Small Wars Journal

AFPAK Hands: A Template for Long-Term Strategic Engagement?

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 4:20am

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 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.

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

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Coleman, USAF, is currently finishing his tour as an Afghanistan Pakistan Hand.  In this capacity he served in the Afghan theater as a Counterinsurgency Advise and Assist Team member and as a Ministerial Engagement Team chief.  He was commissioned through Officer Training School in 1994. He holds degrees from Missouri State University, BA Communications; Webster University, MA International Relations; and National Defense University, MA in Strategic Security Studies. Prior to his AFPAK Hands assignment he served as a squadron commander, in Portugal and the Kyrgyz Republic.

Lieutenant Colonel James Gannon, USA, is currently serving as the Joint Forces Support Division Chief and the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance (JCISFA), Joint Staff J-7.  He was commissioned through ROTC in 1997.  LTC Gannon earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Portland in 1999, a MS in Military Logistics from North Dakota State University in 2007.  Prior to his current assignment, LTC Gannon served as a multi-functional logistician.

Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Lynch, USAF, is currently serving as a program analyst at US Strategic Command.  She was commissioned through the US Air Force Academy in 1999. Lt Col Lynch earned a BSE in Aeronautical Engineering from the USAFA in 1999, a MS in Aeronautical Sciences from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2007, and a MS in Logistics from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 2012. Prior to her current assignment, Lt Col Lynch served as a pilot in KC-135 and C-17 aircraft.

Major Reginald Evans, USA, is a 25A, Signal Officer attending the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA enroute to the Joint Interoperability Division at Pope AF, NC.  He was commissioned through the Army ROTC Program.  MAJ Evans earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Prairie View A&M University in 1999.  He is currently completing a MS in Administration with a concentration in leadership.  Prior to his current assignment, MAJ Evans served as an Observer Controller in the Brigade Modernization Command at Fort Bliss, TX.


Bill C.

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 5:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

I do not see the U.S./the West spending time and/or money on "self-determination;" other than to (1) advance the "self-determination" that is consistent with our national interest (the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines) and to (2) deny other "self-determinations," which are seen as detrimental to our national interests (for example: the Islamic State).

In this regard, to consider this excerpt from our President's 2015 National Security Strategy introductory memorandum:

"Underpinning it all, we are upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy and human rights and building new coalitions to combat corruption and to support open governments and open societies. In doing so, we are working to support democratic transitions, while also reaching out to the drivers of change in this century: young people and entrepreneurs."

Thus, and as per the President above:

a. Positive (Western) "change" is the "self-determination" that is to be assisted, supported and advanced.

b. Negative (other) change is the "self-determination" that is to be prevented/denied/held back.

Herein, "a" above (western-like change) being seen to be in our national interest, while "b" above (other change) absolutely not.

AFPAK (etc.) Hands to, thus, be understood in this context, to wit: learning, beforehand, who is most likely -- in the context offered above -- to be "with us," who is most likely to be "against us" and who, of the presently uncommitted, is most likely to be pliable/malleable in one direction or the other.

Thus, the "hands" programs to best be understood in terms of corrective action; this, to address the error of our previous/erroneous understanding of the conflict environment ("universal values;""the end of history;" which, as we have learned at such great cost, does not exist.

Bill M.

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 8:02pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,

Yes, we need to understand ourselves and the enemy, but my understanding is that the hands was principally focused on gaining understanding of the populace (not necessarily friend or foe). I think it aligns with our value of helping others pursue self-determination, instead of blindly imposing a system of governance upon them. What do they want? Can we help them? Is what they want opposed to our strategic objective? If so, can we find an acceptable compromise? While not perfect, in its ideal form, the hands program facilitates achieving our strategic objective by connecting our efforts to political ends that are greater than militarily defeating our foes.

There are other means to pursue the same objective, such as SOF, civil affairs, field diplomats, USAID, etc., but regardless of who assumes this role they will need the proper education and personality to perform this role. Obviously a lot of folks, especially in the military (to include SOF) are not suited for this. I don't think it is a program that is universally applicable, but rather requirements should be focused on probable locations where we anticipate conducting stability operations. The jury is still out on the program, but I caution against throwing the baby (the concept) out with the bathwater (the program).

In simple terms, the need for "AFPAK (et al) Hands" reflects an understanding that our concepts of "universal values" and "the end of history" -- and our recent actions undertaken in these concepts name -- were wrong.

