Small Wars Journal

Move the Af-Pak Hands Out of DoD

Sat, 01/28/2012 - 7:36am

            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.

Categories: Af-Pak Hands

About the Author(s)


Major David Walker is an active duty officer commissioned in the US Air Force in 1998.  He is a logistics officer who has served in numerous positions ranging from wing to joint headquarters.  During his career, he has deployed multiple times to the Middle East.


JD Seitz

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 12:13am

I completely agree with your assessment of AfPak Hands with the exception of your main argument that AfPak Hands may be better utilized if it was managed through the DoS, and that it should be expanded to include more of South Asia. First, moving AfPak Hands program from DoD to the DoS would be the same as watching your neighbor kids, since it is hard to beat you neighbor's kids when they get out of line without their parents getting upset. The point being is that you would end up removing both actual and apparent authority of DoD ground commanders over their AfPak Hands support. Moreover, the purpose of AfPak hands is to assist in COIN, which until hostilities are declared over, would put AfPak Hands personnel at the purview of COCOM. As for the Southwest Asia Hands, it has merit, but the reality is that US Special Forces and CIA perform this mission to some degree, and likely at significant cost savings. As you noted in the article, recruiting and maintaining personnel, more so civilians in this instance, will pose a significant challenge.

MAJ John Seitz
ILE 12-002C

This is a great piece, and I wholeheartedly agree with your recommendations. I think the Af-Pak Hands program has a lot of potential, even if it is way overdue. I wanted to highlight another problem with the program, which I experienced first-hand. Coming off of a 15-month deployment with an HTT in Kandahar, I was interesting in applying to Af-Pak. I soon realized that there was no way for me to apply. Apparently, the program is only open to people who are current military or GS. I ran into this same issue with the DOD Civilian Corps. I am eager and able to deploy for extended periods of time, and I have the work experience and languages. I tested at a high functional proficiency in Dari - 3+'s in reading, listening comprehension, and speaking. I have some proficiency in Pashto. I am sure there are others like me in the academic, private sector, and NGO communities who would be ideal candidates for the program, but they are not even allowed to apply. It seems like DOD is passing over a lot of potentially valuable candidates. I'd be interesting in knowing your thoughts on this matter.


Tue, 01/31/2012 - 1:59am

Sometimes it just seems impossible to figure out a way to build that trust when there is so much propaganda. How is anyone really to know what the truth is over there in Pakistan?

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It is always difficult to know who you are really dealing with in countries with a lot of <a href="">corruption</a&…; and knowing whether or not you can trust them when you are in a military situation.


Mon, 01/30/2012 - 9:29pm

Following through on the enlightening post by Gareth Lintt...

Those who want to understand why Pakistan became what it is today would be well versed by reading the article I had referred in my earlier post. Of particular interest is its comparison with India.

Born in 1947, Pakistan had every opportunity of making a good future for itself, and yet, it blew it away.

Asking and figuring out why Pakistan hasn’t but India has will likely lead to realistic policies rather than feel-good ones, which Lintt points out have questionable benefits.

In fact, every major U.S. policy initiative supposedly designed to help Pakistan, arguably, has not.

The disconnect is simply astounding. Only just a few years ago the $7.5 billion, bipartisan, 5-year Kerry-Lugar legislation was enacted to help in development of Pakistan. This legislation was blessed by America’s who’s who of South Asia and Islamist expertise. However, with hardly a few hundred million dollars spent, the plan has been shelved aside because of the realization that the money can’t be spent effectively in Pakistan for the purpose it was allotted for. Did Pakistan change so dramatically in just three years? No. It is just that that Pakistan is a hopeless cause has only been belatedly realized.

It is good that people like Lintt are asking the right questions. It’s about time...


Wed, 02/01/2012 - 1:05am

In reply to by Gareth Lintt

I too am a Hand, and I agree with your assessment. The idea and concept is great, however it gets lost, as many other things do, at the execution level. Up until this point I find the program to be very disappointing, and I do not blame the creators at all. It is the people carrying out General McChrystal's initial vision that have completely screwed this up. It really is too bad.

Other comments: I think we are going to increase Urdu speakers as that is seen more important strategically and makes sense to me actually.

