Teaching the Ropes

By Admiral James G. Stavridis, U.S. Navy

For decades, the United States military has sought to strengthen those tough threads connecting our nation with the rest of the world. Frankly, these efforts have yielded, at best, mixed results. At present, two of our most important relationships are with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our three countries are now inextricably linked.

Our activities there have been both bellicose and peaceful and have involved clandestine and overt operations, with varying degrees of success. While Americans must be committed to learning the languages and cultures of many nations, this is most urgent in the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To this end, old hands in that region have instituted the Afghanistan - Pakistan Hands Program, or Afpak Hands. The program is designed to deepen our understanding of the regional culture, language, and history, including the complicated relationships among tribes and the Afghan and Pakistan governments, and to be sensitive to the nuances that define those relationships.

Changing Tack

For the better part of the past decade our focus has been to capture or kill our enemies, namely al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated extremist movements. As a result, we have missed opportunities to build relationships with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, in many cases we have instead alienated those we intended to protect. This is a strategic blunder that we have recognized at the highest levels of our chain of command and one we must reverse.

In setting forth his goals to defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, prevent their capacity to threaten our nation and our allies in the future, and better balance and coordinate our military and civilian efforts in the region, President Obama charted a clear course. 1

Following suit, we have decided to "come about." Over the past year we have broadened our focus from simply killing the enemy to protecting and strengthening the Afghan people. Although pursuing al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other regional extremists remains vital, U.S., Afghan and allied forces and government agencies are operating with the overarching objective of protecting the Afghan people from the violence and ravages of war and facilitating their long-term stability, security, and prosperity. These efforts are central to U.S. national-security goals, and we are making steady progress toward our objectives.

Strong links connect our war efforts in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan. The President's shift in focus for Afghanistan recognized these connections and asserted that the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan; a sentiment echoed by Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, this past March, when he referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan as "conjoined twins."

Not Using a Gun, but a Lens

Afpak Hands was established to support the President's shift in strategic focus. It was launched by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in August 2009 and 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.

The late American multilingual Soldier and diplomat Vernon Walters once remarked that, "To learn a second language is to live a second life." 2 Language is the roadmap and compass to a people and its culture. Afpak Hands requires intensive language training and a month of personal security training, followed by deployments to the region to learn the cultural ropes.

Afpak Hands is intended to introduce a cadre of DOD experts to positions of strategic influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There they will engage in direct, day-to-day contact with their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, bringing cohesiveness to our efforts in the region and ultimately instructing the next generation. The first class of Afpak Hands graduated in November 2009 and deployed in late April 2010. By the end of May, more than 100 will be deployed, working alongside, teaching, mentoring, and most important, learning from their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. It's expected that 30 to 40 more new hands will come on board every two months.

Ultimately, the goal is to train and maintain a cadre of 800 hands, including 357 Soldiers, 135 Sailors, 171 Airmen, 63 Marines, and 90 civilians to develop proficiencies in counterinsurgency doctrine, regional languages, and culture. 3 They will remain engaged in this region for the bulk of their mid-careers.

A Call to Serve . . . and a Good Career Move

To date, the services and servicemembers have responded favorably to the new program. Because of its demands, only the very best will be offered the chance to serve. Ideally, they will have had experience with Operation Enduring Freedom, be familiar with counterinsurgency principles, be physically fit, intellectually curious, culturally adaptable, and highly motivated.

Afpak Hands has generally been accepted as a high-priority military program that will accelerate rather than inhibit career progression. 4 Not surprisingly, the program has had no difficulties finding the right people for the job. Navy and Marine Corps personnel in particular have been successfully deploying to distant places around the world for centuries, have earned their stripes in Operation Enduring Freedom, are increasingly skilled in the application of counterinsurgency principles and are thus ideally suited for the program. They are manning the rails enthusiastically.

The program will be centrally managed by the Joint Staff. Its personnel will rotate among positions in the continental United States, Europe, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and will be carefully monitored to ensure they are at the very least promoted at the same rates as their non-Afpak Hands counterparts. Its personnel also will have the opportunity to participate in curricula at senior service colleges, Johns Hopkins University, and the National Defense Intelligence College. Families of Afpak Hands personnel will benefit from the increased stability of being located in out-of-theater geographic hubs in Washington, DC; Virginia; North and South Carolina; Kansas; Pennsylvania; Florida; and overseas in The Netherlands and Belgium.

Extending the Model

While it is not intended to be an extension of the services' Foreign Area Officer programs, Afpak Hands has the potential to support the capabilities of military and civilian government agencies, private and public enterprises, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. The model can be duplicated in other regions such as Latin America, the Caribbean, East and West Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe and even the Arctic, which can benefit from intensely focused expertise.

We must also examine what maritime services have accomplished recently to fulfill the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and the missions and visions of our combatant commands. For example, in 2009 U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. Fourth Fleet, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Military Sealift Command deployed the Southern Partnership Station to strengthen regional partnerships and maritime security through training and cooperation activities.

