AFPAK Hands: A Template for Long-Term Strategic Engagement?
Mike Coleman, Jim Gannon, Sarah Lynch and Reggie Evans
Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands (APH) represents a non-traditional application of military talent. The Department of Defense (DOD) has yet to establish a long-term plan for preserving this innovative approach to strategic regional engagement used during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). Further, it ought to be expanded in this fiscally constrained environment and extended to other Agencies. An evaluation of the historical origins of the program and its derivation from Joint strategic doctrine lead to recommended courses of action that justify the extension of the capability attained by the program since beginning in 2009. The program should exist independent of contingency operations, remaining instead as an established and enduring military contribution to what should be a long-term, low-signature, approach in regions deemed to hold strategic importance to the nation and require understanding and relationships.
In 2009, the President of the United States (US) shifted strategic focus in Afghanistan due to the deteriorating situation. It had become apparent the US lacked regional understanding of the operational environment (Decade of War, 2012). APH was DOD’s response to this national shift in approaching Central Asia. In launching the program in August 2009, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Admiral Mike Mullen stated that peace in Central Asia would not likely be, “achieved down the barrel of a gun but rather through the lens of understanding” (Stavridis, 2010). The US formally adjusted its National Security Strategy (NSS) to approach issues from a regional perspective, acknowledging the issues threatening Afghanistan stability were not solely Afghan issues and possessed global implications (White House, 2009, par 5-8). This was an attempt to strategically adjust the way policy-makers defined and approached problems that threatened US interests in the Central Asia region, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was in concept a multi-departmental approach; DOD called their portion the APH program.
After Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke publically used the phrase “AFPAK” to describe the new regional approach, DOD officials took the phrase and added the “Hands” in part tracing back to the namesake program, the China Hands. The US leveraged the China Hands with their Chinese cultural, language, and personal exposure during the 1920-1940s. They collectively tended to the US interests in China before, during, and after the country’s transition to the People’s Republic of China.
Ironically, the DOD name for the program to bring regional understanding to its operations actually offended the region it was supposed to help, demonstrating the challenge the US has as a super power in relating to other cultures. The “AFPAK” phrase resulted in public outcry from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, so the phrase became an internal program name only. Once ‘in country’ Hands were referred to as either Afghan Hands or Pakistan Hands respectively.
Within the first two years, over 180 Service members deployed as Hands throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan (Stavridis, 2010). As of January 2012, there were 700 Hands in the three phases of the program (Stavridis, 2010). As with any new initiative, despite the Services’ support, they encountered difficulties synchronizing resources with requirements (Stavridis, 2010). This ad hoc program competes with established programs for the same talent base. Because of its demands, nominees ideally must have regional experience and should be familiar with counterinsurgency principles, physically fit, intellectually curious, culturally adaptable, entrepreneurial, and highly motivated (Stavridis, 2010).
The program was created as a means to develop a cohort of counterinsurgency experts with regional understanding. Unfortunately, the program remains funded as a contingency program and is not supported by the base funding sources of the Services. It is noteworthy the APH remains an ad hoc Joint program, with no permanent Joint positions established and contingency resources to fund it. Additionally, APH personnel remain managed outside the normal Service assignment processing channels. Neither the Joint Staff nor the Services categorize them as much more than language proficient and have struggled to fit them into their respective Service specific personnel systems. Furthermore, the designation as a Joint program with permanent Joint positions cannot occur due to legislative restrictions on the number of Joint positions in relation to the overall Service manning. Arguably, this limitation needs to be revisited given current fiscal constraints and the ongoing force reductions to overall end strength.
Initially, the program training focused on three areas: language, cultural immersion, and tactical security. The languages trained were Dari, Pashto, and Urdu, and the continuously phased approach to language development extended the duration of a service member’s assignment to the program, usually three to five years. Once trained, however, APH personnel were very proficient in language, culture, safety, and security.
Hands were trained to fill an undefined gap between traditional DOD interfaces in the region such as Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) and Special Operations Forces (SOF). FAOs focus on relationships at the Mil-Mil level as it affects other nations. SOF’s regional expertise has capacity limits. The Hands, at the inception, were specifically not staff officers, rather technical experts equipped with the language skill sets and cultural awareness to effect change where those in the region needed it most.
Linkages to Presidential Policy and National Security Strategy
The National Security Strategy (NSS) guides the use of the Nation’s instruments of national power to focus energies on security interests ranging from strengthening our national defense to increasing global health security. The NSS points out there are no global problems that can be solved without the US and few problems that can be solved by the US alone (NSS, 2015). This establishes the Nation’s requirement for partnering. The operating environment is a complex world with many security problems that cannot be fixed quickly or without partners. For the US to achieve its security objectives it must partner.
How the US navigates this complex world requires it to lead with partners at all levels. This leadership requirement demands a human interface that may misalign with traditional military platforms. A program like APH supports the national security policy because it enables the US to partner at all levels through a human interface of a person that understands the cultures involved in the region.