Thus, the realization that we still have enemies that, accordingly, we must both know and understand.

These enemies being -- in the strategic context of our determination to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines -- :

a. The still very different -- and still often appealing -- alternative ways of life,

b. The still very different -- and still often appealing -- alternative ways of governance. And, underlying these,

c. The still very different -- and still often appealing -- alternative values, attitudes and beliefs of other populations.

Thus, the need for AFPAK (etc.) Hands to be understood re: "knowing one's enemy;" as per my "a" - "c" above?

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 3:59pm

In reply to by kotkinjs1

Gotta concur with Jeremy. Big army is mired in tactics, oblivious of the inability of those tactics to produce durable strategic effects in non-clausewitzian conflicts they do not recognize or understand, and desperate to validate maintaining warfighting force structure in peace based on illogical perspectives on what preserves peace. Better a small army stays home and prepares for war.


Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:51pm

In reply to by kotkinjs1

for the TL;DR version, ;-) the Phase Zero you're talking about and the Phase Zero currently in development and use I'm describing aren't the same. You're talking about something the Army has blown well past.


Tue, 05/26/2015 - 10:49pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Yes, we've always done Phase 0 ops but the difference between then and now is that it used to be focused, it was executed by tailored and trained units and personnel (CA, FAO, white SOF, etc), and it largely wasn't as an idealistic stepping stone divorced from geopolitical reality. We've shaped all over the world for different localized Ends - PI, Latin and South America, heck, SOCOM has operators in over 130 countries. That's shaping and that's eminently more successful than any unsupported/unsupportable logic behind the Hands program. The change came when the Army decided that "Phase Zero" wasn't applicable only to a discrete and focused OPLAN as part of a continuum within the military realities of a particular region; it was something to be executed across the globe, by the GPF, over and above the State Department. Shaping - politically shaping the environment. This is what we sold Congress, this is what underpinned the initial concept of the Regionally Aligned Force (which, much like the Hands Program, has been whittled down to a hollow shell of the original intent but equally a hollow piece of logic), and this is why it's not only fantastical but a dangerous precedent. We've gotten civilian policymakers to believe, without a shred of evidence or historical precedent, that the general purpose force structure and size of the Army should be aligned to support global Phase 0 operations, it *will* limit conflict, and it will build successful and like-minded coalitions and friends in the int'l sphere of geopolitics which will last and maintain shared interests up to and through conflict. All the time ignoring completely opposite evidence in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Georgia, Turkey, etc etc etc.

We've decided and somewhat convinced OSD that Phase 0 is the military's (the entire military but mostly the Army because we're the one's having the biggest self-inflicted existential crisis at the moment) sole purpose and main focus in peacetime; to prevent conflict by doing the State Department's shape the environment outside of any OPLAN or valid military requirement. True, we'll always have a need for Phase 0, the doctrinal Phase 0 - not what we've currently defined it as, as Russia, China, etc are currently doing as you mentioned. But they're doing it as part of a specific and particular strategy towards a specific and particular End. It's the way we used to do it. Now, for us, Phase 0 is just an orgy of artificial demand signals for us to convince the COCOMs that they need culturally trained and linguistically fluent Army GPF to satisfy. There is no basis for this assumption but we've totally hand-waved past really thinking about that. Hand-waved past, just like COIN and the APH program, being able to support it through case study, precedent, geopolitical proof or evidence, anything. It's a concept that we say *will* work so it will. Regardless of what history does or doesn't say. Just like PC-COIN, Phase Zero and RAF is owed to a close-knit group of relative zealots undergirding it and a lot more people not telling the emperor he's got no clothes. Just like PC-COIN was a failed attempt at indoctrinating a concept too dependent on locally specific realities, Phase 0/RAF/APH will be a failed attempt to reengineer the purpose of the GPF because it mixes Grand Strategy with GPF doctrine and tactics with situational geopolitics with SOF/CA core competencies with DoS roles and responsibilities (and budgets). In other words, DoD (Army) would have you believe Phase Zero and global stability and multinational national interests are a lot more linear and cause-and-effect than is really the case.

A strategic web is a good concept. Let DoS, the department chartered for such missions, create and maintain it. We cannot. We're not trained to (nor should we be), we don't have the endurance to maintain it (we rotate in/out too often and we have little unity of effort with other aspects of the DIME), and most fundamentally, global relationship building and other Phase Zero buzzwords - of which the APH program is merely a symptom of - takes away from the training and resources that (GPF) soldiers need to maintain proficiency in their core competencies. Which is, in fact, the only reason our nation has an Army to begin with - to fight and win our nation's wars. Everything else is ancillary at best and fraudulently redundant from another govt Department at worst.

