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AFPAK Hands: Time for Strategic Review?
Hans Winkler and Robert Kerr
The basic function of militaries around the world is to deliver hard power when called upon by their national governments, and the United States military is no exception. Over the past two decades, however, the US military has also become a major provider of soft-power projection. Shifting military focus from hard to soft power continues to spark many debates, both within and outside of the US military, as to what role the Department of Defense (DoD) should play in the implementation of American Instruments of Power (IOP). Regardless of what the future holds on this debate, the reality is that the US military has to adapt to meet current and future mission requirements; since 9/11 one such obligation is a much greater appreciation for the role of culture in the DoD’s delivery of soft power.
One of the more celebrated culture-oriented initiatives in the DoD is the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands program. Originally designed to strengthen long-term stability between allies and immerse military service members deep within the cultures and languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan, many within the DoD see the program as a glowing success. So successful in fact, that some military leaders want to replicate AFPAK Hands and create similar programs with a focus on other regions of the world. Yet, little to no work exists that examines the effectiveness of the program, and before establishing other regional Hands programs, it is crucial for leaders to objectively examine the AFPAK Hands program to vet its theory and application as well as determine what works, and what does not.
In international politics, realists view power as the primary concern for all nations. Militaries are the direct measurement of a nation’s effective power. The US has built up its military capacity and capability over the past half-century and now sits alone on the global stage as the largest, most capable, and best-equipped force the world has ever seen. The US military honed its ability to project hard power capability in the crucible of war spanning from World War II and culminating in the exclamation point of American military hard projection during Desert Storm.
The US military traditionally approaches conflicts by gaining superiority over an adversary as quickly as possible with mass and concentration of force. These military concepts are certainly not new. Great military theorist from the historic Chinese general Sun Tzu to the renowned Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz articulated throughout human history that an understanding of warfare is essential. Clausewitz understood this intimately and cautioned to future military leaders that at its very crux “war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”
The US sought to increase its military hard power and utilized the Clausewitzian concept of a “duel on a larger scale” to grow military capacities and capabilities during the Cold War standoff with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). When the USSR threat fell, like the great Berlin Wall, from the global order it crowned the US as the sole remaining military superpower in the world. Recent conflicts, however, tested the US in other areas than the traditional hard power application requiring a more nuanced approach to warfighting than that envisioned by Cold War planners.
Recently the US has tasked the DoD with taking on increasingly more soft power projection roles in addition to maintaining their core competencies. Simultaneously, we have seen a decrease in involvement in soft power projection by other US governmental organizations. The military option becomes the “easy button” for US leaders to not only address the problems of security, but also provides capabilities to engage in soft power application in realms such as humanitarian assistance, training foreign militaries, and improving domestic stability abroad through justice and law enforcement institutions.
The US military in Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations articulated the requirements to operate within the entire conflict continuum. This continuum highlights the desire to have military actions, at some phase, intensity, and level of involvement, always happening across all regions of the globe. Addressing continuous military operations in the soft power spectrum of conflict has systematically transformed the way in which the US military perceives its major roles as an application of a national instrument of power. In Derek S. Reveron and Kathleen A Mahoney-Norris book, Human Security in a Borderless World, we clearly see the growing use of military across the globe as the “US military increasingly finds itself operating in non-war-fighting environments attempting to alleviate human suffering brought on by natural disasters, civil war, or counterinsurgency.” Although there is a proven propensity to utilize military resources for soft power application, the conversation is still ongoing as to how much power should the military possess in this realm.
The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) outlines the goals for the US to strengthen the diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic instruments of power and the agencies that wield them. Many in government see the NSS as the starting point for determining requirement generations, which inform the congressional budget submissions, for the various governmental organizations. Politicians and military leaders alike will spend a great deal of time and energy working with the congressional budget teams to align programs to the goals outlined in the NSS. These budgetary hearings align the resources needed to the organization that will execute the requirement. The President and Congress end the debate on who should do which mission, from the bureaucratic standpoint, once both of these branches of government complete and approve the budgeting process. The conversation, however, often does not end there and instead continues in a wider forum, both internally and externally of the Pentagon. Shifting the focus of the US military from hard power to soft power is an example of a debate that continues to spark interest.
