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.”