This week on the blog I’ve been looking at both the AfPak Hands and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP). I covered Major Brown’s “hillbilly” interview, and the work of one of the Hands with the APRP, Captain Plante. Since I find the Hands’ program intriguing, back in the day I did a piece on another Hand who knew nothing of shoulder holsters, Pashtu, or when burquas may not be appropriate.
This week Tyrell Mayfield over at The Kabul Cable wrote a response to my piece on Major Brown’s interview as covered by Time. He’s also written a decent primer on the AfPak Hands program. From what I know of Tyrell’s work, he seems like a reasonable, caring person, who genuinely wants to make a difference here in Afghanistan. For that, I applaud him, although we disagree on how that might be possible at this point in “Operation Ready or Not,” or what ISAF likes to refer to as “transition,” getting ready for the “Decade of Transformation.”
“The wrong man can do more harm than the right man can do good.”
This week on TIME’s Battleland blog an article which excerpted a large part of an interview with an AFPAK Hand has drawn the attention of El Snarkistani as well as a number people in the AFPAK Hands program and many on who are currently serving in Afghanistan (TIME). The interview is unfortunate in several respects, not the least of which is that in it, a member of the AFPAK Hands program does himself and the program few favors. El Snarkistani was courteous enough to let me see it before it was published and provided me this space to respond.
I will not attempt to rebut his observations as I think many of them are legitimate. Nor will I attempt to defend the Hand in the interview so if you’re looking for that you can stop reading here. Disclaimer: I am an AFPAK Hand and I am currently in Afghanistan on my first tour. I will readily admit that the program is not perfect; few things we’ve done in Afghanistan are. What follows are simply my observations on the points that El Snarkistani has critiqued and an attempt to zoom out from the person and the specific interview in an effort to look at the larger program, its shortcomings and successes.
1. “He’s a weatherman with a pilot’s license. For bombers.”
A person’s education and background are certainly factors in considering one’s qualifications for a specific job, but there is more to it than that. Assessing an individual based on background and education alone is simply myopic. If there is one thing that I have seen over two decades of military service it is the military’s predisposition to stovepipe officers based on their backgrounds. This tendency strengthens specific specialties in the near term but serves to restrain progress and inhibits innovation across the services and the Dodd. Things which do not change wither and die.
The Hand in question should not have been disqualified because he was a flying weatherman. He should have been interviewed, screened, assessed and selected based in part on his background, but more so on his aptitude for operating in the often nebulous and culturally sticky environment that many Hands find themselves as well as his potential for being a successful advisor. Words like “aptitude” and “potential” represent somewhat abstract concepts that are difficult for lumbering organizations like the DoD to grasp.
Based on Snark’s assessment we should have discarded Lt. Col John Loftis’s bid to be an AFPAK Hand as well. You don’t get much further from COIN than flying satellites or launching missiles from the safety of a capsule deep below the ground on the high plains of North America. What would a space and missile officer possibly know about counterinsurgency? It turns out that his background wasn’t nearly as important as his aptitude, potential and most importantly his desire to have a positive effect on Afghanistan.
Lt. Col John Loftis served multiple tours in Afghanistan working on a PRT and later as an AFPAK Hand. Before joining the military, Loftis served in the Peace Corps and worked in Africa where he learned and spoke Melanesian Pigdin (NWFD). By the time he reached Afghanistan he spoke Pashto fluently and had limited skills in Dari and Arabic (NWFD). He was killed in Afghanistan last spring, shot by an Afghan while working in the Ministry of Interior (TIME). I’m not dragging out the name of a man who was killed in Afghanistan because he’s dead; I’m doing it because he is an example of what the AFPAK Hands program has to offer—experienced, educated, trained and dedicated servicemen and civilians who volunteer for the right reasons. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video and decide for yourself if engineers and technicians might also be capable of functioning in a country where “improvisation” is a critical task.
2. “He did this ‘cuz he didn’t want a staff job.”
This is an unfortunate reality and on this point I’ve got to side with Snark. Individuals volunteer for things for a myriad number of reasons. We’ve all got reasons for being here. Do you think Lt Col Loftis came back to Afghanistan to avoid a staff job? I didn’t and neither did any of the Hands I know personally. Those of us who volunteered came here in part because we wanted to be involved in an effort—perhaps the most important effort yet—to help GIRoA stand up and start walking. Those who were non-volled came because they were directed to do so and many of them embrace the opportunity and make the most of it.
Many of us have been involved in our country’s wars for over a decade and have become frustrated with the approaches and mistakes our country has taken and repeated. The AFPAK Hands program offered us an opportunity to try and make an impact on how this war ends. While the program’s position is that being a Hand should have a positive effect on an individual’s career this has yet to manifest itself. Most volunteers join the program not to find an easier job or avoid staff duty, but rather to do something they believe matters with the full understanding that it may well harm them professionally.
I wrote about my reasons for volunteering last summer because I wanted to help explain to people why the AFPAK Hands program and advisors are important. Turns out, nobody read it which is not surprising and also fine by me. Frankly, this guy’s reasons aren’t exactly what I’d be looking for in an AFPAK Hand but I’ll promise you that nobody asked him why he was volunteering and that goes right to Snark’s next point. “This…is not the selection process of a high priority program. At all.”
3. “Learned Farsi. Sent to Helmand. Because…schedules.”
Yes, schedules. The AFPAK Hands program was literally conjured out of thin air in a matter of months and in that chaos, officers were selected and trained and deployed. And sometimes, along the way guys get promoted or selected for school. The institution has inertia and regardless of whether or not this is or was the Chairman’s program the services get a say in what happens to their people too. Keeping Hands on track to progress professionally is an integral part of recruiting and retaining the right volunteers and when not looked after properly it serves as a huge disincentive for the most viable candidates. The consideration given school and assignment schedules is aimed at keeping participants on as close a footing as possible relative to their peers.