The larger conversation on the role of the military in soft power is what the right amount this organization should exert. Original soft power academic Joseph S. Nye Jr stressed in a 2011 Foreign Policy article that there is a serious concern for the degradation of the nation’s soft power capabilities by constantly turning to the Pentagon and hollowing out civilian agencies and tools. The military constantly executes and completes assigned missions but often, in the past, those missions belonged to other now underfunded agencies. Rosa Brooks unpacked this all-encompassing military hard and soft power dilemma still further by highlighting the degrading impacts to the other soft power execution mechanisms as well as articulating that the US should not look at all threats through a lens of war in her article How the Pentagon Became Walmart. Rosa Brooks further expounded in her book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, the mission creep that exacerbated the problem as the Secretary of Defense gave the military new directives to conduct stability operations as a core military mission. The discussion will continue as leaders go on debating how much capacity the government should task the DoD to produce soft power capabilities, but make no mistake those requirements exist for the nation to produce.
Academics continue to argue which are the appropriate organizations to execute certain instruments of national power, but current and future mission requirements actively shape the military employment. Post 9/11 conflicts sharpened the appreciation for the role of culture in the DoD’s delivery of soft power. Joseph S. Nye Jr, the soft power guru, says that a county’s soft power originates from three resources: its culture, its political values, and its foreign policies. The US military found itself engaged directly with Afghans and Iraqis in an effort to rebuild those nations ravaged during irregular warfare conflicts. Those conflicts brought to the forefront the need utilize the cultural tools that enhanced delivery of soft power. The question remained, however, how would the military exert the skill needed in the cultural realm.
The shift in the military priorities to focus on the power of culture during Irregular Wars (IW) also brought to the forefront a discussion on how to apply culture on the battlefield. One camp of thought, championed by Dr. Montgomery McFate, discuss how the military could apply culture in IW scenarios by bringing in anthropologists and other experts in the realm of culture to embed with military units to bring the years of cultural understanding needed to be effective in conflict. The military attempted in 2006 to employ this concept by establishing Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Some experts constantly challenged the mismanagement and ethical dilemmas associated with the HTTs and the controversial program went by the wayside in Sept 2014, but the discussion about the cultural skills needed and who should provide them still rages.
On the other side of who should provide the cultural experts needed in the military discussion, internal military cultural experts argue that those skills already exist inside the military. Former Marine Major Ben Connable argued that the necessary skills needed to apply cultural knowledge effectively in IW were already available to the military through established programs, in particular through efforts such as the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) or Civil Affairs (CA) programs. This argument also stressed that there is a need to grow the internal cultural capability to ensure the military could operate in IW across the globe. The US House of Representatives Armed Service Committee agreed that the military needed to expand their internal cultural capabilities to meet the threats of the current and future environments. Although the academics never finalized the internal or external argument, the military took steps in the direction to robust its cultural capability, which now leads to how much cultural understanding does the military need.
As the conversation progresses on cultural capacity needed in the military, two paths emerged for military leaders to enhance the cultural skills required for members to be successful in future IWs. The first is the cultural specific approach that provides in-depth language and regional training that enables a much smaller cohort of military members to gain a more robust understanding of the culture in a specific region. The second approach is a cultural general effort that imparts a broader understanding of the concept of culture and applies it at scale to a much larger portion of the military force. Both efforts involve significant energy to gain the skills desired, but each produces specific capabilities. The US military attempts to apply both the general and specific types of cultural understanding but focuses military personnel training based on their deployable mission requirements.
Within the individual military branches of service, there is an attempt to build cultural capabilities, both specific and general, that create enhanced capacity within the joint forces. An example of this increase in cultural and regional understanding is the US Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) concept. The RAF slates forces for steady states and shaping operations, but it also allows units to focus their cultural understanding to a specific region. The US Air Force (USAF) has bridged both by providing cultural general training for USAF personnel and once tasked to deploy increase focus on cultural specific requirements. As IW continues to happen around the globe, the military interactions increase the cultural requirements and culture-oriented initiatives try to meet the demand.
