Learning from PRTs

by Joshua Foust on 4/27/2008 · 2 comments

In my last look at Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I made a plea of sorts to critically examine the effectiveness of PRTs (which has indeed been oversold), but not to abandon the concept entirely. The relative paucity of research on PRT methods, effectiveness, and theory is rather surprising, given that the military is in the midst of a vast transformation toward a civilian-positive focused model of warfighting (for lack of a better phrase), and the PRTs constitute a major component of this. (The recent SWJ post by Dave Kilcullen on road building in Afghanistan is a perfect example: the PRT in Kunar is coordinating, funding, and sometimes directly constructing the roads there.)

Now the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has published its review of PRTs, and it looks like the boot licking was kept to a minimum:

Provincial Reconstruction Teams exemplify the type of interagency stability operations units deemed by the Administration to be essential to reconstruction and counterinsurgency. General Petraeus specifically included e-PRTs in his 10-point counterinsurgency guidance and recognized that to fully use military and civilian capabilities, the e-PRT civilians needed to be integrated in all aspects of MNF-I operations “from inception through execution.” However, PRTs and e-PRTs are not subject to a unified or comprehensive plan for stability, security, transition, and reconstruction in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The December 7, 2005 National Security Presidential Directive-44 (NSPD-44) established the interagency policy framework for preparing, planning for, and conducting stabilization and reconstruction activities. It directs the Department of State to lead these USG efforts in close enough coordination with the Department of Defense “to ensure harmonization with any planned or ongoing U.S. military operations across the spectrum of conflict.” The Secretary of Defense issued guidance that the Department should prioritize stabilization and reconstruction activities at a level comparable to combat operations in the form of DOD Directive 3000.05, published in November 2005. However, earlier this year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England directed the revision of DODD 3000.05. Reportedly, the new directive will incorporate stability operations into the Irregular Warfare Roadmap.

This is an exciting way to look at how PRTs function—rather than addressing direct effects of their operations, it examined the underpinnings of the teams themselves, and sees if, from an internal perspective, they are functional. The formulation is a fairly new one: moving, despite the baggage of the term, toward a more network-centric conceptualization of nation-building efforts (think more John Robb than Art Cebrowski). The idea of removing so-called “stove piping”—in which all decisions are vertical and horizontal collaboration is nonexistant—has been a hallmark of defense reform post-9/11, and PRTs were meant to embody the type of operation that can take place when different agencies are mashed together in a complex war environment. In a domestic setting, this sort of thinking is exemplified quite well in a paper detailing SPAWAR‘s transition from a relatively stove-piped to a relatively networked structure, and how that transition paid enormous dividends toward operational effectiveness.

One of the most important conclusions reached by the HASC report is that because PRTs were initially deployed in an ad hoc manner, there is no central mission, and oversight and review is extremely difficult. In other words, there were never any SOPs developed to govern how PRTs handle their missions, so their projects, whether it’s building roads in Khost or trying to run a medical clinic in Zabul, receive little or no central coordination. Disturbing as is the lack of oversight by CENTCOM—given how tightly they monitor the activities of civilian NGOs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the relative lack of direction from higher up the command chain is distressing; these PRTs contain several dozen soldiers, too, and often face combat. It might be argued that this is a good thing—functionally they are not “controlled” by the military the way a Brigade is—but on the ground, locals rarely if ever make the distinction between “military” and “PRT,” which should indicate greater coordination from the top is needed.

Similarly, there is a lack of continuity—as new personnel filter in, there is no standardized way of getting them up to speed on operations and history. This is absolutely vital to effective operations: as even Kilcullen demonstrated in his recent piece, being able to compare an area over years is more indicative of actual progress than any short-term security or human gains.

There is a tremendous amount of good study here, including a look at how funding is distributed, staffing, success metrics (none exist, which is related to problems with continuity), best summarized by this:

The bottom line, however, is that until PRTs receive consistent and clear direction from higher headquarters, they will not be able to maximize their efforts or judge their success. In this environment, resources cannot be programmed or applied effectively. The heroic tactical work being done by PRTs will go for naught without more coherent strategic and operational level guidance and oversight. In the absence of such guidance and oversight, resources, instead of supporting strategic agility, may be poorly prioritized and coordinated and, in some cases, squandered.

Given the reactions of many local blogs in Afghanistan, the latter possibility—of PRTs resources being squandered because of its structural failings—is common. But this is more than simply another way in which institutions have systematically failed Afghanistan (and, by extension, Iraq as well). In October of 2006, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report titled “Wikis, Webs, and Networks: Creating Connections for Conflict-Prone Settings.” The gist of the paper might inform some of the shortcuts the HASC report identified:

Connectivity Increases Effectiveness
A high degree of connectivity lends itself to a densely interconnected network. In such a network, “there is more power in being an information source than an information sink” and information is more likely to be shared than hoarded. The strength of the network ensures that information will find its way around any bottlenecks and choke points. Being a source of information brings benefits, increasing the visibility and influence of the provider.

For perhaps understandable reasons, very little comes from PRTs in the public sphere, save press release-style reports about how wonderful they are. Better interfacing with both civilian aid agencies, as well as analysts and reporters who cover the area and may have a much deeper knowledge of local and regional events and problems, could pay tremendous dividends in PRT effectiveness. The CSIS report mentions a much more liberal attitude toward freeing information and generating community than the PRTs have seen in either theatre—these, too, could be effective ways of adding multipliers to the PRTs’ efforts.

Despite these many challenges, there remains a tremendous value to the PRTs in Afghanistan. In many places, they are one of the only agencies there to fund large scale development projects, such as roads, micro hydro power plants, and government building construction. These criticisms and suggestions should be seen in that context—taking a generally good idea and increasing its potential to sow good.

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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 Registan.net. 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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{ 2 comments }

Afghanistan Analyst April 27, 2008 at 11:31 pm

There are 12 academic/military articles on PRTs plus a PRT interviews resource on page 73 of this bibliography:

Bibliography pdf (0.25MB)

There are also a few new articles from 2008 that are to be included in the next edition of the bibliography. If anybody wants those new articles they can contact us and ask for the PDFs. We’re all about sharing.

Joshua Foust April 28, 2008 at 12:10 am

Thank you. I’ve read several of these, and the rest are at the top of my list.

However, considering the truly major shift in military policy these groups represent—both within the military, within civil-military relations, and the broader concept of conflict resolution, counterinsurgency, and post-conflict reconstruction—you would think that there would be greater attention spent to their implications, composition, and impact.

In other words, more please.

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