Master Sgt. Jason Rajewski, Maj. Jim Tobin and now retired Navy Cmdr. Wisdom Colemen take part in an event of the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program. (Courtesy of Maj. Jim Tobin)
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Maj. James Tobin is one of 138 airmen who are part of the AFPAK Hands program, an eclectic group of service members and civilians charged with bridging the cultural divide between Afghans, Pakistanis and NATO commanders.
“You’ve got a group of individuals who are trained to be able to think a little bit differently and have extensive education in the Afghan culture,” said Tobin, who is currently in Kabul, Afghanistan. “We almost serve as conduits or interpreters between two cultures. [The Pentagon] spent quite a lot of resources and quite a lot of time trying to get us to understand the Afghan culture enough so that we could blend the two [cultures] in order to reach those mutual goals.”
The program was started in 2009 when Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then director of the Joint Staff, decided the military needed a group of experts to focus solely on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those selected for the program receive language training and work directly with Afghans and Pakistanis.
Tobin, an acquisitions officer, recently arrived in Afghanistan to begin his second deployment with the program.
He is helping the Afghan National Police take over the responsibility of issuing contracts.
The assignment is reuniting him with Afghan officials with whom he worked at the start of his first deployment in 2011.
“All these guys not only recognized me, they couldn’t believe that I was there in their office and I was also here to stay,” he said in an Oct. 17 interview. “I explained to them in Dari everything that I had done since I had seen them last. ... I hadn’t seen them in about probably 20 to 22 months, and they recognized me, and they were just overjoyed that I had returned.”
Tobin’s language training has been invaluable in helping him work with Afghans. By understanding Dari, a version of Farsi spoken by the educated classes in Afghanistan, he can comprehend both what Afghans say and what they mean.
“I’ve been able to pick up on the verbal and nonverbal cues that they tend to drop when they feel sincere about something or when they feel impassioned or frustrated,” Tobin said. “These are some of the things that you can pick up by knowing the language and knowing the choice of the vocab that they use.”
His language ability came in particularly handy during his first deployment when he met with a former Taliban commander who had come to meet with Afghan officials about the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, an Afghan government program that offers job training and other incentives for former insurgents to reintegrate into society.
“They weren’t able to find jobs; frankly, I think he was worried about them getting frustrated and stopping part of the peace program,” Tobin said. “He was pleading for us to be able to find some decent jobs and be able to reach out to these individuals and try to get them confident in the ability of the Afghan government to provide jobs and provide security so that they could stay with their families.”
Tobin noticed that the formerTaliban commander would switch from Dari to Pashto at certain points in the conversation. Tobin’s translator explained that the man used Pashto to underscore the seriousness of the point he was trying to make.
“A lot of times, it’s important to understand the message that they’re trying to get across as well as the method they are trying to get this message across,” he said.
For Tobin, the most rewarding part of the AFPAK Hands program is being able to understand Afghan culture and his Afghan counterparts more quickly than a service member who has not had the same training.
“We are allowed to get that sweet spot of working alongside the Afghans and actually making significant progress so quickly at the beginning of our tour that we are able to make so much more progress together as unified units,” he said.
About 600 people are involved in the AFPAK Hands program, including officers, enlisted service members and civilians, said Navy Capt. Jim Muir, AFPAK Hands program manager.
At any given time, about 230 personnel are serving in Afghanistan and 10 are in Pakistan, Muir said in an Oct. 16 interview with Air Force Times.
They play a variety of roles, including serving as advisers to the Afghan government. Some serve as liaisons between special operations troops working with Afghan village leaders and the higher-ups in the Afghan government, he said.
For example, special operators may want to bolster a local Afghan official’s credibility, but the official is unable to get permission from Kabul to build a road, Muir said. The Hand can talk to another member of the program who is working in the Afghan government to see if the ministry can provide the money and resources needed.
“They’ve been very effective at doing that’” Muir said. “ ‘Connective tissue’ has been a word that we’ve used for the Hands on how to tie different people together.”
AFPAK Hands participants deploy twice — first for 12 months and then for 10 months, Muir said. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of participants are officers because Afghan and Pakistani officials place a premium on rank.
“We identified some [enlisted]liaison positions with the Pakistani military and that showed a little bit of a cultural rift right there because the Pakistani military was not interested in talking to enlisted, unfortunately,” Muir said.
After going through combat training and learning about counterinsurgency and local culture, members of the program take a 16-week language program, he said.
“It’s intense, I mean it is you, me and a commander sitting with an instructor right there for eight hours,” Muir said. “Then they’ll swap out instructors and bring in two at a time and they beat the guys very, very severely. It’s a pretty good workload.”
About 65 percent of AFPAK Hands learn Dari, while about 30 percent learn Pashto, which is spoken primarily in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Muir said.
Validation of culture
Beingable to speak the language is important becausemost of Afghanistan’s cultural icons have been destroyed by war, Muir said.
In 2001, the Taliban demolished two massive statues of Buddha that been carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan more than 1,400 years ago.
“Every major cultural thing they have in Afghanistan has got a bullet hole in it or a bomb crater on it somewhere — or a shell crater,” Muir said. “When you speak to them in their language, that’s like their one grip they have with their culture. When you talk to them in it, they react unbelievably that, ‘Hey, this westerner, this American took time to learn my language.’ It almost validates them as human beings.”