Kilcullen Wants Curzon, Magic PRTs for Pakistan

by Joshua Foust on 7/19/2009 · 8 comments

David Kulcullen has a somewhat bizarre op-ed in the Spectator, in which he wishes for George Curzon to return to rule Pakistan:

One of Britain’s foremost colonial administrators, George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India 1899-1905, took office in the wake of the largest frontier tribal uprising in British Indian history. The Great Frontier War of 1897 pitted British and Indian troops against tribal lashkars and religious fanatics in exactly the same places — Bajaur, Malakand, Swat, Dir — where the Pakistani army is fighting the Taleban today. Lord Curzon is well known for his observation that ‘No patchwork scheme and all our present and recent schemes: blockade, allowances, etc, are mere patchwork — will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.’

The question is whether Pakistan’s current operation (President Asif Zardari launched a new offensive against the Taleban in April) is the military steamroller finally going into action, or whether this is another patchwork scheme. Oddly, it may turn out to be both — a patchwork steamroller.

What’s bizarre about this is the mix of accurate truisms with leaps of logic that aren’t quite supported by his argument. For example:

Yet this is not quite Curzon’s steamroller. The Pakistani army lacks a true counter-insurgency doctrine. It treats the conflict like a conventional offensive: applying heavy-handed tactics that have repeatedly backfired, turning local populations against the military. Pakistan has no equivalent of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the civil-military governance and development organisations that have proved so effective in Iraq and Afghanistan as a temporary bridge between military operations and the return of civil administration. While the army can temporarily clear areas, it cannot hold them: the police are intimidated, under-equipped, underpaid and often outgunned by the Taleban, and as troops move from Swat to Waziristan, Taleban re-infiltration into currently ‘cleared’ areas is highly likely. And the governance and administrative structures needed to build on security successes are entirely lacking.

That’s all very true… except the part about PRTs being effective in Afghanistan (and since when is the presence of PRTs considered an appropriate measurement of counterinsurgency?). It almost sounds like he’s channeling Cohen and Khanna. While governance is an enormous problem and need in Pakistan, and especially Northwest Pakistan, the call for PRTs based on their record is baffling.

Advocating the use of a tactic or policy without a discussion of its effectiveness is the COIN version of the underwear gnomes. We have PRTs, right, so they have to be effective, right? Step one: send PRTs to Pakistan. Step two: ? Step three: victory!

In the real world, PRTs have at the most optimistic, a mixed record. As a recent Congressional study found:

PRTs and e-PRTs are not subject to a unified or comprehensive plan for stability, security, transition, and reconstruction in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Think about it. Because PRTs were initially deployed in a scattershot 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. 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. Such handover is absolutely vital to effective operations, and even Big Army units, which try to do this on an annual basis, aren’t very good at it. But the Congressional Review went further:

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.

And this is the model Cohen, Khanna, and Kilcullen want to import into Pakistan? Maybe if they’re going to assert that PRTs have succeeded in their missions in Afghanistan, they could actually try explaining why they think so. Because right now, there is nothing beyond assertion that says PRTs have been effective at anything beyond short term (and often reversed) gains.

Oh, and maybe not wishing the return of British colonial administration to Pakistan.

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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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David July 19, 2009 at 12:05 pm


Having served on one, I match and raise your skepticism about the effectiveness of PRTs in Afghanistan.

I just re-read an outstanding piece on PRTs by Robert J. Bebber, an ensign with a PhD, that appeared in the Small Wars Journal: “The Role of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Counterinsurgency Operations: Khost Province, Afghanistan.” In it he spells out problems with PRTs with specific reference to Khost. Khost, as he reminds us, was in the words of ADM Fallon, “a wonderful example.”

Bebber offers up recommendations for fixing PRTs that are in many cases unrealistic, but his article deserves a careful reading for the cogent and candid assessment based on first-hand experience.

Much of what ails PRTs cannot be fixed. Serious thought should be given to shooting this horse in mid-stream.

With respect to applying the PRT model to Pakistan, it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly work when there’s scant evidence other than happy talk from Pak flaks that the military can team effectively with civilian authorities (for whom the military has an deep-seated disdain). Nor is there any reason to expect that either the civilians or military have the capacity and the will to engage the common people in ways that would establish new structures that accord consideration to the interests and aspirations of the people.

Given Pakistan’s sorry experience with state-led rural development efforts, one can expect that any structure or approach that is implanted in Pakistan will fail if it requires the direct involvement of Pakistan government entities.

