By Julia Gitis, Presidential Management Fellow, Joint Staff Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell
The first group of AFPAK Hands returned from Afghanistan on 19 APR.
This marks a unique point in a program billed as a personnel priority. The Pentagon’s AFPAK Hands program trains military and civilian personnel from all services to serve as a cadre of subject matter experts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The AFPAK Hands are part of the military’s transition strategy, building enduring relationships between US services and local populations in theater. Hands develop expertise and insight into the complexities, internal dynamics, and challenges facing these countries through language, culture, and counter-insurgency training, graduate education, and experience working directly with Afghan and Pakistani officials.
AFPAK Hands tours are approximately 45 months long and include 12-month and 10-month deployments. The first cohort of AFPAK Hands completed language training last March and arrived in Kabul on 24 APR. Now, a year later, they return to the US. Between their deployments, the AFPAK Hands will be placed in out-of-theater billets in Washington, DC, Tampa, and Norfolk at a variety of commands, as well as educational opportunities such as Masters Degree programs at National Defense University. The Hands will leverage their intimate knowledge of the field during these out of theater assignments, bringing a fresh-from-the-field perspective to higher level headquarters.
In Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials utilize the AFPAK Hands program to build long-term relationships with the Afghan and Pakistani people, governments and militaries. AFPAK Hands help accelerate the transition of responsibility to the country’s government and security forces. Before deploying, AFPAK Hands complete an intensive 16-week Defense Language Institute course in either Dari, Pashto, or Urdu. In addition to language, culture, and counterinsurgency training, each AFPAK Hands service member is recruited based on expertise in topics such as governance, engineering, intelligence, finance, and force protection.
A key aspect of the program is the billet to which AFPAK Hands are assigned. The Hands are placed in different units throughout Afghanistan, with a few stationed in Pakistan. The intent of the program is to place the Hands in strategic positions down range, where they can use their specialized skills to make an impact. For example, many AFPAK Hands are assigned as advisors to senior government and military officials.
“The language and training give you an opportunity to break the ice much more easily,” remarked Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Grant, who is part of the first cohort of AFPAK Hands recently returned from Afghanistan. As a Navy engineer, Lt. Cmdr. Grant initiated projects by working directly with villagers and village elders. He notes, “As long as you’re patient, you can break down barriers.”
Three senior leaders are primarily credited with shaping the AFPAK Hands program: Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David Petraeus, ISAF commander, and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Reflecting on this occasion, Chairman Mullen stated, “I am glad to see our first cohort of AFPAK Hands returning home, and I am grateful for their hard work. I look forward to learning from them ways in which we can further strengthen and improve this important program.”
The Pentagon and the APFAK Hands training partners are working to identify lessons learned from the first deployment of AFPAK Hands, and to continue to improve the experience and impact of the AFPAK Hands program.