The Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) Hands Program is working and should be expanded to other regions, but not under the auspices of the Department of Defense (DOD). The AfPak Hands program was founded with a visionary goal in mind; to build trust between the U.S. military and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The program has shown success with the return of the first cohort of AfPak Hands from their first deployment. Though this success comes slowly, it does show the program’s viability. Furthermore, cultural and historical undertones of the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan may necessitate expansion of the AfPak Hands program to other countries in the region, such as India. Due to these successes and the larger regional basis of many problems in Afghanistan, AfPak Hands program should be taken over by the diplomatic and development experts, namely the Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Before the successes and future of the AfPak Hands can be explained, some background on the program must be established first. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the AfPak Hands program in August 2009 to create greater continuity, focus, and persistent engagement across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Hands are a cadre of military and civilian personnel specifically trained in the language and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are deployed to key billets allowing them to interact with the Afghanistan and Pakistan population. The goal is for the Hands to establish long-lasting relationships, empower government to build capability and capacity, and improve multi-cultural and multi-functional teams in an effort to demonstrate U.S. resolve to build a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Afghanistan. The typical AfPak Hand member’s tour consists of 5-6 months of combat skills, counterinsurgency, language (Dari, Pashtu or Urdu) and cultural training followed by a 12-month deployment to an AfPak Hand billet. They return to their training location for 12 months where they continue cultural and language education, and duties assisting the AfPak Hand program. Then they begin another 6-month deployment preparation and deploy to an APH billet for another 12-month tour. The program calls for an initial cadre of 600 with a target of 912. To date, 179 AfPak Hand members have deployed.
This first group of AfPak Hands has recently returned from their deployment and has demonstrated the success of the concept. Their successes have gone a long way toward assisting the International Security Assistance Force in transitioning responsibility to Afghanistan’s government and security forces. The AfPak Hands’ language skills have allowed them to engage with village elders and local populations more easily to initiate projects. These language skills have allowed them to break down barriers and gain valuable insight into the challenges and issues the Afghan people face. For instance, unemployment among Afghan villagers is a chief reason behind their support for the Taliban since the Taliban pays them to grow opiates and plant roadside bombs. Additionally, AfPak Hands on provincial reconstruction teams have facilitated meetings and teams between national government leaders and local provincial councils on the peaceful reintegration of Taliban commanders and fighters. Another example of the benefits of the program is an instance where an AfPak Hand assembled a book of Afghan proverbs, coordinated its publication with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy, and gave the copyright license to a local Afghan school to sell for profit assisting students of the school with their tuition. These are but a few of the amazing success stories testifying to the value of the AfPak Hands program and its continuation.
Despite the numerous successes on the ground in Afghanistan, the AfPak Hands program has been criticized for not addressing the true underlying causes of tension in the region and should be expanded to a South Asia Hands program. The argument supposes that any strategy to defeat insurgency and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan that does not take into consideration the long-standing hostilities between India and Pakistan is doomed to fail. Given the successes the program has shown and the interconnectedness among the countries in the region, it seems logical the AfPak Hands should be expanded to include more of a regional focus. Furthermore, the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) could greatly benefit from having a cadre of Hands on their staff with regional linguistic and cultural expertise in GCC high interest areas.
Now that the success of the AfPak Hands program and the need to expand it to other regions is established, an assessment is needed as to whether the DOD should lead this effort or if the DOS and its subordinate organization USAID are best suited to the task. Warfighting in the 21st century goes beyond combat to include providing basic services, building infrastructure, encouraging the development of civil society, and democratic governance. The DOS and USAID are the nation’s experts at diplomacy and development and should be in the lead with the DOD supporting. The AfPak Hands program could be emulated by the DOS to build civilian-military cohorts to fill the gaps in civilian employees willing to deploy into hostile areas for the long durations required to achieve success.
The capabilities gap stems from DOS’ and USAID’s problems with recruitment and retention of civilian employees willing to work in hostile areas for years at a time. Their annual turnover in Afghanistan approaches 85 percent. To fill this capabilities gap the DOD and DOS should combine efforts to establish joint “Hands” programs throughout multiple regions of the world. DOS civilians and DOD military personnel could jointly train as Hands, work in DOS regional bureaus for multiple years, and deploy into countries to work diplomatic, development, and security issues. Filling these requirements would not be difficult for the military services. They could create and maintain the authorizations, and then fill those authorizations in much the same way they do foreign area officers. The services would have to accept a higher percentage of personnel in the Trainee, Transient, Holdees, and Students (TTHS) account due to the long duration of linguistic and cultural training.
The sacrifices would be worth it in the end. The military services would benefit from a cadre of officers and NCOs capable of coordinating diplomacy and development efforts with regional security efforts and joint military plans. They would also bring a deeper understanding of how culture influences theater strategy and campaigns to GCC staffs. Additionally, such an effort would advance requirements set forth in the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy to use a whole of government approach to the security challenges of today and tomorrow, and to integrate and unify efforts among government agencies.
The successes of the AfPak Hands program are evident. More important is the programs potential to achieve greater national security objectives if it is expanded to other regions of the world. The need to build experts versed in the cultural dynamics of countries, and regions, the U.S. is engaged with is clear. The DOD needs to continue to support the AfPak Hands program and other Hands programs like it in the future. However, that support should not be as the lead agency, but rather providing personnel to Hands programs lead by the DOS as lead federal agency for diplomacy and development.