It’s easy to imagine that once they pick up our enthusiasm for Pak PRTs, the Pakistanis will seize on them as a way to extract big bucks from donors.

The one skill where Pakistani officialdom is truly world-class is getting out uniform talking points concerning hitting up donors for hand-outs.

David Steven July 19, 2009 at 12:06 pm

I think Kilcullen is probably somewhat ill-served by his headline writer. I don’t think he (or seemingly Curzon) believes the steamroller is really a good idea, quite the opposite.

But a half-hearted streamroller does seem to be what the Americans have goaded the Pakistani government into.

Lots of force. Lots of things broken. Lots of displaced people. Pressure seemingly lifted in the short term – problem quite possible worse over the long term.

Joshua Foust July 19, 2009 at 12:13 pm

David #2: Well, I wasn’t really going off the headline. I was going off where Kilcullen describes Curzon’s “steamroller” effect, then says Pakistan doesn’t even have a counterinsurgency. He’s setting them up as equivalents. I could buy that he’s just writing sloppy and didn’t mean to draw the equivalence, but the words as written really say Pakistan needs a curzon steamroller and not a “patchwork scheme” he never really gets around to defining.

Oh, and how is Bajaur related to Helmand? He doesn’t really get around to that part, either, though we’re supposed to consider it all as one single conflict only Pakistan is the real conflict or something. Like I said in the post, it’s about half pretty obvious truths, and half dumbfounding leaps of logic.

So maybe it’s right to just chalk the whole thing up to a lazy analogy born from sloppy writing. Except the bit about PRTs, which remains unsupportable.

Nick July 19, 2009 at 4:53 pm

What with Rory Stewart banging on about British imperial history a couple of weeks back, you’d think they were getting strategy guidance from the ripping yarns of G.A. Henty, in particular For Name and Fame, To Cabul with Roberts (1886).

Eli July 21, 2009 at 6:23 am

Maybe PRTs have a mixed record depending on what you think they should be doing, but if the stated objective for a PRT is to be “a temporary bridge between military operations and the return of civil administration,” you cannot even call the record mixed. I do not think any PRT has been phased out and have not heard a clear strategy for fully transitioning responsibilities to civil administration.

While I do think that PRTs are doing many good things as development bodies, they face the paradox that by being effective they highlight the ineffectiveness of civil administration. Many local administrators do not even want any responsibility besides getting to decide who gets development project contracts. Many villagers in the area I worked in expressed a desire for the PRT to stop working with the local government and to work directly with the villages. If the intent is for the PRT to be transitory, somebody needs to think about how to make this happen.

Christopher Chambers July 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Along with the autonomy of the RCs, the PRTs have only served to Balkanize the Afghan campaign and were/are first and foremost a political expedient to get everyone on board and feeling like they are “contributing”. A quarterly meeting of PRT minds at ISAF HQ does not make up for the lack of a coherent, coordinated approach. It would be a real turning point if Gen. McChrystal demanded central control of PRTs (and far less autonomy for the RCs). While I have seen numerous instances of assistance and development (helping out after floods, medical care etc.) at numerous PRTs I have visited – and I’ve been to more than half, some numerous times – meaningful and coordinated progress is woefully lacking. For the PRTs that are not American led, the entry/exit door simply doesn’t stop spinning long enough to allow for understanding or engagement. The above comment from Eli makes a good observation: maybe we shoudl be calling them PRTTs – Provincial Reconstruction and Transition Teams – if we are really serious about moving to accountable regional and local governance; of course, this would require all PRTs to be working from the same playbook. That Killcullen so readily mentions PRTs as one of the possible solutions to the myriad problems in Pakistan (oh that it were so!!) shows how deeply the concept has become in modern military thinking; with the “success” of PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a concept that’ll be very hard to put back in the bottle.

IntelTrooper July 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Shut down the PRTs and delegate responsibility/authority to award projects to representatives embedded with the manuever units/ETTs/OMLTs on individual FOBs. Create some kind of unity of effort/unity of command. That’s a start.

M Shannon July 23, 2009 at 5:48 am

The PRTs are now (initially there was a security component) a very expensive way to attempt to deliver services that should be done by provincial governors or NGOs.

On the upside that are of some use selling the war to non-US taxpayers. The respective defense departments can drone on about how “our PRT” is busy painting schools or digging wells without the bothersome detail of the cost or the negative effect it’s having on the local government or NGOs.

Getting rid of them will be difficult. They provide an officer heavy, comfortable, feel good, medal producing opportunity for a number of NATO armies that are less than keen on looking for guerrillas.

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