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‘AfPak Hands’ Program Pays Dividends in Afghanistan, Pakistan

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

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 is 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.”

 

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