Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

Throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. and Allied forces continue to make a difference in the War on Terror. One especially effective tool in our arsenal are specially trained Sailors who work closely with local Afghan leaders on a number of projects in-theater known as the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands.

The AFPAK Hands Program was launched by the Department of Defense in 2009 to develop a cadre of experts specializing in the complexities of Afghanistan and Pakistan including the language, culture, processes and challenges. Since then, a number of service members have supported the efforts of the Afghan people, including Sailors from Naval District Washington (NDW). Currently, there are 80 AFPAK Hands assigned to the NDW AFPAK Hands hub from where they rotate into one of three program phases: training, deployment, or out-of-theater assignment.

The training is diverse and rigorous. It includes a four-and-a-half month intense language course at the Defense Language Institute in Dari, Urdu or Pashto; a three-week combat readiness course at Fort Jackson, S.C.; a one-week Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; eight weeks of advisor/combat readiness training at Fort Polk, La.; and additional cultural and regional expertise training.

“The language and combat skills training are critical to the various missions that AFPAK Hands are assigned,” said Chief Logistics Specialist (AW) Allison Strong, NDW AFPAK Hands command leading chief petty officer. “The language training enables Sailors to interact with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan and build enduring relationships. Development of these relationships helps to build trust and stability throughout the region. The various phases of combat skills prepare Sailors for operations in complex counterinsurgency environments.”

Strong added that the training is especially important because AFPAK Hands are placed in positions of strategic influence to ensure progress towards U.S. government objectives in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.

Those who complete the training use it regularly during their deployments as a way to better integrate with the local population, aiding in mission accomplishment.

“Our job as AFGHAN Hands is important because we understand the complexities of the culture through training and previous deployments in order to work closely with Afghans to mentor and advise,” said Cmdr. Joel VanEssen, Civil Engineer Corps and AFPAK Hand. “Whether it is introducing ourselves in their language or having lunch with them, it shows respect to their culture and traditions that open opportunities to interact with them more. Our job is to advise as needed and step back when appropriate.”

This training is especially useful when it comes to community reintegration. Master Chief Intelligence Specialist Blaine Elmer, AFPAK Hand, Cohort 3G, from the Tampa Hub, works in Ghazni on reintegration of Taliban back into society. He meets with district leaders and gets out to the public explaining the reintegration process and encouraging people to discuss reintegration.

“The most important factor is it takes them off the battlefield in which they no longer are a threat to coalition forces, Afghan national security forces, and the government of Afghanistan and gives them the option of taking care of their families,” said Elmer. “Most fighters are fighting to earn a living or doing it out of fear and intimidation. Reintegration has been very successful in Columbia, but took several years to take hold. It will take time, and the people of Afghanistan have to want peace.”

AFPAK Hands members provide persistent engagement on regional issues while advising leaders and commanders throughout the levels of governance and command. An AFPAK Hand is committed to more than 40 months with the program. During those months, a service member engages in 10 months of training, nearly two years of deployment in-theater in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and one year out of theater in the U.S.

Those interested in the AFPAK Hands program should speak to their detailer about joining.

For more information on AFPAK Hands visit