The focus in gaining cultural capabilities leads many leaders to ask themselves how much is enough in order to be effective at the task assigned. To gain a deeper understanding of the cultural nuances of a specific region requires the expenditures of scarce resources. Competing time constraints force leaders to make tradeoffs between a more focused understanding of the culture they are operating in or more tactical proficiency with their unit’s primary mission set. For example, an infantryman, deeply immersed in the culture and walking through a local Afghan village only has a rudimentary understanding of the culture most of the time, but if a firefight were to break out the training they have constantly received on tactical movements provides them a deep understanding of how to respond to contact. Some would argue that you would want the point at which interaction between military members and the local populist happen to have a more robust understanding of the culture surrounding them. Others would argue that a general understanding of culture is enough, and the focus of military assets should be on military tasks. The external hard constraints of resources and time often force leaders to decide what provides them the greatest capabilities along the spectrum of cultural understanding. Commanders receive no grade on how well their troops were cultural immersed in the area and instead tend to lean to the minimum required understanding of culture while maximizing the unit’s warfighting capabilities.
The US military in addition to having constraints on resources that impact how much cultural understanding is necessary, it also has an issue with the structure that it uses to apply cultural understanding. The US military needs to be able to access the depth of cultural understanding and use it to wield the results required in the IW battlefields. The crux of the argument between noted scholars, such as Ben Connable and Montgomery McFate, is which organization should apply those skills to the fight, but maybe the structure itself is the impediment to the gains needed in an IW fight. Grouping the depth of cultural understanding into one specific organization, regardless of if it is military trained experts or civilian anthropologist, creates fiefdoms that others must access. The thought from an outside organization shifts to a “that is their job and not mine” to handle the cultural interactions mentality. The scale of interaction between the host nation civilians and US military forces spread all over a region cannot accommodate that type of application at the tactical level. IW is forcing military organizations to build new and creative ways to handle the demands of accessing and applying cultural understanding.
The Afghan war is a prime example of an IW conflict attempting to legitimize the Government of Afghanistan in the eyes of the people by strengthening the connection between citizens and the government agencies with nation-building operations. The US military engages in these nation-building operations through a variety of cultural intensive programs such as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), Female Engagement Teams (FETs), Agricultural Development Teams (ADTs), Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), and Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands, among others. Each of these programs focused on a requirement to assist the overall nation-building effort, however, over time each phased out of use with the exception to the AFPAK Hands program. The resilience of this program warrants a deeper understanding of why this program continues to endure.
AFPAK Hands, which was originally established in 2009, has had mixed reviews throughout its application. Some in the military view it as a glowing success in the program’s objectives, while others have taken a more pessimistic outlook on the program’s merits. The objectives of the AFPAK Hands program centered on core concepts that attempted to strengthen long-term stability as well as develop a cohort of military expertise in the cultures and languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The program continues to be in operation today and staffed fully with what appears to be a constant growth in the requirements of personnel. Growth in any undertaking is a clear indication in the DoD of a successful program, from a Pentagon programmatic management position, and successful programs are worth benchmarking.
The mindset of benchmarking successful programs is not new in the DoD. In fact, the DoD benchmarked AFPAK Hands from a previous program conducted during World War II, called China Hands. The newest attempt to replicate the Hands program is happening in the Pacific theater of operations. Some military leaders are calling for the creation of an Asia Hands program to help with the growing cultural focus needed in that area of the globe. The expansion of this Hands program indicates a desire by the DoD to increase the cultural capacity of the military, but its very title indicates a confusion of what leaders intend the program to do by keeping it so broad and vague that it does not commit to a signal country expertise. Asia is an extremely large area that incorporates, according to the United Nations, at least 48 countries, each with their own unique culture and language. Before extrapolating perceived successes from the AFPAK Hands program into a much more resource intensive battlespace leaders should vet the theories and applications first.
Leaders attempt to examine success or failure of programs to adjust strategy or efforts to accomplish a goal or objective. In conflict, the political leaders set up the overall goal and military leaders set up actions to attempt to achieve them. Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz articulated, in his foundational book On War, that military actions are an instrument and thereby an extension of policy. This insight leads to an understanding that conflict and policy are not separable but instead that there is a connection between them. A connection that tries to align the military effort to achieve the political intentions, but there is always a difference between thoughts and actions. This subtle but important distinction between action and thought creates uncertainty between them and establishes a delta that that leaders must examine to determine if actions are actually aligning with thoughts. Academics refer to the delta between political desires and military actions and outcomes as a “Clausewitzian gap” that results from the imperfection of transforming political aims into military efforts.
