AfPak Hands’ Program Pays Dividends in Afghanistan, Pakistan

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2012 — Just over two years since its incep­tion, the Afghanistan-Pak­istan Hands pro­gram is deliv­er­ing the capa­bil­i­ty it was designed to pro­vide and a mod­el for future U.S. engage­ment around the world, the program’s direc­tor report­ed.

The “AfPak Hands” pro­gram stood up in Sep­tem­ber 2009 to devel­op a cadre of mil­i­tary and senior civil­ian experts spe­cial­iz­ing in the com­plex­i­ties of Afghanistan and Pak­istan – the lan­guage, cul­ture, process­es and challenges.

The goal, explained Army Lt. Col. Fred­er­ick “Fritz” Gottschalk, the AfPak Hands divi­sion chief on the Joint Staff, was for these “hands” to be able to devel­op close work­ing rela­tion­ships with their Afghan and Pak­istani coun­ter­parts and deter­mine how their coun­tries operate.

With about 180 of the first cohort of hands returned from their 12-month deploy­ments and about 200 mem­bers of the sec­ond cohort now on the ground, Gottschalk said, the pro­gram is liv­ing up to its promise.

Work­ing close­ly with Afghan and Pak­istani mil­i­tary and civil­ian offi­cials, the hands are mak­ing inroads in areas out­side the secu­ri­ty domain that typ­i­cal mil­i­tary ele­ments often can’t, he said. They’re able to iden­ti­fy road­blocks to progress, become cat­a­lysts in break­ing those log­jams and serve as con­duits between Afghan and Pak­istani gov­ern­ment offi­cials, local pop­u­la­tions and mil­i­tary lead­ers on the ground and their high­er headquarters.

Even in Pak­istan, where ten­sions have increased since a dead­ly late-Novem­ber bor­der inci­dent, the AfPak Hands pro­gram remains viable, despite being scaled down, Gottschalk said. Twen­ty-eight AfPak Hands mem­bers served pri­mar­i­ly with the Office of Defense Rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the Pak­istani cap­i­tal of Islam­abad dur­ing the program’s first cohort, but at Pakistan’s request, the ele­ment has been reduced by about half.

Unlike in the past, where knowl­edge acquired in Afghanistan and Pak­istan was scat­tered through­out the force after rede­ploy­ment, AfPak Hands par­tic­i­pants return home to apply their expe­ri­ence and insights in key staff posi­tions at the Pen­ta­gon, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand and oth­er headquarters.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rec­og­nized the need for this knowl­edge base when he joined Army Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, then the top mil­i­tary com­man­der in Afghanistan, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then com­man­der of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, in advo­cat­ing the pro­gram in 2009.

At the time, Mullen had scrubbed the entire Joint Staff and was able to come up with only a few mem­bers with expe­ri­ence in Afghanistan or Pak­istan, Gottschalk said. “That’s a big part of why the AfPak pro­gram was devel­oped: to get that exper­tise from the the­ater into key bil­lets,” he said.

Now, with the first two cohorts of AfPak Hands deployed or in key staff posi­tions and a third cohort of about 230 mem­bers in train­ing for its upcom­ing deploy­ment, the pro­gram has gen­er­at­ed almost 700 Afghanistan and Pak­istan specialists.

“They will have var­i­ous lev­els of expe­ri­ence, but the bot­tom line is they have a greater under­stand­ing of how these coun­tries work,” Gottschalk said.

The hands rotate among three gen­er­al sta­tus­es: deployed, serv­ing relat­ed out-of-the­ater staff assign­ments, and train­ing for the next deploy­ment. Even dur­ing the deploy­ment and staff phas­es, they received con­tin­ued lan­guage and cul­tur­al train­ing to ensure their skills don’t lapse.

Mean­while, the pro­gram aims to expand their hori­zons. For exam­ple, about 40 mem­bers of the first cohort are enrolled in master’s degree pro­grams designed to broad­en their exper­tise before they return to the theater.

“Dur­ing their one year in Afghanistan or Pak­istan, they are look­ing at the prob­lems right in front of them,” Gottschalk said. “When they go into their master’s degree pro­gram, they see the whole pic­ture: the region, the region­al dynam­ics, and how reli­gion … [and] trav­el dynam­ics influ­ence the area.

“These folks will study as much as they can and learn as much as they can,” he con­tin­ued. “Then they will go back into Afghanistan or Pak­istan into key bil­lets where they need some­one who thinks at that strate­gic lev­el and has a deep­er under­stand­ing of the region­al issues and dynamics.”

