Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Attempts to address lack of continuity and expertise hampered by lack of continuity, expertise

Apparently the Af-Pak Hands program, designed to create from scratch a pool of language-trained area experts to help fill critical billets related to the Afghan war, is having some trouble getting going. As it turns out, one of the big problems is a.... lack of language-trained area experts. And some other stuff, like the significant disincentive to volunteerism that comes from a career-killing five-year commitment to a program that no one understands well enough to fit service there into the context of a competitive rating system.

The military’s effort to build a seasoned corps of expert officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates into the program, according to some senior officers and participants.

The groundbreaking program is meant to address concerns that the fight in Afghanistan has been hampered by a lack of continuity and expertise in the region among military personnel. But some officers have been reluctant to sign up for an unconventional career path because they fear it will hurt their advancement — a perception that top military leaders are trying to dispel as they tailor new policies for the complex task of taking on resilient insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Perhaps most disappointingly, Admiral Mullen just put out a letter to the services in which he expressed concerns over the quality and/or appropriateness of many of the volunteers. So not only are we short of willing candidates, but many of those who have signed up probably aren't suited for duty in a program of this type, and we're faced with the reality that there probably just aren't enough of those people around. (Sort of reminds me of the argument that "unnamed captain in the Pentagon" made on Ricks' blog a few weeks ago: we need more Special Forces! Like, 700,000 of them! And they need to be special!)

7 comments:

  1. I've never really understood this program--if you are going to ask for volunteers, ask for volunteers. If some one was, say like me, a former Air Force officer with about a years worth of time on the ground in Afghanistan, how would that person go about volunteering?

    The DoD and State department have both bemoaned the lack of volunteers, when they haven't really (at least in my opinion) asked for volunteers at all. Volunteers on the scale they need them will need to come from both in and out of Government.

    As far as the military goes, why would any ambitious young officer sign up for a five year commitment to the region when the President has said the military commitment starts to end in 2011? It also seems a bit shortsighted--might we to train officers for expertise in Afghanistan only to have Yemen be the biggest military challenge?

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  2. I agree with Keith. Your best bet, from USMil's perspective, isn't a bunch of freshly-minted or otherwise youngish officers, its people who have an interest in the area and would like to serve their country.

    You'd be better off shortening the time frame (2-3 years) and offering scholarships to the defense language institute then you woudl be convincing officers that despite everything they want to do, no really, they should do this instead.

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  3. I agree with Keith. Your best bet, from USMil's perspective, isn't a bunch of freshly-minted or otherwise youngish officers, its people who have an interest in the area and would like to serve their country.

    You'd be better off shortening the time frame (2-3 years) and offering scholarships to the defense language institute then you woudl be convincing officers that despite everything they want to do, no really, they should do this instead.


    Well the program is limited to field-grade officers, so we're talking about guys with about 10 years in, minimum. They're not looking for lieutenants.

    As far as shortening the time, I'm not sure that's going to do a great deal to make guys more competitive. Programs like this already exist (FAO, to some extent, but I'm speaking more specifically of something like the Olmsted Scholarship with its training at DLI and then overseas grad school) but are not wildly popular because of concerns on the part of potential candidates about their competitiveness for promotion and command. (Well, that, and a three to one nonconsecutive additional commitment, so if you do three years in the program you owe an extra nine.)

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  4. And beyond neutral effects on the attractiveness of the program to candidates, shortening the commitment would mitigate against the intended benefit for the military, which is a pool of guys that are dedicated to the region over the medium term, not just a bunch of people that will do one tour as Afghan desk officers in the J-5 shop.

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  5. Dart on the board (though not that original): what about, errr, handling area expertise in the same way that's done for legal and medical officers? Someone who comes prepackaged with a decade + of degree, research, and fieldwork accomplishments, basically handed a direct commission at a senior rank for a time-limited period? Normal career issues like viability for command wouldn't be an issue, since that's not what they'd be recruited for. Feasible?

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  6. Mike -- Yes, probably feasible. I would expect that it wouldn't be all that attractive to potential applicants, though, especially if you're not offering any money for education/training. And as far as I know, these programs generally commission graduates as O-3s -- not exactly "senior rank."

    The real limiting factor here, though, is that there simply aren't that many qualified experts running around out there, either in or out of the military. The AfPak Hands program tries to remedy that by accepting quality officers and adding expertise, rather than the other way around. There are problems with both approaches.

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  7. Ooops, I probably should've checked back here before putting up a big post on Registan about this. Thanks, Gulliver, for pointing out my big flaws in knowledge about how military works.

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