‘AfPak Hands’ Strive for Cultural Awareness
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 3, 2011 The Defense Department’s rapid fielding of new equipment and technology has increased military capabilities and helped to protect combat troops -– but only since 2009 has it fast-tracked cultural expertise and language ability to places where they’re needed the most.
The Pentagon’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program trains military and civilian personnel from all services, mostly mid-career officers, to serve as a core cadre to build trust between the U.S. military and local populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Joining the program requires a 45-month commitment, including two deployments of 12 and 10 months respectively.
Defense officials close to the program credit three senior leaders with jump-starting AfPak Hands: Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; and retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
Navy Capt. James Hamblet has served as the AfPak Hands manager since the program was stood up in November 2009. Defense leaders pressed to start the program in spring of 2009, said Hamblet, noting by the time he’d joined the program the first group of 70 “Hands” was in language training learning Dari or Pashtu.
“If you’re going to Afghanistan, we’re going to teach you Dari or Pashtu. If you’re going to Pakistan, it’s Urdu,” he said.
To date, 179 AfPak Hands members have been deployed, with about 160 more now in training, Hamblet said.
The program, he said, recruits participants from the civil affairs, logistics, intelligence, combat engineer, construction engineer, infantry, special operations and medical fields.
“What we’re really looking for is about a 45-month tour with the program,” Hamblet said. “Now, there are some caveats. We don’t want to disadvantage anyone professionally … it’s scalable as the dictates of their careers require.”
When someone joins the AfPak Hands program, Hamblet said, he or she gets orders to Washington, D.C., Tampa, Fla., or Norfolk, Va., where participants undergo language training.
Participants, he said, can move their families to their assigned training hub and feel confident they can remain there throughout their tenure with AfPak Hands.
“One of the driving factors in the development of this timeline and the way the program is structured is to get stability for the families,” Hamblet said.
After a new “Hand” moves to a hub, training starts.
“We tee that up with a four-day [counterinsurgency] seminar,” Hamblet said. “It’s some of the finest COIN training you can imagine. We do that because you’ve got to set the tone -– the Hands have to understand what sort of effort they’re facing, what are the dynamics they’re facing in-country.”
Next is a three-day block of cultural concentration, which Hamblet said launches the student into 16 weeks of language training and further cultural study.
The language instructors are Afghans and Pakistanis, he said, adding, “What we’ve found is there’s a large degree of cultural transference in these very small classrooms.”
The typical classroom has no more than five students to one instructor, Hamblet said, which offers “a lot of opportunity for discussions.”
After language training and a combat skills refresher, the new Hands deploy. Once in-country they get another five days of concentrated cultural training, then complete roughly two weeks of additional language training.
“Ideally, they’re speaking Dari, Pashto or Urdu 50 percent of the time [during immersion], or at least until their head hurts,” Hamblet said. “What we’ve found is this is a tremendous way to really refine their language skills.”
Only then do Hands report to their assignments, which Hamblet said are spread among all the regional commands.
Participants may find themselves working as advisors to Afghan government of military officials, in key provincial reconstruction teams, or in development programs, he said.
The first group of AfPak Hands will return from their initial deployment in April, Hamblet said, but there are detailed plans for their remaining years in the program.
After the first yearlong deployment, he said, the Hands will return to an out-of-theater billet at the stateside hub where they’d trained.
“That’s where they’ll work between deployments, leveraging their Afghan or Pakistan experience,” Hamblet said. “If you’re in the D.C. hub, you could be on the Joint Staff, Army staff, Air Force staff –- the Marines are putting a lot of their personnel in Quantico [Marine Corps Base], because they have a wide variety of commands.”
Some of the Hands will go to school instead of a hub assignment -- for instance to a master’s degree program with a regional or security studies concentration, Hamblet said.
“They’re exceptional opportunities,” he said. “It’s a great way to make sure we’re attracting the right people to the program, and it’s a great way to prepare them for their second deployment.”
After 12 to 14 months at a hub or in school, most Hands will once more be relieved by another program participant, and all will attend another 12 weeks of language sustainment training before their second overseas deployment.
Army Brig. Gen. Austin S. “Scott” Miller commands Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, and has seen the AfPak Hands program in action.
“This is a military at war,” Miller said during a telephone interview from Afghanistan. “How does a military at war imbue a sense of understanding across its force?”
The AfPak Hands program offers a route to that goal, he said.
“What you get by focusing people on the culture and … language, you start bringing in officers and noncommissioned officers that bring a greater level of understanding of the human dimension in Afghanistan,” he said.
Miller said the languages are “very tough” and working effectively in Afghanistan requires a skill set that takes time to build.
“Any environment that’s foreign is going to be complex for someone entering that environment and Afghanistan is particularly complex,” he said. “With AfPak Hands, you get a cadre of officers and NCOs that give you an ability to understand the environment.”
The Hands participants working in his command provide a key link to the Afghan people, Miller said.
“Our goal is to, one, push them out to the population,” he said. “They are involved across all the lines of operation that concern security, governance and development. Our goal is to get them out there, leverage their expertise, and connect them with our operations that are going on in the field.”
Miller said he’s “nothing but happy” with the AfPak Hands program and the capabilities of the people it turns out.
“If I could get more of them, I would take them,” he said.