The Problem with PRTs

by Joshua Foust on 4/3/2008

When Medicins Sans Frontières abandoned Afghanistan in 2004, its primary complaint was that the U.S. had, in effect, “militarized” aid by embedding aid workers in military units—the Provincial Reconstruction Teams—and ruining the supposed neutrality of purely civilian aid groups. After five of their workers were murdered, the group declared the situation had become intolerable and closed up shop.

This was partially right and partially wrong—in almost any other conflict, the argument would have been a perfectly valid one, but the Taliban’s refusal to meaningfully distinguish between civilians and soldiers in its many campaigns of violence sort of nullified the point: MSF’s workers had been the target of violence in Afghanistan for years, but that had never prompted the pullout (and they had operated in areas that were far more violent without a pullout, too). In short, it was difficult to escape the political element to their withdrawal, even though it had a great deal of validity. (This is a topic I explored somewhat last year.)

But what of PRTs now? Have they managed to improve the situation, either in terms of security or dispersing aid? Marcus Gauster, in a rather sweeping evaluation of PRT performance (pdf), notes that the American approach to armed development has a mixed record:

[T]he civilian aid community… says that the US-PRTs’ projects are bad development policy, as the military has neglected to examine the local requirements in any great detail and to involve the population. Criticism is also levelled at the simultaneous conduct of combat and stabilisation operations, a fundamental problem of the US-PRT model.

The US’ aims in Afghanistan – to wage a successful war against terror and to maintain permanent bases – could, in view of the attempts to support the Afghan transformation process, lead to counter-productive results such as the strengthening of local Power Brokers and the weakening of the government in Kabul: CF again and again form an alliance with local militias and supply them with weapons and money. In difficult operations, Afghan fighters and international mercenaries often form the vanguard, which further encourages the privatisation of war and the weakening of the state’s monopoly on the use of force.

In other words, it is a good idea, in the sense that these teams represent an imperfect solution to an intractable problem: how do you deliver aid and reconstruction in a chaotic and violent environment?

Thanks to the Insurgency Research Group (which is a great group blog run by King’s College London), we have some less academic testimony of the challenge PRTs pose to development. Mark L. Schneider, the Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group, testified before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. The picture he draws is stark:

Today the lack of strategic coherence within the international community effort is reflected in separate civilian special representatives of the United Nations, of the European Union and of NATO, with no clear authority one over the other; and in a reluctance on the part of the United States and other major country contributors to be coordinated by any one of them.

It is a refrain heard often in this space: there is a widespread, and long-term, strategic incoherence at play in Afghanistan. In this, he is essentially repeating the accepted wisdom of the Afghanistan expert community, most of whom (running the gamut from Barnett Rubin to Carl Robichaud) have questioned what, and how, exactly, the present set up is meant to accomplish the mission everyone says they want: a safe, secure, stable, prospering Afghanistan. But the issue of PRTs is where his argument becomes crystal clear:

The PRT’s were established with the reasonable purpose of the military being able to provide some direct community benefits where insecurity prevented other, more appropriate, civilian actors from doing so. But there are serious questions about the use of PRT’s as instruments to achieve the wider goal of national development. While one could argue that differing local conditions may require flexibility in defining activities in a province, except for the 12-U.S. run PRT’s, there is little commonality among them and they operate without any transparent or common doctrine or even reporting lines for non-military actions.

The PRT’s may provide some capacity to undertake efforts in insecure provinces; however, many of the areas where the PRT’s operate are no longer high risk security. Reconstruction and development are not the role, responsibility, or comparative advantage of the military. In more stable areas, Afghanistan civilian agencies with their international civilian counterparts should be in the lead. Yet, there are no agreed-upon benchmarks for determining when that transition can take place and when it should take place. Today, the PRT’s often seem a supply-driven phenomenon, a way for nations to fly their flag in Afghanistan, but with little evaluation as to comparative impact or effectiveness.

The Gauster study linked above does just that, but by Schneider’s own testimony, the use of PRTs is both a good thing and a bad thing. The argument that they are an inappropriate instrument for relatively peaceful provinces is an easy one to make, for Schneider is right that the military is not very good at development (it is good at killing people). The problem is, the aid community isn’t necessarily any better or more coordinated—there are lots of good intentions to go around the planet several times over, but measurable, sustainable development work is few and far between. (Joel Hafvenstein’s account of his experience, though skewed because of his association with USAID at the time, is nevertheless fairly representative of the chaotic and mis-focused efforts in much of Afghanistan.)

The cliché of a hammer making all problems appear to be nails is apt. But so is sheer inertia: those PRTs by now have been operating in their areas for years. There is some degree of institutional knowledge there about the locals, the general economic and security issues facing their areas, and so on. They are, at the least, a consistent and predictable presence in their areas of operation. While the purpose of PRTs in peaceful provinces should absolutely be up for review—if violence has fallen to negligible levels, must a PRT have such an extreme military/civilian mix, sometimes as high as 100:1?—it would be a mistake to discard what they may have accomplished (or even more, what they could accomplish). For lack of a better phrase, they have flooded their local areas with cash, construction projects, and at least some noticeable infrastructure projects like buildings, solar and hydro power generators, and bridges. They are involved in local governance as well, and many have worked with the IDLG to successfully prosecute much-needed corruption cases against bad officials.

To summarize: when it comes to Provincial Reconstruction Teams, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is doubtless some should be retasked and have personnel shifts to reflect the reality in their provinces. But the PRTs have provided too vital a function in a region far too many other aid groups have abandoned to simply discard them as the penultimate destruction of aid efforts. Civilian aid groups, from World Vision to WFP, still operate in the country, and they have been able to do so largely unmolested—in part because the initial, dangerous work was done by PRTs kick starting a base for further development. It is important not to forget that.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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