Bill M.

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 8:17pm

In reply to by kotkinjs1

I'm following your logic until you get to Phase 0, more that in minute. I for one don't think the COG in COIN is the people, but for now the COINdistas spilled the most ink on this, and even though this approach has failed repeated it still gets traction in the main stream. However, I do think an effective political order needs to be established that the people support to achieve our strategic ends. We failed to facilitate this in both Afghanistan and Iraq, instead we took the path of least resistance, then the CIA dragged bags of money into each of the corrupt leaders to maintain influence. We fell back on the "he's a bastard, but least he's our bastard" approach. More effective combat operations, a more effective hands program, a more effective economic development effort, could not overcome this strategic obstacle we largely installed. In a more perfect world, admittedly an abstract world, and as CVC cautioned, wars are not fought against abstract enemies, it could have been different.

Back to Phase 0, first off I hate the term, and I heard RUMINT it may be removed from doctrine. One can only hope. However, we historically have conducted what we're now calling Phase 0 long before that term appeared, and more importantly so have our adversaries. I see war as a continuum, with armed conflict simply being its apex. Conditions must be set before then for the armed conflict to be successful. Iran, China, and now Russia are all conducting what joint doctrine would refer to as Phase 0, and they're doing robustly. Obviously I'm fan of operationalizing the so called Phase 0 to create strategic conditions to advance our interests, to include winning armed conflict if required. Even CVC suggested that he was beginning to think there was a new principle awaiting to be discovered about achieving our desired outcome without fighting. It referred to it as creating a strategic web. In my opinion, Phase 0 is all about that, or could be if we would think it about it strategically. Thoughts?


Tue, 05/26/2015 - 6:43pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I'd argue that my points aren't anecdotal but borne out of a postmortem of ISAF's mission. The anecdotal (and irrelevant) argument is actually this: "Two and a half years later, the program has only continued to gain momentum. It is known and understood theater wide. More importantly, we are known and respected by the Afghans with whom we work." That doesn't mean anything above the tactical level; it's strategically empty. I know Steve H (the author of the piece you linked to) and I know exactly where he worked and for what end. He had friends there and so did I. And we connected ISAF to a level of GIRoA where there wasn't a connection previously. Did that better realize our strategy? No. Did that make the Afghan elections less corrupt? Protect more civilians from the Taliban? Reduce the poppy or corruption? No. Make better governance? Certainly not. Because their interests, at all level of government, were different than ours. We could have a million Afghan friends because we drink tea and murder our way through their language. But the bottom line in counterinsurgency is you have to have a host nation that sees the problem for what it is and agrees to do something effective about it. GIRoA, even under Ghani will not do this and no amount of cultural training will bridge that gap or save that strategy.

The burden of proof is on the theory of the APH program and pop-centric COIN. The holder of the burden of proof are the ones making the argument 1) that the APH program is necessary and 2) that the APH program worked. I'm not trying to prove a negative here; I can rest on the results of ISAF. APH was specifically created to affect the PC-COIN "strategy." The PC-COIN strategy failed to protect civilians from the Taliban (civilians were the 'center of gravity' if we accept the COINdinista attempt at redefining what a COG is), it failed to generate acceptable governance, it failed to reduce corruption, it failed to enable free and fair elections....almost every metric ISAF originally started out with was rolled back or ended in outright failure. So, if PC COIN as a theory in Afghanistan was a failure, by logical extension, the mechanism supposed to enable it, the APH program is....? It's also a failure.

The failure of APH isn't about the people, or about the personnel policies, or about the training...that's all minutia and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"U.S. government referred to experts on China's culture and language during WWII as China Hands, a highly valued capability.." True. And they were foreign service officers in the State Department. There is no reason why we should be doing anything differently now. International relations has not changed necessitating the continuing pillage of DoS resources to fund to DoD to do State's mission. And also agree that the human domain is part of the equation....and that's why we have white SOF and CA. Again, no need to create something new out of wholecloth to be a completely unnecessary redundancy....of untrained and inexperienced volunteers from all MOSs and branches. Contractors, like you posit, could fill this niche. And they should work for State. They seem to rely more on Contractors than FSOs now anyway.