Analysis of the gap is difficult at the best of times but becomes even more complex to determine if actions align with thoughts the more times the gap is crossed. Muddying one policy with others’ policy is like having multiple people sing at the same time, if they are out of key or sync the result is painful for the listener. When multiple policies are at play, the gap is crossed, and the singers add new voices to the ensemble. During irregular wars, traversing the Clausewitzian gap happens repeatedly, which increases the complexity of determining success or failures. Each time this gap is crossed the subsequent measurement of success is harder to match with the desired political aims.
For example, in the ongoing U.S. operations in Afghanistan, we can see the crossing of this gap at least three different times. The first crossing of the Clausewitzian gap is due to the United States political aims and the United States military execution in an attempt to achieve those goals. The U.S. stated goals for this conflict was to defeat al-Qaeda and to prevent future safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. military had to take this overall goal and translate it into a battle plan to align its efforts to achieve it. In order to achieve the political goal, the U.S. military took a counter-insurgency approach to the Afghanistan problem and focused on Nation Building to create human security that would hopefully translate to preventing future safe havens.
The second crossing of the gap that amplifies this effect is United Nations political objectives that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is attempting to carry out through International Security Assistance Forces. The overall political aims of the multiple countries involved center around the human security realm of the problem in Afghanistan. The ISAF military solution focuses on a course of action that aligns effort to the training of Afghan military forces, so that the Afghan government can wield the capability needed to provide the human security as the UN specified in its accord. Although a person can argue that the U.S. goal and the U.N. goal have similar ends, the subtle difference between the two organizations interpreting how to achieve the desired goals can potentially lead to confusion and direct conflict of military efforts. The two different desires between a self-sufficient Afghan army and no safe havens have multiple logical conclusion and some of which directly oppose each other. Scholars would argue in such a case that those policy-makers would align the efforts to ensure outcomes create success for each organization and provide the preverbal win-win for each party. However, the ability to create win-win scenarios decreases with each additional invested party in the outcome of the conflict and that is the crux of the amplification of the Clausewitzian gap. As we add in the third crossing of another gap, which is Afghan Government political aims for the Afghan military, we start seeing an increase of constraints that limit the capability to get to solution sets where all their organizations win. For the Afghan government, the political aims are to claim legitimacy in the eyes of the people and survive the eventual withdrawal of American forces. The Afghans are applying these goals through increasing military capability, but hedging bets, due to U.S. withdrawal, in ways that could be completely against the U.S. goals. Adding vested parties with subtly different desires to the battlespace decreases the ability to align all forces with the variety of political goals. In other words, the song being sung through policy becomes hard to listen to, harder to execute, and almost impossible to determine if actions are aligning with thoughts.
In the book Assessing War, the authors outline why it can be challenging to assess how a war is progressing. Often time the use of metrics take a prominent role in determining if efforts are having the desired and intended impact. Most of the metrics are proxies for intangible constructs, which can leave open to interpretation whether the results recorded are actually getting you to your desired endstate. For example, a metric for establishing good will with the local populace in Afghanistan was the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces. After establishment of that type of metric, the data collection begins in an effort to provide quantitative substance to the metric. This metric, although well intentioned, highlights perfectly the challenges of assessment with tying qualitative end states to quantitative actions. One could argue that you could meet the metric simple by not being there. No coalition forces; no causalities caused by coalition forces. Aligning metrics with desired goals becomes even more challenging when goals differ slightly.
A RAND study, titled Embracing the Fog of War, discusses the challenges faced by military forces when assessing results during Irregular War operations, like those currently happening in Afghanistan. In particular, it notes that the context when aggregating the data is often lost on the whole of the application. The challenge revolves around how to interrupt context with data. Context usually revolves around painting a picture with words or qualifying by some other description than a numerical means. Data is easiest to integrate and consume in numerical format. The ease of understanding data with numbers sometimes leads individuals and organizations to pick simple things to measure and aggregate. The aggregation of this easy data has led to disastrous metrics in our past. Metrics like the body counts in Vietnam or the tons of bombs dropped during World War II. Even during today’s conflict, we grasp on the easy metrics of number of locals killed or the number of projects completed as proxies to articulate the success happening in the battle for the populace. Extrapolating the numbers to show that we are moving in the right direction, but why we are going that direction is lost without context. The focus on quantitative easily obtained and aggregated numbers can actually make our assessments worse. Numbers can tell a powerful message but using numbers as a proxy for the actual environment is a dangerous oversimplification when not interpreting within the in context of the bigger picture.