Gottschalk con­ced­ed that the pro­gram ran into a few bumps in the road before reach­ing its cur­rent stride. When mem­bers of the first cohort began deploy­ing in Jan­u­ary 2010, just four months after the pro­gram start­ed, many had to fig­ure out their own jobs. Some found them­selves work­ing for com­man­ders on the ground who did­n’t know exact­ly how to use them.

“Nobody real­ly knew what an AfPak hand was or their capa­bil­i­ties,” Gottschalk said. “It was a learn­ing curve on both sides. The AfPak hands had to learn how to inte­grate into the local com­mand struc­ture, and the local com­mand struc­ture had to learn how to best use that AfPak hand’s capa­bil­i­ty in his or her area of operations.”

“It was like you are start­ing to build the plane while you are fly­ing,” he said. “When that hap­pens, you might put some of the parts in the wrong spot.”

As a result, about 40 per­cent of that first group was moved to dif­fer­ent bil­lets. That dropped to 20 per­cent for the sec­ond cohort, and Gottschalk said he expects an even smoother tran­si­tion for the third cohort.

Most of the hands in Afghanistan are assigned sup­port­ing gov­ern­ment min­istries through­out Afghanistan that Gottschalk said have far more impact on long-term sta­bil­i­ty than their names may imply, as well as to dis­trict, provin­cial and vil­lage gov­ern­ment sup­port teams. Oth­ers sup­port rein­te­gra­tion pro­grams, serve on coun­terin­sur­gency advise-and-assist teams or as Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty force advisors.

“We know we will have to make some adjust­ments, but we think we have it about right,” Gottschalk said. The pro­gram works, he said, “because you have the right peo­ple in the right places get­ting the right com­mand support.”

“You have peo­ple who are put where they are need­ed,” he said. “And you have got com­man­ders in the­ater who are sup­port­ing them and under­stand­ing the pro­gram and say­ing, ‘This is what you can do for me, and this is how I am going to help you.’ ”

As the pro­gram gains trac­tion, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, com­man­der of U.S. and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force troops in Afghanistan, has become one of its biggest fans. Allen called the pro­gram a major com­po­nent in the com­pre­hen­sive civ­il-mil­i­tary coun­terin­sur­gency plan and cam­paign in Afghanistan.

“You are force mul­ti­pli­ers,” he told those enrolled in the pro­gram. “AfPak hands are punch­ing way above their weight in terms of the effects that you bring.”

Recall­ing that he was accept­ed into the inter­na­tion­al rela­tions offi­cer pro­gram as a young offi­cer, Allen said he would have jumped at the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be part of some­thing like the AfPak Hands pro­gram if it had been avail­able at the time. “I would cer­tain­ly have applied for it – and had a bro­ken heart if I could­n’t be in it,” he said.

Look­ing to the future, Gottschalk said, a fourth AfPak Hands cohort is like­ly be stood up to replace out­go­ing mem­bers who have ful­filled their 42- to 45-month com­mit­ments to the program.

In doing so, he said, plans call to expand enlist­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram – cur­rent­ly just 21 in a field dom­i­nat­ed by mid- and senior-grade offi­cers and senior civil­ians. And even as the force begins the process of draw­ing down in Afghanistan, he sees a con­tin­ued need for the program.

“We antic­i­pate that as tra­di­tion­al mil­i­tary forces scale back, AfPak Hands will be scal­ing up, and the last ser­vice mem­bers to leave Afghanistan will be AfPak hands,” he said.

Allen is work­ing with the Joint Staff to deter­mine exact­ly what that future pro­gram may look like, Gottschalk said. A Spe­cial Forces sol­dier with 17 years of expe­ri­ence work­ing with for­eign mil­i­taries, Gottschalk said he sees the AfPak Hands pro­gram as a tem­plate for the future.

“With what’s being learned through this, this could be a mod­el for how the U.S. mil­i­tary engages in future oper­a­tions,” he said. “This is a mod­el of how to assist a coun­try that is strug­gling in an area with­out apply­ing a lot of mil­i­tary force.” 

His­to­ry has shown that wher­ev­er the U.S. mil­i­tary engages next, it will have to under­stand and deal with the “human dimen­sion of the bat­tle­field” – and how to oper­ate after major com­bat oper­a­tions end, he said.

“If you don’t under­stand how the gov­ern­ment of Coun­try X works or what the peo­ple of Coun­try X need from their gov­ern­ment, you can’t help Coun­try X become a bet­ter coun­try,” Gottschalk said. “That is where a ‘Hands’ pro­gram would be a huge benefit.” 

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

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