Finally, Phase Zero is an unsupported fantasy. Where in the history of geopolitics can we point to to show that 'shaping the environment' from a DoD-led perspective lessened the possibility or impact of Phase Three? Outside of pure deterrence, this is objectively hollow. About as much intellectual rigor went into that assumption (which is singularly based on the argument to maintain DoD force size and structure to Congress) as went into PC-COIN before it. Not much. It's powerpoint deep. But it's the new sexy, just like COIN before it. And it gets us a defense of force structure to OSD and Congress.

Bill M.

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 4:49pm

In reply to by kotkinjs1

I love the SWJ diatribes and have contributed quite a few myself :-). Your points are valid for your experience only, not the program as a whole. There were two major problems, one was choosing the wrong people for this type of work (you may have fallen in that category, I know I would have), and the other major problem were the hands were being misused or ignored by battle space owners. The article at the link below provides a more balanced account.…

"But, as anyone who has worked with new programs in the military knows, these problems are, to a large extent, inevitable when introducing a new program into a large bureaucracy at war. From my perspective by late fall 2010, the program had found its footing and was beginning to pay dividends beyond its relative weight.

Two and a half years later, the program has only continued to gain momentum. It is known and understood theater wide. More importantly, we are known and respected by the Afghans with whom we work."

The U.S. government referred to experts on China's culture and language during WWII as China Hands, a highly valued capability, so the program is not simply a program to rescue a failed strategy as you implied. I'm not a fan of our approach to COIN, but I think a hands program earlier on would have served as an appetite suppressant, by informing commanders of what were feasible and sustainable objectives to pursue. Regardless, like it or not, the human domain has been part of strategy since the beginning of the time. The hands activities certainly linked to some commander's objectives and LOEs, and I assume most units had the goal of gaining understanding, which the hands could certainly help facilitate.

Are you claiming Phase 0 is a fantasy, or that relationship building at the tactical level is a fantasy? Both arguments are incorrect in my view, just want clarity what one you're arguing against and why. The personnel issue will of course remain challenging, and any time we draw the wrong officer into the program we put it at risk. We also put that officer's career at risk. While not a fan of expanding the involvement of contractors in our conflicts, this does seem like a nice niche for contractors to fill. We could recruit from a wider pool of applicants who have real world knowledge, and are not hindered by a doctrinal view of the world. We can hire and release them based on need, because I suspect we can't afford to sustain a permanent Hands Program for all parts of the world. SOF should be able to fill that role in most cases.


Tue, 05/26/2015 - 2:21pm

The answer to the questions above, "More to the point, what did AfPAK make possible?" and "What effects did/does it really achieve?" are both 'nothing.'

Furthering the idea behind the APH program only feeds into the myth that we could have aligned GIRoA interest with our own (at all levels of governance) and created a better ANSF through TAA. In effect, that we could have done better with better COIN through the APH program. Faulty logic and that's why it's called 'the better war myth' to begin with.

Speaking as a 'graduated' APH as well as an active Army Strategist, the APH program did not connect any tactical or even operational LOEs or LOOs to strategy let alone policy. Mirroring the same failure as the concept of PC-COIN itself in Afghanistan, we were not going to achieve a closer cultural understanding to more effectively TAA the Afghan government...who's failure, at all levels, was the enduring source of the insurgency to begin with. No amount of feel-good APH missions, cultural and language training, or "familiar[ity] with counterinsurgency principles" (which, by the way, is supremely worthy of a raised BS flag; the DoD, let alone the APH program never did anywhere near an honest approach at educating this across the force) would change that.

Instead of trying to continually polish the ad hoc band-aid that was the APH program, a band-aid not even able to temporarily try and close the gap between a failing COIN strategy and what was really happening on the ground, politically as well as militarily, budget resources should be more wisely spent. And primarily this means applying those resources to the missions and departments with a charter for these efforts, namely, SOF, CA, FAOs within the DoD, and DoS itself. There is zero good reason to try and continue the logic of APH on, not to a Pacific Hands program, not to closer alignment between DoD and DoS for similar mission sets (striking flash of the obvious - DoD and DoS do not have similar mission sets - the fact that some think they do is proof positive that the link from policy to strategy is broken), not to reinforcing, well, honestly, failure.

