TAMPA, Fla – Army Lt. Col. Michael King could have imagined that his military career would take many unexpected turns, but he never expected to become an Afghan village elder’s marriage counselor, a former Mujahedin freedom fighter’s best friend, or create such strong bonds with his Afghan “brothers in arms” that he would put his life in their hands with ease.
This scenario, seemingly straight from a Hollywood movie script, became reality when King joined the Pentagon-sponsored Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands (AFPAK) program in September of 2009, designed to teach language and culture to officers and senior enlisted, with the intent of redeploying these individuals to the same region twice to maintain established local relationships.
“Once you are a friend of a mujahedin, it is stronger than the chains of steel,” stated King, translating what he was told by a befriended Afghan elder who had fought against Soviet occupation in the 70s. “He gave me a rug and told me to please give it to my wife and to give him a call the next time I am in Afghanistan,” said King recollecting the conversation.
Today, after a year-long deployment where he enhanced his language skills through immersion and self-study that included watching Afghan TV channels via a knockoff BlackBerry, King is back in the U. S. working at Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters. He is simultaneously enrolled in Phase III language training, which consists of three hours per week of self-study and two hours of face-to-face studies with a distance learning instructor via Defense Connect Online. Before his next deployment in the fall of 2012, King, like all other AFPAK Hands still in the program, is going to receive another 14 weeks of full-time language training at DLIFLC’s LTD in Tampa, Fla.
“The biggest benefit of having language capability is not having to rely solely on an interpreter to break the ice and wait on formal introductions. …It breaks down barriers between official business and personal contact with the folks you are dealing with,” he said.
This is precisely what the AFPAK Hands program had envisioned: creating language capable, culturally savvy leaders who could engage with the local Afghan and Pakistani population to form bonding relationships, that would eventually lead to productive reconstruction and revitalization of the war-torn infrastructure and economy of the nation.
To date, 356 Hands have completed Phase I training and deployed. The first cohort is now in the process of coming back and by January of 2012 over one hundred students are expected to be enrolled in Phase III language training.
“They (AFPAK Hands) are arriving back to the U.S. in waves, depending on their time of deployment and orders to return home,” said Nikolina Kulidzan, academic specialist at the DLI-Washington Office that provides curriculum support to the program. “We have about 20 students currently and expect many more to arrive by January 2012.”
While in Afghanistan, King lived in an Afghan Training Center for the national police, consisting of more than 150 local police instructors, a cadre of about 700 students and some 400 to 500 local national contractors. “There wasn’t a lot of coalition presence and I was out doing a lot of engagements with local leaders, police chiefs, and mullahs,” he said.
Because of his language skills, King found that one of his duties became welcoming new students to the Afghan Training Center where a literacy program is maintained. “Part of my duties were to check on the training and welcome the new class in Dari. Most of them were 18 to 25 years old and it was the first time they had actually seen a Westerner. I told them that if I could learn Dari ‘then you guys can do it.’”
King particularly enjoyed working with local schools, to include bringing children on the compound as a field trip to show them how Afghan police are trained. “I did a lot of stuff trying to engage with small village elders, adopting local schools … facilitating closer ties… putting together school field trips, etc.”
But for King, aside from listening to a village elder’s woes about his troubles with his three wives, his most memorable moments were spent with his Afghan military counterparts with whom he worked so hard to better the quality of life in very poor rural areas.
“There is something to be said about off-duty hours, in non-uniform, an Afghan asking you to come to have lunch with him, going out with your security platoon commander, and basically trusting each other so explicitly that your security is in his hands and his is in yours.”
Text and Photos
Natela Cutter, Strategic Communications