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It may be the top personnel priority of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — but is the AfPak Hands program flopping?

That’s the question an Army officer asked me recently about the program, which was started in the fall of 2009 to try to develop a cadre of specialists who would bring a long-term commitment to operating in Afghanistan and so bring more coherence to the effort. So I began poking around and the answer appears ...

That’s the question an Army officer asked me recently about the program, which was started in the fall of 2009 to try to develop a cadre of specialists who would bring a long-term commitment to operating in Afghanistan and so bring more coherence to the effort.

So I began poking around and the answer appears to be: It has had some growing pains, and the jury is still out, but it sure is taking time to get right, which is surprising, given the priority attached to it.

Most striking was an internal survey of members done last August and September. Of the 127 then in Afghanistan, 99 responded. An overwhelming majority of respondents, a total of 80, gave the program a grade of 65 percent or less, which the survey states was the benchmark set for "program success."

The survey also included some revealing comments from participants:

–"I cannot leave the FOB PERIOD."

–"Based on how the program has dramatically strayed away from that original intent, I think the program is headed away from success."

–"Scrap it entirely and start over with a clean piece of paper."

–"I would say AFPAK hands has failed…The real tragedy is that this AFPAK HANDS failure is self-inflicted."

–"From my perspective, given the stance of ISAF leadership the AFPAK HANDS program should be promptly terminated."

This is kind of stunning, given that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, had designated the AfPak Hands program his no. 1 personnel priority. It made me wonder how hard it must be to start a new personnel program that doesn’t enjoy the personal backing of the nation’s top military officer.

I asked Navy Capt. James Muir, director of the in-country office that manages the AfPak Hands program, about the survey results. "The program has had its problems, and will have problems," he responded. "But it is improving daily, and more importantly, it is having significant impact on the ground. The program is succeeding, only time will tell if it is a success." That’s not whistling past the graveyard, but it sounds a little like humming.

Capt. Muir made several points that he thought might put the survey in context. First, he said, when it was conducted, the program was new, and most of the respondents had only been in Afghanistan for a few months. At that time, "none of the Hands had enough experience or strategic insight to determine if the program would or would not work. The most they could say is that their individual assignment didn’t align with the program’s intent."

Also, he said, those AfPak hands who wanted to pull the plug on the program lacked the visibility to get an overall understanding of how it is doing. Also, he said, the program has been altered in response to complaints like those above: "significant changes were made in assignments, direction provided to commanders, training, and other aspects of the program." Every day, he said, he gets several e-mails from people in theater who want to join the program. Also, he said, of the 50 AfPakkers scheduled to go home in the next few months, about 15 have asked to extend their tours.

Muir didn’t mention it, but in response to the September survey, Gen. Petraeus issued a corrective memo last October to make sure that the AfPak Hands were used in ways "consistent with the spirit and intent" of the program, and not just to fill staff vacancies. He also stated explicitly that the program manager had "complete authority to move Afghan Hands out of positions that are not congruent with the program’s intent." And he gave permission for them to follow different security standards (such as living off military bases) and to wear local clothing.

Yet a few months after that memo was issued, one member of the program, Maj. Jeremy Kotkin, an Army strategist, ran a piece in Small Wars Journal that said commanders in Kabul were preventing the Hands from operating as intended: "The current command environment forces Afghan Hands to drink coffee at Green Beans with other Americans rather than chai with Afghan coworkers in a downtown restaurant." It would appear that subordinate commanders aren’t down with Dave on taking more risks. I mean, what’s the incentive? Col. Jess Playitsafe isn’t going to win the war by letting some of his people mix with the population, but he might hurt his career if one of them is killed or, even worse, kidnapped.  

Another survey of the Hands was conducted in January. I haven’t seen it but I am told that it was more positive, yet still reported major issues with the chain of command getting with the vibe of the program. It appears that some serious head-banging needs to be done by Petraeus or a deputy. It is funny how the military need to make everyone follow exactly the same regulation trumps a direct order from Petraeus to treat this handful of people differently. 

I pinged some of the 225 AfPak Hands now in Afghanistan (out of a total of about 700 in the program) and they agreed with Muir that the program has improved. "The program has come a long way since I entered it back in Nov 2009," wrote Air Force Lt. Col. Cheryl Garner, whom you may remember from a previous appearance in this blog. "I’ve almost finished up my year-long tour here in Afghanistan and from speaking with new arrivals, it sounds like many of the recommendations made by my class for improving training were implemented."

Air Force Lt. Col. Tina Barber-Matthew said she believes that "the concept behind the program is spot-on. I can’t begin to tell you how many doors open to me with my limited Pashto and limited access to the population." 

Too bad the biggest impediment appears not to be the Taliban but our own chain of command. Reminds me of the problems the Marine Female Engagement Teams ran into.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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