The 2015 National Military Strategy articulated the application of military in the soft power and highlighted that the military will continue to have this role in the future. The question becomes now how the military will organize to accomplish the ongoing requirement to incorporate the continued use of soft power. The Air Force, for example, attempts to formalize the need for soft power with an understanding for culture through the International Affairs Specialist (IAS) program. This program includes both the Political-Military Affairs Specialist (PAS) and the Foreign Area Officer (FAO). Both programs provide connections with the larger international community, but the FAO program specifically says it is “designed to create a true regional expert with professional language skills.” These programs already provide leaders a methodical process of gaining the deep cultural understanding of a region to accomplish future missions. The discussions on growing AFPAK Hands to a new Asia Hands program should examine if there is a difference in goals between these existing corporately vetted programs and the new and expanding ad hoc programs that attempt to through together a short-term solution. Clearly, there is a need for the capability, but the execution mechanism becomes the question. The IAS programs are manpower positions that count against Air Force overall end strength and thereby is competes and allocates funding through the standard Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) process. The AFPAK Hands program, and presumably the Asia Hands program, is a deployment tasking that utilizes manpower directly from all the services and it allows for no adjustment to the manpower in those organizations or across the services. Both programs attempt to get after the same demand of cultural understanding, but through different execution mechanisms. The DoD needs to examine the fundamental question for the future, should we continue to cull the ad hoc cultural force through a deployment type process or will does it need to create more manpower positions in existing programs to grow the desired cultural capabilities for the future. Complicating this issue is what exactly the military of the future expected to accomplish in the spectrum of war. During a recent presidential address, President Trump stated, “we are not nation-building again.” Current doctrine articulates nation-building as a key weapon for employment in a counterinsurgency fight. The military will have to determine where to go from here. They can double down either on ad hoc cultural programs or robust existing programmatic infrastructure.
The US military has a proven record of being able to deliver hard power capabilities when the national government calls for its execution. However, the shift in focus by the US government for its military to execute soft power capabilities continues to draw discussions. The DoD continues to experience growing pains in the unfamiliar IOP role centered within a deep context of cultural understanding. The discussion rages onward between scholars regarding the military’s structure to best apply the skills military forces need in this operating environment. The US military attempted to bring forward a rich tapestry of cultural programs aimed to fill the capabilities gap. The AFPAK Hands is a textbook example of a program designed to deepen the cultural understanding of military service members. Military leaders, enamored with the perceived success of the program, have articulated that they need more of this cultural capability applied to different regions of the globe. Many scholars have indicated that the measurement of success for such a qualitative program is difficult, but clearly, it is now the right time to take a deeper look at this program to determine if wholesale duplication is the right approach for future employment. This self-reflection provides the time military leaders need to reestablish bearings and determine if the AFPAK Hands program is accomplishing its intended effects or if it is time to let it go the way of every other ad hoc military nation-building program, silently into the night.
The views presented in this essay are those of the authors and do not reflect the official views of the US Air Force or the US Department of Defense.
 D. Robert Worley, Orchestrating the Instruments of Power: A critical Examination of the U.S. National Security System, (Lulu Press Inc: Raleigh, NC, 2012), pg 5. Instruments of national power consist of four primary means Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economical. Also referred to in its common acronym as DIME.
 E. J. Kahn, Jr, The China Hands: Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them, (The Viking Press: New York, NY, 1975). The AFPAK Hands program was modeled off the old China Hands concept. China Hands was the label given to American subject matter experts on China’s culture and language at the time in the Foreign Service. The term originates from the term “Old China Hands” meaning they those people that had been there for a long time had experience and expertise in the details and interactions of Chinese culture, language, and politics.
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