The APH program was a good-idea fairy run amok when our strategy was in complete disarray. It did not fix nor otherwise rescue it. There are zero honest metrics or measures to show its usefulness or benefit....when translated to strategic effect. Which, if it doesn't impact, is therefore useless. It was McChrystal's and Mullen's failed idea of creating a fantastical East India Company for the modern world and Petraeus latched onto it when he thought it could help his agenda of PC-COIN. Both ideas and agendas were failures. APH, from those lofty, illogical, and unsupportable goals soon met reality and started falling apart from Day 1. Not that it would have helped anything anyway. What the APH program should be telling us about our foray into PC-COIN is that LREC, cultural understanding, HTTs, etc will not help a failing strategy based on supporting, as an outside counterinsurgent, a failing government who refuses own the problem. It won't help any strategy. Take any other COIN operation - Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, the American West, the Philippines, Columbia, etc...none of them had to create a "cadre of specially trained and culturally fluent advisors to link the host nation with the outside force" to be effective. It's a myth we sold ourselves. But we're intent on learning the wrong lessons from can we make the APH program better and more enduring.

Do away with the program, refocus resources to where they are needed for these mission sets, allow the military to get back to it's job in relation to the State Department. There's an insatiable global demand for Army BCTs and at the lowest end of the priority are things like theater security cooperation and building partner capacity (as far as the GPF goes). I'm sure the other Services are in a similar squeeze. Cultural and language training for enhanced relationship building at the tactical level is a Phase Zero fantasy.

I think the article captures the essence of how it would be used for strategic to tactical level engagement (truly these are compressed in this type of operational environment), and why existing program don't fill them. In some regards it comes close to civil affairs operations, but I think there is value to having talented individuals outside of doctrine based organizations sort of free flowing through these societies seeking understanding and opportunities to advance our mutual interests. It certainly doesn't fit the traditional role of our military, which is still largely managed like an industrial era force where individuals serve in specific functions. The only thing missing is the assembly line. I think Dave captures the biggest challenge, which not surprisingly is our personnel system. I think the other issue is our planning process, and how gaining understanding beyond traditional military collection plans (captures traditional PIR/IR based upon anticipated decision points) is not effectively accounted for. It would be great if these hands/scouts understood the commander's intent and identified opportunities to pursue those ends by working with non-traditional partners (government, civil society, etc.).

In Vietnam and other places the communists would send their hands equivalents to live and work in the villages, first to gain understanding, then gradually introduce them to communism as a means to achieve their ends. They had amazing success considering they were pedaling a bankrupt secular religion, but the power of relationships can be exponential as Lansdale demonstrated in the Philippines. The military is not comfortable with these nonconventional approaches, especially a peacetime military. The concern that we'll lose our irregular skills after these wars come to end is probably a legitimate concern.


Mon, 05/25/2015 - 2:20pm

I've always struggled to tell the difference between AfPAK hands and what I would consider an inherently Civil Affairs mission. Given that an entire CA cadre is raised, trained, and regionally aligned as it is, what is the added value of this program as a tactic other than giving Centcom a way of bypassing the Services (i.e. Army) for generating forces? Perhaps so long as the program is functionally indistinguishable from Civil Affairs, it will not have a programmed future in the force. Nor should it, if that is the case.

The point of efficacy brought by Dave Maxwell below also needs addressing. Engagement isn't a strategy, it's a tactic to advance a strategy. In maneuver parlance, it's like saying "contact" is an offensive task. It isn't. Gaining and maintaining contact is critical to achieving the effects of the offensive e.g. destroying, neutralizing, etc. So, engagement is a form of contact, but what does it actually make possible? More to the point, what did AfPAK make possible?

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 10:39am

I think we need an assessment of how well AFPAK Hands has really worked. What effects did/does it really achieve? Is this really the best method for strategic engagement? Why cannot existing organizations and structures conduct strategic engagement. If they are not effective then perhaps we should consider disbanding them and shifting resources to AFPAK hands like programs.

And I wonder about the gap created by limited FAOs and the lack of SOF capacity.

But not directly addressed in the counterargument section are the deeper questions about personnel management and whether our personnel management system (which is still service controlled) and processes are capable of effectively managing such a program?

And my usual critique of the AFPAK hands program (which is more a critique of Combatant Commands and not the program and the people who make it up) is why did it take 8 years after we went to Afghanistan to develop the AFPAK Hands program? Why did not CENTCOM develop it and sooner? Why does PACOM not have a China Hands program or Korea hands program? Why did the program come from GEN McChrystal and ADM Mullen's initiative and why did not the Combatant Commanders recognize the need for it? And if it is a good program and has been deemed effective and provides value added to Combatant Commanders why have they not established the requirements for similar programs?