Editor's Note: This is part one of a five-part series of an article by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Porter entitled 'Afghan Hands helping to reshape Afghanistan”. It helps to better describe the AFPAK Hands program and its impact on the region.
More than 10 years into Operation Enduring Freedom, literally hundreds of coalition military organizations are serving in Afghanistan. In the eyes of many leaders, none is more important or pivotal to success in the region than the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program.
Born in 2009, AfPak Hands (and Afghan Hands, the part of the organization working here) was conceived by then-chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, as a top-priority program he argued would “change the paradigm” of how the U.S. employed its forces in Afghanistan. He envisioned an organization of “experts who speak the local language, are culturally attuned, and are focused on the problem for an extended period of time.”
By the end of that year, the first group of “Hands” began their language and cultural training. Composed of more than 500 civilians, officers and enlisted service members from all four services, Afghan Hands personnel fill 229 in-country billets. Each "Hand" moves through a series of training, deployment, and redeployment phases over a 36- to 45-month tour with the program.
“It provides continuity and a depth of understanding about how this country works that is not typically developed by service members who come here for six months or one year at a time,” said Army Lt. Col. Mark Viney, former deputy director for the Afghan Hands Management Element-Forward. “Because Afghan Hands typically will spend 44 months involved in this region, they’re able to develop relationships with Afghan leaders at all levels, with the Afghan people, and with [International Security Assistance Forces].”
Afghan Hands work in a variety of areas, from fighting corruption, to working as a liaison between Afghan organizations and coalition and international groups that can assist them. Their work may include anything from military advising to organizing sporting events.
Typically, a "Hand" will deploy twice to the region for tours of 10 or 12 months, ideally to the same position. Between deployments, “Hands” serve in out-of-theater Department of Defense and interagency billets in positions where they maintain a focus on Afghanistan.
Viney said that the idea behind sending "Hands" back to the same area is to sustain and leverage the relationships they develop in the region. Afghan Hands work closely and regularly with Afghan citizens forging relationships that can lead to positive change.
“What’s important about these relationships is that they put people in touch with others to make good things happen,” he said.
“They empower Afghans to assume greater responsibility for the future of their country. Their relationships demonstrate ISAF’s enduring commitment to the stability of Afghanistan.”