The Magazine

Afghanistan ‘Outside the Wire’

The other frontline of the counterinsurgency.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By MINDY BELZ
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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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