What Does The Pentagon’s ‘Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program’ Say About Obama’s ‘Smart Power’ Efforts?

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

An interesting effort at the Pentagon caught my attention in recent weeks: the “Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program.” Introduced earlier this year, the program raises broader questions about the emerging Obama doctrine on U.S. national security and the right balance of resources between military and non-military efforts.

Yochi Dreazen at the Wall Street Journal mentioned the program in this article earlier last month (calling it the “Afghan Hands”), and this recent article on the Pentagon’s website provides more details.

The program seeks to bring officers from all of the military services to serve for 3–5 years on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The overall aim is to promote greater focus and continuity on these countries as well as reduce the steep learning curve facing personnel on language and cultural issues when they land in Afghanistan. The program has 300 billets, including 121 new positions. Military personnel who enter the program would have their assignments focused on the Af-Pak region of the world –so after serving on the ground, they would rotate to positions in the Defense Department that are focused on this part of the world. The training would include several weeks of language training in Pashto, Dari, and Urdu, as well as combat training. And the Pentagon has stated that those who enter the program won’t be penalized in terms of advancement and seniority — easier said than done with the sometimes rigid bureaucratic procedures governing such a large group of personnel.


The idea for the program emanated from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s review of Afghanistan strategy that General Stanley McChrystal chaired before he became the current top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Obama administration officials are careful to note the obvious — that this program could be scaled back if the commander-in-chief decides to move to a strategy that includes a more modest military footprint in Afghanistan. I doubt that the creation of this program signals all that much about what President Obama will decide in the coming weeks, beyond restating the obvious that we’re seeing a recalibration of more resources to Afghanistan and Pakistan and that the center of gravity for U.S. policy in the broader Middle East and South Asia is shifting eastward.

Two questions I had about the Af-Pak Hands Program:

1. Why did it take eight years to come up with this idea? I don’t find it a particularly innovative idea that America might want to know something about the countries where it sends tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines and spends billions of taxpayer dollars. There are more tactical questions such as whether a few weeks of language training are really enough — as an Arabic speaker, I know how hard it is to develop and then maintain the language skills. The creation and existence of this program demonstrates the gap that exists between what counterinsurgency (COIN) theorists often propose our troops should do and the actual capacity among our troops to implement those tasks.

2. What do Pentagon programs like these mean for the “smart power” ideas that are the threads of an emerging Obama doctrine on national security? The Obama administration’s top national security officials have all talked about the need to focus on investing in diplomacy and development as tools of national power — putting it under the label of smart power. And Afghanistan and Pakistan are probably the toughest test cases of this emerging Obama doctrine of smart power.

A program with 300 billets is not very large if one considers the overall military presence in the country — 68,000 at present, with thousands of supporting actors back here in the United States and in other parts of the Central Command. But the 300 positions are part of an effort framed as vital to a possible counterinsurgency strategy, and that number is almost a third of what the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development hopes to have on the ground in Afghanistan after the “civilian surge” is implemented (with no plans for additional personnel in the foreseeable future according to a recent statement by Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew.)


Perhaps this Af-Pak Hands program is a minor issue in the grander scheme of things — the long standing funding and power disparities between the Pentagon and civilian agencies are well known. The FY2010 budget requests for DOD vs. State are at a 12 to 1 ratio — about $660 billion for the Pentagon (including supplemental funding for the wars) versus $50 billion plus for foreign operations. And as Josh Rogin at Foreign noted yesterday, the real Defense-State turf war is just getting underway on other fronts.

The Af-Pak Hands raises several important questions –what’s the right balance of military versus civilian agencies in developing a “smart power” strategy? If diplomacy is the “vanguard” of this new approach to security, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued in her confirmation hearing, then what happens when there aren’t simply enough diplomats or development assistance professionals to answer the call? How much should the military continue to play a role in implementing development assistance and economic reconstruction? Can other agencies offer an alternative? Does the State Department have a similar program to assign personnel to 3–5 year slots focused on these countries? If not, why not?

Speaking at the New America Foundation earlier this fall, Retired General Anthony Zinni sparked a minor but interesting debate by proposing the creation of a new military command in the Pentagon to advance the political and economic reconstruction efforts in places like Afghanistan. He offered this idea out of frustration — saying essentially that the civilian agencies like the State Department and USAID aren’t moving quickly enough to implement the “smart power” ideas he supported on a previous think tank commission.

The Af-Pak Hands program is a minor initiative in these broader debates. But depending on one’s perspective, the Af-Pak Hands program either represents yet another sign of the continued militarization of U.S. foreign policy or a pragmatic effort to fill policy implementation gaps left behind by civilian agencies that lack the resources and capacity to deliver.