The Proverb Book: Very indicative of what much of the program has become. Is it nice to make poetry books? Of course, but who really cares? This is about partnering with the Afghan Govt in order to establish a secure environment so Intl' terrorist organizations cannot use this territory to launch attacks that threaten western interests. Drinking Chai and speaking Dari, and making books is not the end. It is a way to reach the strategic endstate, which I think we are losing site of.

Hands Under DoS? No way. State has enough problems and the last thing we need to do is work under that horrible bureaucracy. Remember--as bad as it is, it could always be worse.

Gareth Lintt

Mon, 01/30/2012 - 9:30am

"The successes of the AfPak Hands program are evident." So are the failures. As a cohort 1 AfPak Hand I do not agree with the premiss presented here that shifting the program to DoS will result in better effects overall. Expanding the role of the program to a South Asia focus is also questionable.

Take Pakistan. How many Cohort 1 AfPak Hands actually made it into Pakistan? Very few. Those that I knew in my language training going through Urdu had a very tough time just getting into Pakistan, of the few being training in Urdu (approx 5) some were eventually shifted into Dari or Pashtu because getting into Pakistan proved too difficult. This was just one hurdle. Are the potential regional effects worth this level of effort? I would argue that, regionally, the State Dept's Foreign Service Officers are already fulfilling this role and that redundancy is not always a good thing.

The program's "visionary goal" is "to build trust between the U.S. military and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan." Ok, while laudable could the author explain what this means on the ground? Take the example of the proverbs book referenced. I, and I believe most people, think that this action was generally good. The proverb book benefits a school in Kabul, the process was worked through several agencies in both the US and Afghan governments. It was a nice project. But so what. How is this one book tied into larger US national or regional strategic goals or objectives? What are the opportunity costs associated with a project like this?

My principle critique of the program to date is that it has shotgunned AfPak Hands all over Afghanistan and they have been - generally speaking - left to their own devices. Most make the best of what they have and you end up with a book of Afghan proverbs or similar disconnected actions. Local commands have been provided with AfPak Hands and basically told to do good stuff. Using AfPak Hands in this manner does not fully utilize a resource that has much more potential than we currently leverage.

Better, perhaps, would be to identify specific goals and objectives for any given language cohort group. Mass some of the Hands in that group and deploy them specifically to achieve those objectives. For instance, take 10 Hands coming from language training and assign them to a specific ISAF staff section tasked with interacting with the Afghan MoI. These 10 can be assigned to more fully develop the coalition's picture of the MoI and its internal politics and dynamics. They are working in concert with specific objectives. They are tied directly to ISAF short term goals that build into a larger long term picture. Their efforts can be tied into other AfPak Hands objectives and larger ISAF objectives.

The point is that scattering AfPak Hands across Afghanistan like we're planting apple trees is not the most effective use of a very limited resource. There are many people making significant efforts to improve the AfPak Hands program. The obstacles to improvements need to be overtly recognized and reduced if we are to get the most from this investment.

** I am a US Army major and an AfPak Hand. The views expressed here are - obviously - my own personal opinions and do not reflect any official position of the US government, the DoD, the US Army, the Joint Staff, the Afghan government, ISAF, IJC, GIROA MOD or MOI, the AfPak Hands Program in general or anyone or anything else I failed to include here.


Sun, 01/29/2012 - 10:25pm

Building trust between the U.S. military and people in certain unstable nations is always a good thing.

However, the premise that the problem of radicalism in Pakistan has certain “cultural and historical undertones” may be a bit overstated.

Why have Pakistan and India, created just sixty years ago from the same landmass, sharing culture and history, evolved so differently?

The following link to an analysis challenges the notion that history and culture dominated the course of Pakistan since its birth:

Other areas that could use specialized "Hands" might be Africa (broken down into certain regions), the South China Sea AO (China is attempting to expand its influence there, mineral/ oil exploration, etc), and perhaps going ffrom "AfPak" Hands to "Middle Asia Hands" in order to include not only India but the other 'stans as well.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 01/28/2012 - 6:37pm

As I have mentioned a number of times, (and regardless of whether the program is in or outside of DOD) if we think AFPAK Hands is a successful concept then we need to ask in which area or country "Hands" we need to be investing in now so that we do not wait until 8 years after we become decisively engaged to discover the need for such a program. Of course perhaps the new Defense Strategic Guidance and the Defense Budget Priorities do not require or anticipate the needs for such human skill sets.