CAMP JULIEN, Afghanistan: The first class of U.S. military servicemembers and civilians in the new “AfPak Hands” program arrived here last week to continue its training at the Counterinsurgency Training Academy Afghanistan.
International Security Assistance Force officials are using the program in an effort to build better long-term relationships with the Afghan and Pakistan people, governments and militaries.
AfPak Hands is a new, “all-in” language and cultural immersion initiative developed last summer and stood up in the fall by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The program is billed as a new way to build trust with the military and local populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, AfPak Hands will help ISAF accelerate the continual transition of more responsibility to the country’s government and security forces.
“It is a positive change to the way we do business here,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Irene Mason, an engineer and a member of the 1st AfPak Hands Cohort, “because the Afghans value personal relationships.”
The Afghan army officers who attended counterinsurgency training with the first class of AfPak Hands were excited and surprised to hear Americans speaking to them in their native language.
“They know Dari and the Pashto, and we like that,” 1st Lt. Ayamuden Sherzai of the Afghan army said. “I saw the coalition partners speaking Pashto [and] Dari. I was excited they were speaking our language.
“Without an interpreter or translator, they can solve the problem by themselves,” Sherzai continued. “They can contact the [Afghan security forces] themselves.”
The Afghan people don’t expect coalition forces to want to speak their language, noted Army Maj. Geoff Kent, a project coordinator for AfPak Hands at the Pentagon.
“The moment that they have that first interaction with an AfPak Hand,” he said, “the moment that someone speaks to them in their language and asks them about their family, the light bulbs are all going to come on, and it’s not just going to come on for the Afghan; it’s going to come on for that AfPak Hand, and [they] are going to realize, right then and there, the importance of what they are doing.”
AfPak Hands is a group of experts specifically trained to become experts in the Afghan and Pakistani cultures, Kent explained. “These are the folks that are going to build relationships,” he said. “These are the people that the Afghans are going to want to go to when they’ve got a problem, where they want to discuss an issue.”
The first wave of 33 AfPak members completed an intensive 17-week Defense Language Institute course in Dari or Pashto in Arlington, Va., from October to March, and then service-specific pre-deployment training before their arrival in Kabul on April 24. Besides their language and counterinsurgency training, each AfPak Hands servicemember brings specific skill sets, including expertise in governance, engineering, intelligence, finance and force protection. They’re also going to be assigned as mentors to government and military officials.
“They’re going to be placed in strategic positions where they can make an immediate impact,” Kent said.
The AfPak Hands cohorts completed the week-long Counterinsurgency Leadership Course at the Counterinsurgency Training Academy on April 29 and are now in four more weeks of immersion training with their Afghan government and security forces counterparts, including members of the ministries of Defense and Rural Rehabilitation and Development, as well as nongovernmental organizations. The AfPak Hands members will be disbursed to different units throughout Afghanistan, with a few stationed in Pakistan.
The newcomers are leading the way for the next two AfPak Hands cohorts, one currently in language training and one now in the process of being selected. Once all three cohorts are fully trained and functioning, they will rotate through Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They will deploy for 12 months before rotating back to the United States for a period of time before returning, ideally to the same area and position in Afghanistan or Pakistan. While in the United States, they will mentor other AfPak Hands. They will stay involved in AfPak issues at one of four major hub locations and further develop their language and culture skills with DLI instructors.
“I think it’s a phenomenal program,” said Air Force Maj. Christy Barry, a lawyer, who is part of the initial cohort. “I wish we’d done it sooner. I think this will turn the tide and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. I’m honored to be part of it.”
Army Lt. Col. Ken Scheidt, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, was the commander of a mobilization training unit at Fort Lewis, Wash., before he was selected for AfPak Hands. He said he’ll be working in a joint position in Nangahar province. “I would recommend it to the right person,” Scheidt said. “You have to want to do it.”
Another 125 AfPak personnel are scheduled to arrive between by the end of June, with another group arriving in September and one more around November. Of the 281 billets for the program, 253 will be stationed in Afghanistan, with 28 in Pakistan. It is equally important for ISAF to develop the relationships with the Pakistani military as it is with the Afghan people and army, Kent said.
At the most basic level, Mason, an Afghanistan veteran who will be stationed in an engineer office in Tarin Kowt, said she wanted to help make the AfPak Hands program better for the next group. She said she expects to use her engineer background in the field and to interact with local woman.
“I’m hoping that I can go beyond my normal job if I were to just deploy with the Air Force — the normal day-to-day tasks,” Mason said. “I’d like to have a little more interaction with the local population and see how using my talents — in the engineering field, and now the language skills – may be tailored to what we can do for them based on what [the Afghan people] want from us.”