Additionally, Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 23: US Security Sector Assistance (SSA) Policy, describes the US policy and approach to partnering in the global security sector. PPD 23 states by building our partners’ capabilities and capacities our partners can better share the costs and responsibilities of global leadership. Clearly the US can’t strengthen its partners at all levels without developing relationships at those same levels. Partners and coalitions require trust to operate effectively to accomplish these goals. Trust is formed through relationships. APH provides an example of a program that supports PPD 23 by developing technically competent individuals that can operate throughout this spectrum from tactical through strategic. Leveraging an APH-type program’s culture and language expertise, aids development of long-term relationships, increasing effectiveness of partners and coalitions safe-guarding of collective strategic interests.
Regional Security to National Security
World Affairs Journal organized a virtual symposium on “what US policy in the AfPak theater would yield in the next ten years” (Hanson, et al, 2011). According to Hanson, et al (2011), the AFPAK 2020 Symposium concluded that total withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a serious mistake. In scaling back the counterinsurgency (COIN) effort, the perception of yet another abandonment of Afghanistan by the West must not occur. Instead, the US, NATO, UN, and neighboring nations must make a long-term commitment to the well-being of the Afghan people. Thus, policy-makers must negotiate the path between the large-scale COIN that works on paper and the primacy of homeland security that a disgruntled public demands. As such, a COIN-lite doctrine emerges acknowledging that efficacious strategies provide very little instant gratification and no shock or awe, and rely on fewer troops and more diplomats, aid officials, and civil society bodies (Hanson, et al, 2011).
Moreover, the AFPAK 2020 Symposium (Hanson, et al, 2011) highlighted that the vast majority of insurgents fight because their family and tribal networks have been alienated by the government, or they are incentivized economically to capture income from foreign spending or the drug trade. The symposium cohort concluded that ending the conflict will empower ordinary Afghans who are caught between the two sides driven by the corruption and predation that flourish during war. Two prime initiatives in achieving this goal include the de-escalation of spending along with enhanced contracting oversight, and a genuine peace process that does not pay lip service to the need for a political solution (Hanson, et al, 2011).
Linkages to Joint Doctrine
The APH program is an excellent application of Joint Doctrine. Joint Publication 3-0 identifies 12 principles of Joint operations formed around the nine traditional principles of war. The three additional principles, restraint, perseverance, and legitimacy, are relevant to how the US military applies combat power across the range of military operations (Mullen, 2011). APH is particularly effective in applying these three additional principles.
The purpose of restraint is to limit collateral damage and prevent the unnecessary use of force. Because a single act could cause significant military and political consequences, judicious use of force balances the need for security, the conduct of military operations, and the national strategic end state. Additionally, the excessive use of force may indirectly damage legitimacy (Mullen, 2011). In applying the Joint principle of restraint, APH adheres to the small footprint requirement of today’s wars, ultimately saving money in a constrained fiscal environment. The program exhibits restraint in its approach to attain solutions through culturally aware negotiation tactics.
The purpose of perseverance is to ensure the commitment necessary to attain the national strategic end state through the provisioning for measured, protracted military operations. Since the root causes of crises can be elusive, some Joint operations may require years of patient, resolute, and persistent pursuit to reach the termination criteria. Further, they may involve diplomatic, informational, and economic measures to supplement military efforts (Mullen, 2011). APH exemplifies the application of perseverance in its long-endurance nature, suitable to the Phase 0 shaping objectives of theater campaign planning. Thus far, the program has displayed perseverance in its commitment to achieving end states in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but it must continue to endure globally despite the continuing fiscal constraints and its current contingency-only application.
Finally, the purpose of legitimacy is to maintain legal and moral authority in the conduct of operations. Legitimacy can be a decisive factor in operations. It is based on the actual and perceived legality, morality, and rightness of actions from the various perspectives of interested audiences. Thus, all actions must exhibit fairness in dealing with competing factions where appropriate (Mullen, 2011). In Afghanistan, the program has boosted US legitimacy by recognizing and acting within the contextual worldview of the Afghan people. By synergistically harnessing the benefits of restraint and perseverance, the APH program enhances legitimacy by showcasing US commitment and earning the trust required to maintain access in strategic regions, ultimately bolstering stability and security.
Future Risk and the Counter Argument
In the current US economic environment and projected forecasts with defense spending reductions, military personnel drawdowns are forcing the Services to focus on core competencies. A program like APH remains an outlier not aligned to Services’ core competencies and placing further strain on the military by adding to its task list. This results in the reduction of the number of Joint Duty Assignment List (JDAL) positions. If APH transitions from a contingency program to a permanent requirement for the Joint Force, it will compete for traditional JDAL positions. Additionally, APH does not support the traditional military career timeline which officers must follow to be competitive for future operational assignments and promotion which the Services have established to support their personnel.
