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AFPAK Hand director makes a difference
KABUL, Afghanistan - For a man who survived a suicide bombing two feet away from his vehicle and still carries pieces of shrapnel in his face, Navy Capt. James Muir, who runs the Afghanistan/Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands program at the New Kabul Compound, has a remarkable sense of humor.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please prepare for takeoff. Our distress call sign today will be “Simba,” said Muir, emulating a pilot’s voice with a boyish chuckle, while passengers donned their armor. “To the right you will see King’s palace, to the left is the Queen’s palace and in between is Russian Swimming Pool Hill, the only Olympic size swimming pool in Kabul.”

Though Muir has served as an excellent tour guide for those who have come to examine parts of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, his official job is one of great importance. He manages 190 AFPAK Hands who are dispersed throughout the country, some working in Afghan ministries, some in the Presidential Palace, while others operate in outlaying rural areas. With their special skills, all of them contribute to the peaceful transition of power from coalition forces to the Afghan government and military.

“What is really remarkable about our AFPAK Hands is that their language and culture skills have allowed them to work at very high levels. For example, a group of them work in the Afghan Presidential Palace and have literally set up a situation room, equivalent to what you would find in the White House,” explained Muir, as the vehicle came upon a roadblock set up by Afghan security forces. In a split second, Muir jumped out of the car, said a few words in Dari and the roadblock disappeared.

“When an incident occurs, they are (AFPAK Hands) immediately able to react, collect information from all quarters and create one situational report that is then given to President (Hamid) Karzai and the International Security Afghanistan Force (ISAF) commander,” continued Muir.

One thing that Muir likes to make clear when speaking about the AFPAK program is what his AFPAKs are not.

“As director of the program in theater I often find that the organizations where the AFPAKs are placed do not exactly understand the role of an AFPAK Hand. The Hands are not interpreters, they are not intelligence officers who engage in spy work, and they are not staff action officers hidden away in dingy offices,” he explained, while pointing out a German school for Afghan children.  

“An AFPAK must have direct contact with Afghans in critical roles nearly every day. They need to establish and maintain enduring relationships with the Afghan population and government, and the position has to provide development for the Hand as a subject matter expert,” he said.

If this criteria is not met, well, a Hand may simply disappear from the position overnight and be reassigned elsewhere, just as fast as the Afghan security forces’ roadblock. 

To carry out his mission, Muir has a strong ally, Marine General John Allen, who just took up his new position as ISAF commander in July and is a firm supporter of the program.

“My intention as COMISAF for the two years that I will be here is to do all I can to support the (AFPAK Hands) program. This is a very important program…This program exists today so that we have the cultural, linguistic (and) societal understanding and depth necessary to achieve maximum effect at key points within the execution of the campaign,” said Allen in an address to AFPAK Hands Aug. 27.

Only three days later, a new AFPAK Hands program implementation directive was issued to establish proper assignment and employment of the Hands in theater.

But the appropriate placement of the Hands is not the only worry Muir has. He also makes sure that the Hands receive the necessary language and counterinsurgency training when in-country, and fights for the program’s success by making sure his Hands’ career paths are on track during the three to five year program that involves four phases of language training and two deployments.

And why is Muir, who has a family and job at home as a senior engineering manager, and holds four patents for packaging, automation, and medical products, so adamant about the implementation of his program? The answer is simple.

"If I left this to others less qualified, less capable… Well, I don't think I could face that mirror. I don't think I could face knowing that I could have made a difference but instead I walked away,” he explained.  

Story and Photos by

Natela Cutter, DLIFLC Strategic Communications

Caption 1: AFPAK Hands program director Navy Capt. James Muir speaks with Marine Maj. Doug Cobb who is currently working on a project to refurbish the Kabul Olympic Stadium with artificial turf for the Afghan National Soccer Team. The stadium became infamous during the Taliban years when people were executed during half time at soccer games.

Caption 2: AFPAK Hands program director Navy Capt. James Muir speaks with Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center Commandant, Col. Danial Pick, at Camp Julien, while waiting for transportation Sept. 12, the day of the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in central Kabul, that caused the halting of all movement for U.S. service members.
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