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News | Oct. 27, 2009

'Af-Pak Hands' strives for continuity in U.S. mission

By John J. Kruzel , American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON (Oct. 27, 2009) – The U.S. military is building a cadre of officers who each will serve a multi-year assignment dedicated to a narrow piece of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Known as “Af-Pak Hands,” the program steeps officers in the language and culture of the region, and limits the range of their duties and focus on a single area for a four-to-five-year cycle. Officers will serve in a similar job at home and downrange, an aspect of the program military officials say will enable them to create and maintain relationships with the local populace abroad, a lynchpin of counterinsurgency doctrine.

“They’ll be a group of experts that will learn to speak the local languages, understand the dialects, become attuned to the culture and remain focused on the problem for an extended period, rather than just on a rotation basis,” a military official said, speaking on background.

In a normal rotation cycle, troops returning to the United States from deployment would likely occupy a different job from the one they held downrange. But the continuity of Af-Pak Hands would reduce the learning curve usually attendant to fresh boots on the ground, with officers building on their knowledge of local culture, language and tribal dynamics upon each of multiple, relatively short deployments.

“The idea is that you’re not reinventing the wheel each time a new servicemember replaces an old one,” another defense official speaking on background said of the program. The department has identified 300 billets that will comprise Af-Pak Hands personnel, including 121 new positions created as part of the initiative.

Af-Pak Hands training began recently, with about 30 officers enrolled in courses taught by the Defense Language Institute, the department’s flagship language and cultural training center. Dari, Pashto and Urdu – the region’s three dominant tongues – make up the 16-week language curriculum.

The initiative comes to fruition as President Barack Obama and his advisors weigh decisions on the next phase of the Afghan war. The debate is said to cover a spectrum of proposals ranging from deploying more troops to a narrower, scaled-down approach that moves away from the counterinsurgency model.

Counterinsurgency is a form of warfare in which a civilian population is in the center of a tug-of-war between an insurgency and the forces attempting to stop it. The Army and Marine Corps in late 2006 published a counterinsurgency strategy written by a host of contributors, and its implementation is credited with helping to reverse violence in Iraq.

“If the strategy remains a counterinsurgency strategy and that’s where the White House takes us, then [Af-Pak Hands] will be critical in the ‘clear, hold and build’ classic counterinsurgency strategy,” the military official said. “You want to get to the point where you relate to the general populace and you’ve built the trust, so that it’s more the population pushing the Taliban out than you trying to pull them out.”

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, established the program, which has garnered support from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of forces in Afghanistan earlier this year. Career fields that apply include intelligence, special operations, combat arms and engineering, and could include civil-military operators, a military official said.

“The program goes back to a focus that both Admiral Mullen and General McChrystal had on wanting to maintain some continuity, and understanding that the key to the counterinsurgency effort is building the relationships,” the official said.

“And your best opportunity to build those relationships is to have the same faces and the same understanding of the language and culture. If you’re going to nurture that relationship and really build the trust that you need, it’s got to be a sustained effort.”

Tours of duty, which are expected to be primarily in the contentious southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, will last six to 12 months, the official said. Duty stations domestically include the Joint Staff’s Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell in the Pentagon; U.S. Central Command’s Center of Excellence or U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.; and the Joint Special Operations Command in North Carolina, among other possible locations.

The program is being coordinated through the U.S. Central Command, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, U.S. Joint Forces Command and the military services. Service branches are identifying officers for participation in the program, which will comprise a joint force with members of all branches and possibly a civilian component, a military official said.