News: AFPAK Hands Begin Immersion Training in Afghanistan
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Chlosta
CAMP JULIEN, Afghanistan—The first class of U.S. military servicemembers and civilians in the new AFPAK Hands program arrived here and continued their training this week at the Counterinsurgency Training Academy-Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force is trying to build better long term relationships with the Afghan and Pakistan people, government and military using the AFPAK Hands program.
AFPAK Hands is a new, all in, language and cultural immersion initiative developed last summer and stood up in the fall by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen. The program is billed as a new way to build trust with the military and local populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan AFPAK Hands will help ISAF accelerate the continual transition of more responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
"It is a positive change to the way we do business here," U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Irene Mason, an engineer and a member of the 1st AFPAK Hands Cohort, said, "because the Afghans value personal relationships."
The ANA officers who attended the COIN Training with the first class of AFPAK Hands were very excited and surprised to hear Americans speaking to them in their native language.
"They know Dari and the Pashto and we like that," ANA 1st Lt. Ayamuden Sherzai said. "I saw the coalition partners speaking Pashto/Dari. I was excited they were speaking our language. Without an interpreter or translator they can solve the problem by themselves. They can contact the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] themselves. It's good because Dari/Pashto languages are the languages of Afghanistan."
"The Afghan people don't expect us to want to speak their language," U.S. Army Maj. Geoff Kent, a project coordinator for AFPAK Hands at the Pentagon, said. "The moment that they have that first interaction with an AFPAK Hand, the moment that someone speaks to them in their language and asks them about their family, the light bulbs are all going to come on and it's not just going to come on for the Afghan, it's going to come on for that AFPAK Hand and – [they] are going to realize, right then and there the importance of what they are doing."
"AFPAK Hands is a group of experts -- specifically trained to become experts in the Afghan and Pakistani cultures," Kent said. "These are the folks that are going to build relationships. These are the people that the Afghans are going to want to go to when they've got a problem, where they want to discuss an issue."
The first wave of 33 AFPH members completed an intensive 17 week Dari or Pashto language Defense Language Institute course in Arlington, Va., from October to March and then service specific pre-deployment training before their arrival in Kabul on April 24. Besides their language and counterinsurgency training each AFPAK Hands brings specific skill sets including expertise in governance, engineering, intelligence, finance and force protection. They're also going to be assigned as mentors to government and military officials.
"They're going to be placed in strategic positions where they can make an immediate impact," Kent said.
The AFPAK Hands cohorts completed the one week Counterinsurgency Leadership Course at the COIN Academy on April 29 and are now in four more weeks of immersion training with their Afghan Security Forces and Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan counterparts including the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and nongovernmental organizations the AFPAK Hands members will be disbursed to different units throughout Afghanistan with a few stationed in Pakistan.
The newcomers are leading the way for the next two AFPAK Hands cohorts, one currently in language training and one being selected back in the U.S. Once, all three Cohorts are fully trained and functioning they will rotate through Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will deploy for 12 months in country before rotating back to the U.S. for a period of time before returning again to ideally the same area and position in Afghanistan or Pakistan. While stateside they will mentor other AFPAK Hands. They will stay involved in AFPAK issues at one of four major hub locations and further develop their language and culture skills with DLI instructors.
"I think it's a phenomenal program," Member of 1st AFPAK Hands Cohort U.S. Air Force Maj. Christy Barry, a lawyer, who, said. "I wish we'd done it sooner. I think this will turn the tide and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. I'm honored to be part of it."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ken Scheidt, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, was the commander of a mobilization training unit at Fort Lewis, Wash., before he was selected for AFPAK Hands. He said he'll be working in a joint position in Nangahar province. "I would recommend it to the right person," Scheidt said. "You have to want to do it."
Another 125 AFPH personnel are scheduled to arrive between April – June, with another group arriving in September and one more around November. Of the 281 AFPH billets, 253 will be stationed in Afghanistan with 28 in Pakistan. It is equally important for ISAF to develop the relationships with the Pakistan military as it is with the Afghan people and ANA, Kent said.
At the most basic level, Mason, an Afghanistan veteran who will be stationed in an engineer office in Tarin Kowt, said she wanted to help make the AFPAK Hands program better for the next group of AFPAK Hands. Her expectations are that she will use her engineer background in the field and to interact with local woman.
"I'm hoping that I can go beyond my normal job, if I were to just deploy with the Air Force, the normal day to day tasks," Mason said. "I'd like to have a little more interaction with the local population and see how using my talents, -- in the engineering field and now the language skills -- maybe tailor what we can do for them based on what they [the Afghan people] want from us."