AFPAK to APAC Hands: Lessons Learned

Operation Enduring Freedom

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, recently released a memo regarding the Asia-Pacific Hands Program (APAC).  In the memo, General Dempsey states that he has directed the Joint Staff “to begin exploration of a Hands like program focused on the Asia-Pacific region.”  The memo directs services and combatant commanders “to see where and how we currently identify and educate our command-path officers, and how we expose them to regional issues.”  Cutting to the core of the matter, General Dempsey explains “[a]s we have seen over the last 10 years, the future commanders of our force will need deep regional understanding to execute their missions. . . I remain convinced that we must arm our operators at all levels with deep personal and professional regional expertise.”  The path to achieve the worthy goal of a functional and well integrated Asia-Pacific Hands Program will be challenging.  In order to mitigate some of these challenges, the Joint Staff should consider leveraging lessons learned from the existing Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands Program.

Before I continue I must admit that when it comes to the AFPAK Hands Program, I am not a fully objective observer.  I am an original Cohort 1 AFPAK Hand, and have put over four years into this program.   I am a true believer in its potential and the potential of similar programs.  Currently, I am in the last stages of my second and final AFPAK Hand tour as an embedded advisor to the Government of Afghanistan.  It is from this perspective that I offer some personal reflections, lessons learned, and suggestions to the architects of the APAC Hands Program.

In May 2010, Admiral James Stavridis wrote that the AFPAK Hands Program “reflects the notion that peace in Central Asia will not likely be achieved down the barrel of a gun, but rather through the lens of understanding.”  In that article, he described how the AFPAK Hands Program represented the President’s “shift in strategic focus.”   To support this strategic shift, the Secretary of Defense, on 24 May  2010, released a memorandum which, among other things directed the services and the Joint Staff to “Institutionalize and provide sufficient resources to the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program to develop and deploy a cadre of regionally aligned, language qualified experts who are proficient in COIN doctrine.”    The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction, 1630.01, released in Sept 2010 further explained that the AFPAK Hands Program “…in order to prepare forces for success in Afghanistan…was established to create greater continuity, focus, and persistent engagement.”  From conceptualization, the Department of Defense brought the AFPAK Hands Program to boots-on-the-ground operation in less than one year, including nearly six months of pre-deployment training.  With such a compressed timeline, the AFPAK Hands is undoubtedly a program built in-flight and as a result it has experienced and continues to experience some problems with implementation and execution.  However, I believe members of the AFPAK Hands Program and outside observers too often get stuck on these problems and fail to recognize the many successes the program has experienced and contributed to.

Though I could highlight many successful aspects of the program, I think the two that best define AFPAK Hands are our successes as bridge-builders and scouts.  In the role of bridge-builder, we use our language, cultural training, and somewhat increased freedom of maneuver (when compared to most other U.S. Government personnel) to build connections with and knowledge of the Afghan government, security forces, and society.  Concurrently, as U.S. military members ourselves, we easily liaise with our fellow Coalition members.   Using our connections to and understanding of both Afghan and Coalition organizations, we can often represent the Afghan views to the Coalition and the Coalition views to the Afghans, with the appropriate language and cultural understanding to bring the two perspectives together toward a common solution.  We facilitate the flow of information and the creation of relationships between the right people and organizations from the two sides.  I have seen Hands do some form of this for years and believe it is one of the more valuable roles we play.

Additionally, we are also scouts, not in a traditional military sense, but we make connections and develop knowledge in areas that are generally not explored by other military members but may nonetheless be crucial to situational understanding.  A few years back, a general officer related the Rumsfeldian observation that the most dangerous oversight was “what you don’t know you don’t know.”  As a Hand, I have repeatedly found myself filling in gaps of knowledge (on both sides) that nobody knew were gaps.  Most westerners who study or work with Afghans understand there are differences between Afghan and Western cultures.  However, until a person really becomes involved with Afghans, until they relax and talk to Afghans in their own language and the barriers begin coming down, the true cultural gulf—and its ability to impact the campaign—does not become fully apparent.  Our language skills, cultural understanding, historical perspective, and increased access enable us to stand with a foot in both worlds.  That vantage affords an opportunity to spot gaps, from small things like event timing, planning procedures, or protocol issues, to large items such as actual organizational structure and operation and underlying/unstated objectives and plans.  We can at times help fill in these gaps or at least serve to chart a path around them toward the accomplishment of mutually beneficial objectives.

When AFPAK Hands first arrived in theater, there was little specific direction regarding program objectives.  Commanders often did not yet fully understand the Hand mission or how to appropriately employ Hands.  Furthermore, commanders had trained and structured their organizations well in advance of deployment and then refined their operations once on the ground, only to be confronted with an unknown in the form of Hand personnel injected into their units.   It was therefore no surprise that some commanders pushed back and did not want Hands or refused to use them in the manner intended.  Yet, in the face of those hurdles, I watched AFPAK Hands and the AFPAK Hands Management Element rack up success after success.  Within the first eight months of our initial deployment, AFPAK Hands were operating throughout Afghanistan and making an impact well above their numbers and relative ranks.  By the time I left in early 2011, commanders were beginning to ask for Hands.  Yes, there was still confusion and mismanagement and many AFPAK Hands were being employed improperly.   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.  On the first day in my current advisory role, the first serious question I was asked (by a three-star Afghan general) was “are you an AFPAK Hand and do you speak Dari?”  I answered “baleh saheb” (yes sir), introduced myself, and explained my background in Dari.  While my relationship with the general took time to fully develop, once he knew I was a Hand and spoke Dari, I was accepted.  This acceptance allowed me to nearly immediately begin functioning as a trusted advisor and liaison officer.   Many, perhaps most of the AFPAK Hands I have interacted with  now have similar experiences.  From my perspective, despite its problems, the program has succeeded; it has overcome most initial challenges and is working as intended.