Since 2007 Naval Forces Europe - Africa/U.S. Sixth Fleet has been deploying the Africa Partnership Station to Africa's shores. These are venues for the shared efforts of agencies and NGOs from Africa, the United States, and Europe. Initially focused on enabling African nations bordering the Gulf of Guinea to improve maritime security, Africa Partnership Station has expanded to include Africa's eastern shores, where for the first time an international staff of members from Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Tanzania, and the United States is executing the mission. 5

Likewise, U.S. Marines from Marine Forces Europe are training Republic of Georgia units for regular deployments to Afghanistan to support the International Security Assistance Force under the Georgia Deployment Program, a two-year stint consisting of four six-month rotations. At its conclusion, not only will Georgian infantry battalions be "Marine-trained," but we will have a cadre of U.S. Marines as old hands in Georgia with the experience that can only be achieved through direct interaction with our Georgian partners.

U.S. Coast Guardsmen are just as broadly engaged and are world-renowned old hands in the fields of maritime security, safety, the conservation of natural resources, mobility and national defense. Throughout their history they have been active in enforcing maritime law, conducting maritime interdiction operations, thwarting illegal immigration, and protecting our exclusive economic zone and living marine resources. In recent history, they have also trained foreign maritime security forces such as the Iraqi military and those of nations supported by the Africa Partnership Station, to secure their vital maritime economic resources through specialized training programs designed according to partner countries' needs and abilities. Training typically focuses on maritime law enforcement, port security, and institutional strengthening and may be offered as part of training programs involving many U.S. agencies. We should consider them valued resources and consider how their expertise can be applied globally.

Our challenges are as diverse as they are widespread. Broad global-focus programs such as Afpak Hands can help the United States face those challenges by encouraging:

  • Interagency integration, both at the grassroots tactical level and at the long-term strategic level.


  • Teamwork between the U.S. State Department and the DOD on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


  • International partnerships between the United States and other countries, both in military and civilian enterprises. This includes NGOs, private charities, and international organizations.


  • A speedier staffing process, because being Joint Staff-sponsored, these programs are conduits of valuable, current information.


  • "Less tail at home, more tooth forward" - in other words, by sending our best and brightest Service members and civilians into programs such as Afpak, we move the brainpower to the field.


  • A culture of both war and peace. While it is vital that we retain our global combat capabilities, the most powerful and influential means of attaining regional security will come from understanding its people.


  • Excellent strategic communications. "The ultimate good desired," wrote former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "is better reached by free trade in ideas, and the best test of truth is the power of the thought to be accepted in the competition of the market." The United States competes in a geopolitical marketplace of ideas. We cannot assume we hold the competitive advantage in that market. In fact, we our position is volatile and uncertain, given the relentless 24-hour news cycle. Thus, everything we do depends on our strategic communication efforts. It is the main battery for launching ideas to compete in that market. Our "hands" can help us accomplish this.

An Adaptive Future

Admiral Mullen wisely said during his March lecture at Kansas State University, "Each era has something to teach, for there is no single defining American way of war. It changes over time . . . adapting appropriately to the most relevant threats to our national security, and the means by which that security is best preserved." 6

If the past decade of persistent conflict has taught us anything, it is that ignorance and lies are the greatest enemies and the most relevant threats to our national security and to the security and prosperity of the world. These threats loom largest today not on the fields of battle or in hostile territory, as enemies did in wars past, but in the human mind. We must become deft warriors in a volatile intellectual market. In the present climate we must influence, not control; convince, not coerce; inspire, not rebuke; and we must launch better ideas than those promulgated by our foes.

The Afpak Hands Program should be considered a possible model for other such programs elsewhere in the world. The Sea Services should embrace the notion that old hands who know the ropes of the international, interagency, and public and private sectors can teach and mentor the new and ensure the security of our nation, partners, and allies as the uncertain 21st century unfolds.


1. Remarks by President Barack Obama in his Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1 December 2009, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nat... (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

2. Ambassador Vernon Walters, remarks at U.S. Military Academy, 1999. In addition to English, Walters spoke eight languages fluently: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Chinese, and Russian. He achieved the rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations. http://www.archive.usun.state.gov/ambassadors/history/walters.html (accessed 26 Mar 2010).

3. CNO general administrative message, Afghanistan Pakistan Hands Program, DTG R242337ZSEP09.

4. Memorandum from CJCS, Admiral Mike Mullen to Service Chiefs, 14 December 2009.

5. Chief Petty Officer Jason Morris, Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy visits Africa Partnership Station East, http://www.africom.mil/getArticle.asp ? art=3869⟨= (accessed 26 March 2010).

6. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Landon Lecture Series, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, Wednesday, 3 March 2010.

Admiral Stavridis is Commander of the United States European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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