The Hand in question spoke the wrong language for where he was working; there is no doubt about that and it is a valid critique of the system and manner in which Hands are assigned to billets. Consider the dynamics of this conflict and the speed with which realities, initiatives and requirements on the ground here change; then try and select a guy off a spreadsheet 18 months in advance, get him all the right training and then place him in the exact position doing the exact task you envisioned. The early cohorts entered into an environment that was new, only vaguely defined and which the entire force was ignorant of. Subsequent cohorts have been recruited, trained and assigned with more care and effectiveness. No new organization hits the ground running without its share of snags. Think otherwise is naïve.
I disagree that 7 months isn’t long enough to do anything of value. Less than ideal? Yes, absolutely. This short tour is an exception. Hands serve at 12 month tour, followed by a return to the states and another 10 month tour in Afghanistan. Cutting his tour short at 7 months was obviously not ideal but more importantly, it is also not a frequent occurrence. Let’s zoom out a bit here and reflect on how the US has fought this entire war. The same way we’ve fought every one since Vietnam—one year at a time.
This critique on the length of one tour of one individual shouldn’t be focused on the AFPAK Hands program. It should instead be focused on the DoD’s entire philosophy of war-fighting. ISAF is getting ready to have a change of command here in Kabul and a new ISAF Commander will soon take the helm. He’ll be number 15 in a war that is 11 years old. I challenge you to show me a Fortune 500 company that has had 15 CEOs in the last 11 years. It’s an insane way to run a war and is indicative of a much bigger issue. If you’re interested in critiquing just how long somebody stays in Afghanistan I’d suggest you attack a bigger problem than one major out in Helmand. I’m not the only person who gets it—take another Hand’s word for it.
The problem is, even as we get better at learning the Afghan perspective, most of the time our assignment cycles prevent any real continuity. We don’t return to the same areas to work with the same Afghans on successive deployments. Yet if we hope to impart meaningful institutional change on the Afghan security forces we are largely dependent on building long-term, trusted relationships between advisors and their Afghan counterparts–at all levels. You don’t convince General Sherzai or Captain Aktar to let his subordinates take more initiative or spend more time engaging with locals by handing him a book or giving him a class. You become trusted friends, you earn his respect, you have a hundred conversations at night over dinner, you show him why it makes sense. But try building those relationships or influencing behavior when all the advisors change out every few months, never to return to the same Afghan units they’ve come to learn over the course of their deployment. This personnel churn kills us in the advisor mission because we have no sense of the trajectory of Afghan units over time, their personalities, or even major events in their district… Go up to any advisor in Afghanistan and ask him what happened in his area (or within his partner unit) 2 or 3 years ago, and he’ll rarely know–it’s ancient history because of all the rotations and personnel changes. But it’s critical. Imagine a large corporation that had to change out every key position every 9 months. How could they get anything accomplished?
4. “He’d make Joseph Heller Uber proud.”
The Hand in question clearly didn’t grasp the organizational structure, key players or priorities that he was supposed to be supporting. Surprising? Not really. Frustrating and embarrassing? You bet. This portion of the interview is effectively the military version of Jay Leno’s “Man on the Street” skit. The importance and sensitivity of his position notwithstanding, I suspect you’d draw an equally convoluted answer from the vast majority of people who are walking the ground here in Afghanistan. But not all AFPAK Hands are as seemingly confused as this one. Take for example this interview with an AFPAK Hand, Fernando Lujan entitled “COIN and Other Four Letter-Words” or this transcript of his remarks at The Foreign Policy Initiative “Assessing Progress in Afghanistan.”
If after reading that interview your argument is then that Lujan is the exception to the rule in that he is a Special Forces officer with tons of experience and training and actual deployments working with partner nation forces would Brown—who El Snarkistani asserts is totally unqualified—not be the other end of the spectrum? Where does that leave the rest of the Hands on the bell curve? I would suggest it leaves them well within the bounds of capability and competency.
In conclusion, I agree that this interview is embarrassing. So do many of the other Hands that I have talked with. Every organization has people in it who are mismatched with their true capabilities and unfortunately the DoD doesn’t do always good job of screening them to fill the right spots. This is in part, because the DoD loves stovepipes and people who generally are not capable of operating in complex environments are often very good at specific tasks. I submit to you that if I had access to an organizational chart and conducted enough interviews I’d find someone that I could use as an example to demonstrate just how flawed any organization was.
That Time picked this interview to make a post on Afghanistan is not surprising. It required absolutely ZERO work on the part of the reporter who wrote exactly 75 words and then cut and pasted excerpts from an interview. Is it surprising to anyone that an interview and article that paints the 11 year old US led effort in Afghanistan in a bad light at the height of election season makes its way to press? When was the last time you saw a story about just how hard some people are trying come out of Afghanistan?
But I digress. A few guys trying really hard probably won’t save Afghanistan. Neither will beating up this Hand.
Disclaimer: The postings and opinions expressed on this site are the author’s alone and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the Department of Defense or any Government Agency.
- Today’s Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop: Why Hulk Hogan Should Never Be An AfPak Hand (findingmytribe.me)
- Nick Plante: He’s no Lumberjack, but He’s Okay (findingmytribe.me)
- 5 Things I Learned This Week in Afghanistan, 22 October 2012 Edition (findingmytribe.me)
- Kabul Cable, AfPak Hands: Mythbusters Edition (Kabul Cable)