While, the AFPAK Hands Program has been successful, for the APAC Hands Program, the lessons taken from AFPAK failures may prove just as valuable as those from its successes.  The problems experienced by the AFPAK Hands Program appear to fall into three main categories:  utilization, selection, and training and equipping.


Of these three, utilization is the most relevant for APAC Hands. Both in and out of theater individual and organizational momentum will tend to force new ideas or resources (like Hands) into existing and understood roles.  Change can be time consuming, difficult, threatening, and to some extent, politically risky.   In-theater commanders are often desperate to fill normal staff vacancies and out of theater, there remains a generally inflexible service assignment process.  Asking commanders to leave a vacancy open or only partially filled in order to allow Hands the freedom of action they need can be asking a lot. And asking the services to facilitate a modified assignment process is exceptionally difficult.  However, if the program is to succeed both are necessary.  In order for this to happen, clear APAC Hand program expectations emphasized from the most senior levels of command should be provided.  These command expectations should be followed by some type of formal guidance that gives lower level commanders the top cover to employ Hands correctly.  There then should be a mechanism that oversees and manages this process and has the authority to make changes or at the very least highlight problems to appropriate leadership for action.


Not all challenges faced by the AFPAK Hands Program have been external.  The program has learned painfully that not everyone can be a Hand.  Hands must be able to learn a language, adapt to and to some extent, internalize a new culture, be independent, confident, and capable of operating with little guidance, alone or in small groups, and away from the main military effort.  They must be academic enough to want and be able to digest large amounts of historical, cultural, military, economic, and social information on their own time.  Additionally, they must be eloquent and politically savvy enough to present themselves and their ideas to anyone who needs to hear them.  In a single individual, those traits are not easy to find.  They can be, to some extent, developed with proper training and preparation.  Yet, from my perspective, the AFPAK Hands Program has learned the hard way that even good individuals who are stars in their own profession do not always make the best or even adequate Hands.  To be successful, APAC Hands must focus on recruiting and developing the right people with the right capabilities.  However, despite the clear benefits of multiple regionally focused assignments, these may not always be the people who are on the traditional glide path for promotion and command.  This may pose challenges in regard to meeting the Chairman’s goal to develop Hands for service command tracks and may call for unique solutions such as requiring a certain percentage of Asia-Pacific military commanders come from each service’s APAC Hands cadre.

Training and Equipping

The requirement to train and equip AFPAK Hands has remained a service responsibility with limited external influence. The result is, AFPAK Hands have deployed with different equipment and different levels of pre-deployment training based on their parent service. This was and remains the correct decision, but it has posed challenges that should be anticipated as APAC ramps up.  Though training and equipping is a service responsibility, the architects of APAC Hands Program should invest substantial time and effort into working with each service to develop a training pipeline that meets the common needs of the APAC Program.  Hand training is not a one-size fits all proposal and should not simply be lumped into standard service training.  That is not to say that the APAC Hands will need new courses developed for them and them alone.  The AFPAK Hands Program has been fairly successful in leveraging existing training opportunities to meet its needs.  However, it has taken three years of building that particular plane in-flight to get there and there are still challenges to overcome.   Much the same situation exists with equipment.  AFPAK Hands require a tailored equipment package.  We as a program seem to be pretty close to getting that package right.  However, as with training it has taken three years to get there.  The APAC Hands Program should learn from AFPAK Hands challenges in this area and preload coordination with the services to ensure the first APAC Hands are sent forward with the right training and equipment.

Despite all of these lessons from the AFPAK Hands Program, the greatest caution that I would provide to the builders of the APAC Hands Program is over-thinking it.  Yes, the AFPAK Hands Program was built in-flight and yes, it experienced and to some extent continues to experience difficulties.  However, one flaw it did not have was an over-thought, inflexible structure.  Good, smart, dedicated people were given sufficient training and more than normal leeway, and then pointed in a general direction and told to figure out what needed to be done and make a difference.   There is unquestionable risk in such an approach (physical and political), but I think maybe because we were building the plane as we were flying it, many Hands were operating at much greater percentage of capacity than normal and invested more in the AFPAK Hands Program than they would have had they had a neat little box to climb into.  If the builders of the APAC Hands Program allow a similar level of autonomy and individual discretion as to how the program develops and what individual Hands do, they will likely hear many of the same complaints, there will likely be some visible failures, and there may be some program members who end up in harm’s way.  However, if the reward is a group of knowledgeable, innovative thinkers and leaders who can help the U.S. military build bridges and guide paths through the military, cultural and political terrain of the Asia-Pacific region, then in my opinion it is a risk worth taking.


Lieutenant Colonel Steven Heffington (USAF) is currently serving in Afghanistan on his second AFPAK Hand tour as an embedded advisor to the Government of Afghanistan.  In addition to his primary advisory mission he also serves as the AFPAK Hand Theater Force Protection Officer.  Prior to joining the AFPAK Hand Program he served 17 years as a USAF Security Forces officer, commanding three Security Forces Squadrons.   This article is his personal perspective and does not represent official policies or views of the AFPAK Hands Program or any other element of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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