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    Afghan Hands helping to reshape Afghanistan



    Story by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Porter 

    U.S. Forces Afghanistan

    KABUL, Afghanistan - 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 the 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.”

    A presence in the palace

    In just the first five months that Afghan Hands were working in Afghanistan, they were serving at every level - national, provincial, district, and military HQ levels - throughout the country, including the presidential palace.

    Until 2010 there was no permanent American presence in the Afghan Presidential Palace. For nearly 10 years, ISAF attempted had tried to install a presence in President Hamid Karzai’s palace for full-time information coordination, but to no avail.

    This changed with the creation of a temporary “situation room” for 24/7 monitoring of the parliamentary elections in September 2010. Several American officers were allowed into the palace to work with Afghan national security officials in monitoring the elections. Based on the success of this temporary situation room, Karzai and ISAF leaders agreed to turn it into a permanent joint Afghan-ISAF office, the Presidential Information Coordination Center.

    Navy Capt. Edward Zellem was about three months into his Afghan Hands deployment and working as a senior intelligence officer at the National Police Coordination Center under ISAF Joint Command at the time. He was nominated for the position at the PICC by the Afghan Hands Management Element – Forward and officially transferred to ISAF in September 2010 to take over the Coalition side of the PICC.

    When he arrived, Zellem said he realized “this was a place that needed a bunch of [Afghan] Hands for success.” The office consisted of representatives from each of the major Afghan security agencies – The Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security – and was headed by Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Ali Shah Ahmadzai.

    According to Zellem, the strategic importance of the office and the fact that only Ahmadzai spoke strong English meant that getting Afghan Hands into the PICC was essential to the mission. He was able to insert language into the staffing documents stating only Afghan Hands would be accepted for the seven coalition positions.

    Once assembled, the Afghan Hands in the PICC worked closely with their Afghan counterparts to coordinate and funnel information between the presidential palace and the provinces, and between the Afghan government and the coalition. Over time, the Afghans in the PICC came to see the Afghan Hands not as mentors but as members of their team – and the Afghan Hands were very careful never to insult their partners by trying to take charge.

    “We took the honey approach rather than the vinegar approach,” Zellem said, “and that’s an [Afghan Hand] skill-set.”

    He said the Afghan Hands’ skill-set was essential to their success. Additionally, their ability to wear civilian clothes, understand the culture, and speak the language all signaled to the Afghans that they understood and respected the Afghan point of view.

    The group’s success did much to validate the Afghan Hands concept to ISAF leaders. To Zellem, it was proof of something he already knew. “There were no better people for this job,” he said. Based on those early successes, the PICC continues to be staffed only by carefully vetted Afghan Hands.

    Best and brightest

    While Zellem was in a high-profile situation, his success, Viney said, was not simply a matter of placement, but a combination of personal drive and command support.

    “As much as anything, success for the Afghan Hands depends on their enthusiasm for the work and their determination to get out and make things happen,” Viney said. “That is why it’s so important for this program to access the very best people each service has to provide.”

    In fact, per the chairman’s guidance, the program seeks only the “best and brightest leaders our services have to offer.”

    The program also seeks volunteers as much as possible.

    “If you volunteer to participate in something, you’re going to be more dedicated to its success,” explained Viney. At this point, he estimates about 60 percent of AFPAK Hands are volunteers, with the rest being “voluntold” into the program.

    “Volunteers bring a desire that carries over to the job,” Viney said. “An adventurous nature and a desire to get out and interact are important personal attributes to bring to this job.”

    Army Lt. Col. Leonard Draves, an Afghan Hand serving in Kabul, agreed. “You always must think out of the box,” he said. “At times it is very dangerous. It is not for the faint hearted and folks without fortitude.”

    Combine that adventurous nature with a command that understands and supports the program, and success often follows. Unfortunately, that was not the case initially, as some commanders saw the "Hands" simply as additional bodies.

    “At the start, many commanders didn’t understand the value and the unique skills that Afghan Hands offered, and saw them only as additional officers to help with the existing mission,” said Viney. “In many cases they were given staff jobs and not permitted to employ the special training they received.”

