Afghan experts and then be[come] able to assim­i­late into this cul­ture and devel­op rela­tion­ships that just aren’t pos­si­ble with the short-dura­tion deploy­ments that we’ve tra­di­tion­al­ly had,” Navy Capt. Rus­sell McLach­lan, the program’s man­ag­er, said dur­ing a recent “DoDLive” Blog­gers Roundtable. 

The mis­sion of the Afghan Hands pro­gram, he said, is to build long-last­ing, pos­i­tive part­ner­ships with the Gov­ern­ment of the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Afghanistan, Afghan enti­ties, and civil­ians, in order to demon­strate the long-term com­mit­ment of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force. The pro­gram, he added, is viewed as a method to build trust with the Afghan mil­i­tary and local pop­u­la­tions in Afghanistan. 

“Afghan Hands” was estab­lished about a year ago at the direc­tion of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McLach­lan said. The chair­man, he recalled, had “issued a state­ment to the ser­vices — a pret­ty strong mes­sage — stat­ing this was the num­ber-one manpower/personnel issue in his mind.” 

The program’s vision, McLach­lan said, is to take a small group of about 200 peo­ple in all mil­i­tary ser­vices and ranks and put them though four months of inten­sive lan­guage school, give them a “heavy dose” of Afghan cul­ture, and teach coun­terin­sur­gency strat­e­gy pri­or to deploy­ing to Afghanistan. 

“What we have now [are] 200 high­ly trained experts, he said.” 

Ser­vice­mem­bers recruit­ed into the pro­gram are high­ly moti­vat­ed indi­vid­u­als that pos­sess the right skills for the mis­sion, McLach­lan said. 

“Whether it’s an intel[ligence] offi­cer, secu­ri­ty forces, what have you, they go out and they recruit those that are real­ly inter­est­ed in it and have the capac­i­ty or shown the capac­i­ty to learn a new lan­guage,” he explained. 

Navy Cmdr. Ray­mond Tor­torel­li, the out­reach chief for Afghan Hands, said one of the best aspects about the train­ing is going through the immer­sion part of the program.

“We are using the lan­guage skills and the cul­tur­al things that we’ve learned and inter­act­ing with the local peo­ple,” Tor­torel­li said. “There is such a huge dif­fer­ence when we do that. They smile — they take to us right away — and they’re hap­py to see us.” 

Afghan Hands grad­u­ates are embed­ded through­out Afghanistan, includ­ing ser­vice with high-lev­el Afghan gen­er­als in the Min­istry of Defense, and ser­vice at the bat­tal­ion lev­el, McLach­lan said. 

“They’re scat­tered all over the coun­try and assim­i­late with every Afghan enti­ty, he said. “Every­where ISAF touch­es in this coun­try, we want to be embed­ded with long-last­ing relationships.” 

McLach­lan said a large com­mit­ment comes with being a part of the pro­gram. Par­tic­i­pants, he said, deploy for 12 months, return home, then go through a lan­guage refresh­er and then return back to the program. 

Pro­gram par­tic­i­pants, he said, are expect­ed to do mul­ti­ple tours and then have their replace­ments come into the same bil­let. The ide­al process, he added, is for ser­vice­mem­bers to serve their 12 months, and then intro­duce their replace­ment to their Afghan part­ner to build a new con­nec­tion before return­ing home. It’s impor­tant, he added, that pro­gram par­tic­i­pants tell their Afghan part­ners that they plan to return. 

“Rela­tion­ships are not built in six-month tours or even a year,” McLach­lan said, “so you have to have that mind-set. And that is unique, and that’s what the ser­vices are work­ing real­ly hard to find.” 

Afghan Hands grad­u­ates are help­ing to shape Afghanistan for gen­er­a­tions to come, Tor­torel­li said. 

“We’re work­ing hard to make a dif­fer­ence,” he said. 

The Afghan Hands, Tor­torel­li said, also are con­duct­ing a two-day con­fer­ence to mark the six-month mark in the deploy­ment of the first group and for mem­bers to share best prac­tices and good news sto­ries to help con­tin­ue to make the pro­gram a success. 

“One of the rea­sons we’re here is to build long-last­ing rela­tion­ships with the peo­ple, and also with the key lead­ers that are out here, he said. “I get to do that on a dai­ly basis now, and I’m proud to be a part of the program.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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Team GlobDef

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