On her second deployment to Afghanistan, Capt. Felisa Dyrud, U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2006, landed in front of live cameras in a Kabul television studio, in full camo fatigues and a chef’s hat, baking an apricot tea ring.

“They asked me to wear the uniform,” explained Dyrud, a little apologetically, as we watched a YouTube rendition of her September appearance on Ariana Television Network’s Bakery Show. Founded in 2005, ATN is the largest private TV network in Afghanistan and claims to cover 33 of 34 provinces.

Dyrud is a member of Afghan Hands, an elite group of officers trained in local languages and assigned to long-term community outreach—what some deride as nation building. Her unit operates under a joint anticorruption task force called Shafafiyat (“transparency” in Dari). It’s based at NATO’s ISAF headquarters in Kabul. Dyrud, who just spent her third Christmas in Afghanistan, has gotten to know her share of locals, including the television producer who invited her to host the cooking show during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

The California native made the most of the opportunity. Throughout the 30-minute segment, she spoke in Dari, counting out cups of flour and spoonfuls of sugar alongside an Afghan assistant. The apricot tea ring is a family favorite from a childhood spent partly in the United States but mostly in South America, where her parents were missionaries.

As Dyrud worked, expertly turning pans to show the at-home audience her progress, she explained the holidays her family celebrates. She also managed to work in a lesson from her current assignment: “If dough contains even a drop of poison, the cake will look normal but is really dangerous and fatal. And corruption is like poison.”

For comic relief while the dough rose, two male officers from Afghan Hands joined her in front of the camera, dancing and playing a bongo drum and kitchen tools turned percussion instruments.

Starring on a cooking show is just one way Afghan Hands embed with the culture as part of the broader U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. “Until you understand the Afghan reality you cannot craft solutions that are meaningful,” Dyrud contends.

The United States still has near-record levels of troops in Afghanistan, but few have clearance to venture “outside the wire.” Dyrud and her colleagues defy the standard rules of engagement. For too long in this long war, they believe, U.S. military personnel have been seen by locals operating from a zone of safety that bars them from the realities of Afghan life. Even when Gen. David Petraeus commanded U.S. forces, and officers around Kabul took to quoting from his counterinsurgency manual (all about “securing the civilian population”), the rise of suicide bombings and IED attacks kept U.S. soldiers behind barriers. Most carry out their deployments from inside a fortified military installation, within the safety of an up-armored convoy, or—if they venture out on foot—distanced from local people by a ceramic-plated ballistic vest, helmet, and weapons.

In contrast, Dyrud usually goes to community functions in local dress, including a headscarf. The relaxed standards for Afghan Hands allow her to visit college campuses, take part in student-led seminars, dine with local officials, fly kites, and cook.

What’s the point, when bombs continue to go off in the streets? Officers like Dyrud believe that if all the United States does here is train security forces, it will end up with another Pakistan, a militarized Islamic state threatening other states. Their objective is to influence the cultural mindset from the ground up.

On 9/11 Dyrud was a freshman at the Air Force Academy. “I was sitting in class when they turned the televisions on and we watched the footage of the planes going into the towers.” She resolved to go to Afghanistan, raising funds over the next year and dropping out of the Academy. She arrived in Kabul—with the U.S. war against al Qaeda in full swing—to work as a teacher in a public orphanage.

A year later, Dyrud decided to return to the academy. She had to reapply for a nomination and again win acceptance. She graduated in 2006, got married (her husband is stationed stateside in the Air Force), and eventually found herself back in Afghanistan, this time on military deployment and better prepared with street-level expertise than many of her fellow officers.

For one thing, she has no fear of Afghans. “Too many of our people deploy here to sit inside an office all year in front of these,” she said, tapping her laptop, open on a table at the Tora Bora Bar inside the walled compound of ISAF headquarters. “We need a lot less of this sort of communication,” she said, pushing the laptop away, “and a lot more real contact with the people we’re trying to win.”

Dyrud likes Afghans and draws courage and hope from them. She’s a full believer in the Petraeus counter-insurgency doctrine that says 20 percent of the population may support the insurgency, 20 percent may favor U.S. and NATO objectives, and the target population, the group to win over, is the 60 percent in the middle.

“The toughness of this assignment .  .  . can hardly be compared to what the Afghan people go through day in and day out,” she told KVOI-AM radio in Tucson in a long-distance interview last year. “I look at the Afghan people and I think these are the resilient ones, these are the heroes.”

When Adm. Mike Mullen launched Afghan Hands (also called AfPak Hands) in 2009, he envisaged a 900-member corps of officers and highly trained enlistees who would go through a 17-week language course and commit to deployments of up to five years. One year later, only 172 had signed up.

Yet Mullen and other commanders were convinced that a lack of continuity and of military and cultural expertise was hampering U.S. efforts to train not only security forces but also civilians who would take over the U.S. mission. Shaida M. Abdali, assistant to President Hamid Karzai and deputy national security adviser, agreed: The newly trained Afghan security forces boasted “quantity but not quality,” he said, and U.S. and Afghan strategists had failed “at engaging the majority population where they live.”

Mullen and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then commander of forces in Afghanistan, launched Afghan Hands to bolster the war effort and signal the United States’ long-term strategic interest in the region. In a December 14, 2009, memo to the service chiefs, Mullen called AfPak Hands “the military’s number one manpower priority.”

At the time, Mullen was embroiled in the Obama administration’s protracted review of strategy in Afghanistan. Assembling a seasoned corps of expert officers was urgent as it became clear the president would announce a timetable to withdraw troops. “The program demands the best and brightest leaders our Services have to offer,” Mullen wrote in the memo to the chiefs. When one of his own—his chief speechwriter at the Pentagon and a highly regarded Air Force officer named Lt. Col. Tim Kirk—volunteered for the assignment, Mullen signed the order to let him go.

Kirk, now a full colonel, began language training two years ago. When I met with him last fall in Kabul he had just signed on for his third deployment (leaving his family in Virginia). He says he has no regrets about stepping off the Pentagon career track, where he’d likely be on his way to becoming a one-star.

Despite the long stay in Afghan-istan, Kirk carries with him a breathless sense of having a lot to do in a short time. Over the summer he prepared a PowerPoint presentation on battling corruption—what he calls “breaking the cycle of impunity with the cycle of integrity.” He shows it to Afghans all over the country, from top government officials to aspiring business students at Kabul University.

Kirk says that being a student of U.S. military history and now of Afghanistan’s past and present makes him an optimist. He can tick off Afghanistan’s challenges—“corrupt officials, weak law enforcement, narcotics, criminal networks, insurgency”—but he also likes to point out that George Washington was 15 years old when the first Afghan election took place, the Loya Jirga of 1747.

“It may be naïve to think this is possible, but I believe the founding of our country is based on the principle that man can govern himself,” said Kirk. “So I don’t believe there is anything fundamental about any other culture or ethnic or regional group of people that makes this impossible.”

What remains to be seen is whether Kirk and the others who’ve joined Afghan Hands can actually exert a significant influence on the political culture of a country of some 30 million in whatever time they have left.

Mindy Belz is editor of World magazine.

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