    Draves was initially given a staff position at ISAF with “no need for an Afghan Hand.” He contacted the AME-F, who redirected him to a more appropriate position.

    Thankfully, Viney said this misuse of Afghan Hands personnel seems to be a thing of the past. As the group has recorded more and more successes, leaders are realizing their value and, in many cases, seeking them out. That appreciation for the program is recognized up to the highest levels.

    “Through what you do, you have a chance to be special here,” said Maj. Gen. William Rapp, deputy commander, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan – Support, in a brief to incoming Afghan Hands. “You can be special if you think of yourself … as BASF, the company that used to say in their advertisements’ ‘We don’t actually make anything; we make things better.’

    “You can be special if you are that connective tissue that connects people,” he added. “You get Afghans working with Afghans. And you, by virtue of your skills; by virtue of your language skills; by virtue of your contacts … you become that connective tissue wherever you happen to be assigned.”

    A fine balance to walk

    In order to build the relationships that lead to mission success, Afghan Hands often subject themselves to heightened threat levels. By going out in the community – sometimes on a daily basis – they assume risks of becoming targets for insurgents.

    But this movement is essential to the mission. And, because of the nature of their work, Afghan Hands do not always follow normal force protection.

    “Everyone in Afghanistan assumes a certain risk,” said Viney, “but we mitigate the risk to Hands through training and equipment. “On account of their unique mission, their safety and movement guidelines are unique, as well, but safety is always a priority.”

    Freedom of movement is balanced with enhanced force protection measures. Still, to be effective Hands must be out among the Afghans.

    “They’ve got to have freedom of movement,” said Air Force Col. Tim Kirk, who served as an Afghan Hand for two years, working with Task Force Shafafiyat, the anti-corruption group. “They envisioned these Afghan Hands being out in the population. They had to be out there, and there was a considerable degree of risk that was assumed.”

    While enhanced force protection training, equipment, and other measures mitigate Afghan Hands’ risks to acceptable levels, assuming a degree of that risk, is often the key to success. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Michael Everton was an Afghan Hand who redeployed in April. During his time here he identified nearly $15 million in improper Ministry of Interior contract spending and said it was working in the local community that made the discovery possible.

    By going out on a regular basis, Everton became more a part of the community and began building trust with the Afghans.

    “My ability to go outside the wire … and be with Afghans basically gave me flexibility,” he said. “I was able to attend supplier events, etc., without adhering to standard security precautions, which have a big military footprint.

    “I built up trust with them because I shared the same risk. They, in turn, showed me stuff that they wouldn’t have shown anybody else,” Everton said.

    Locals eventually gave him the names of individuals who they thought were corrupt and breaking procurement rules. As a result, some contracts have been frozen and are being scrutinized.

    These relationships have made his time here worth the discomforts of deployed life. He said for the last three months of his deployment he often worked in buildings with no heat, running water, electricity or computers.

    But, “I couldn’t have been happier than being with those guys. Where and when I’ve been able to work with Afghans I’ve been happy.”

    The road ahead

    Afghan Hands are expected to maintain an enduring, critical central role in Afghanistan after NATO's mandate ends in December 2014. In accordance with statements made recently by ISAF and chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Afghan Hands Director Navy Capt. Philip D. Green, said that, "Afghan Hands won't be the ones who turn out the lights in Afghanistan. Rather, they will be the ones who keep the lights on."

    As conventional NATO forces are withdrawn, Afghan Hands will play an increasingly vital role as the "connective tissue" between GIRoA, Afghan civil society, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. interagency, and NATO's enduring force, Viney added.

    The success of AfPak Hands may soon lead to similar programs around the world. Reflecting the important contributions made by Afghan Hands in developing institutional understanding of the region, its cultures and languages, the CJCS instructed the Joint Staff in May 2012 to study whether a similar program would benefit the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. In May 2010, European Command Commander Adm. James G. Stavridis argued that an Afghan Hands-like program would befit America's increasing involvement in Africa.



    Date Taken: 07.13.2012
    Date Posted: 07.16.2012 01:57
    Story ID: 91588
    Location: KABUL, AF

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