While the US moves to lessen its interaction in current areas of conflict in the midst of looming budget cuts, one should expect to see more resistance from the Joint Staff and the Services about manning (or the existence of) a Hands-type program. As Federal Departments seek to retain their most competent and talented leaders, Hands-type programs draw attention from the Services as they attempt to recapitalize and rebalance their respective manning priorities. With competing demands for funds, Services may opt to prioritize traditional platforms as they refocus on core competencies. Objections will only grow in a post-overseas contingency operations funding environment. To the Services, ‘Jointness’ is an esoteric goal; their core competencies will be their priority. They will argue that assuming risk to Service priorities is a risk to national security.
However, this attitude is shortsighted. The economic realities and diminishing human resources the US can leverage into areas with strategic national interest will require new approaches to long-term foreign area engagement. To limit the application of US resources, to include DOD manpower and resources to traditional core uses, limits the options available to US decision makers. The understanding of the problems and how to engage with most of the non-Western strategic partners should not be limited to only contingency type operations or short-term exercises. These restrictive approaches do not promote understanding of the environments required in these regions and the emerging global threats.
Additionally, the limits on the number of Joint positions as a percentage of overall Service manning limits and reduces the ability and bandwidth of the Joint programs at the same time they should increase. To restrict Service manpower use to only traditional Service core approaches in the new emerging world limits the options and understanding of non-Western cultural problem sets. It further limits the level of DOD participation to national policy makers as they consider non-traditional innovative approaches for engagement in these regions. The Services fund several graduate degrees yearly, many of which cover a broad range of education disciplines. If the Services refocused some of these funded graduate degrees programs the Services with no additional costs could produce the education baseline for a Hands type program.
If APH goes away, the nation will lose vital engagement opportunities and capability gained since the program was started. The Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational approaches require cultural understanding and expertise to effectively partner. There is an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you must go together.” In the present climate we must influence, not control; convince, not coerce; inspire, not rebuke; and we must launch better ideas than those promulgated by our foes. Broad regionally-focused programs such as APH can help the US face increasing global challenges by:
- Strengthening international partnerships between the US and other countries, both in military and civilian enterprises. This includes non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, and private charities.
- Encouraging interagency integration from the tactical level through the long-term strategic level.
- Shifting the interagency cooperative focus forward. “Less tail at home, more tooth forward” means that by sending our best and brightest Service members and civilians into Hands-type programs, we move the brainpower to the fields of the future.
- Understanding the culture of both war and peace. While it is vital that we retain our global combat capabilities, the most powerful and influential means of attaining regional security will come from understanding the environment through personal engagement.
- Maintaining excellent strategic communications. Everything we do depends on our strategic communication efforts. It is the main effort for launching ideas to compete in a complex world (Stavridis, 2010).
Some have recommended relocating the Hands program under another Department. Now that the benefits of a Hands-type program and the need to use it in other regions is established, an assessment is needed as to whether the DOD should lead this effort or if the Department of State (DOS) and its subordinate organization US Agency for International Development (USAID) are best suited to the task. (Walker, 2012)
In either case, DOD should contribute to the effort. 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. A regional Hands-type program contributes to the understanding of strategically significant regions, and policy makers need DOD and DOS to build civilian-military cohorts to fill the gaps in the face-to-face interactions that are required over the long-term in these strategic areas. These cohorts will serve as visible demonstrations of the nation’s commitment to these areas that are required to achieve success. (Walker, 2012)
Lastly, the model may apply in other regions such as Latin America, the Caribbean, East and West Africa, Asia-Pacific, and even Eastern Europe which can benefit from intensely focused expertise. So, instead of losing years of training and expertise, the Joint Staff should begin thinking strategically and develop efforts to establish Africa Hands, Europe Hands, or Asia-Pacific Hands, just to name a few.
James Stavridis. 2010. Teaching the ROPES. Vol. 136. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute.
Mike Mullen. December 14, 2009. Memorandum from the CJCS to the Service Chiefs.
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Landon Lecture Series, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, Wednesday, 3 March 2010.
Donna Miles. 2012. ‘AfPak Hands’ Program Pays Dividends in Afghanistan, Pakistan. Washington: American Forces Press Service.
"Rethinking Civilian Assistance in Afghanistan", By Desaix Myers, The New York Times. Myers suggests the development of "expeditionary" civilians similar to the AfPak Hands program http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/opinion/24iht-edmyers24.html January 28, 2012.
"Move the Af-Pak Hands Out of DoD". Small Wars Journal. Major David Walker, a US Air Force officer, argues that the AfPak Hands program should be continued but under the Department of State as the lead federal agency. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/opinion/24iht-edmyers24.html
Hanson, Victor Davis, James Traub, Ann Marlowe, and Matthieu Aikins. 2011. "AFPAK 2020." World Affairs 173, no. 6: 16-34. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2015).
Mike Mullen. 2011. Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations. Washington DC: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Presidential Policy Directive 23: US Security Sector Assistance (SSA), 2012