District Development Teams Are A Go!

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by Joshua Foust on 8/11/2009 · 7 comments

Last September, Professor Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School took to the pages of the Atlantic with his long time writing partner, M. Chris Mason, to discuss a new way of organizing the war:

Local teams with on-site development personnel—“District Development Teams,” if you will—could change all that, and also serve to support nonmilitary development projects.

Their idea was to replace the current provincial reconstruction teams with district level teams that would secure the population and deliver development assistance. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, we weren’t the biggest fans of the idea, for a variety of reasons.

That being said, while the specifics were a bit off, the Big Idea of localizing the counterinsurgency is a good one. If it can be done. Leaving aside the questionable merits of expanding the number of PRTs, the idea of focusing efforts locally makes a lot of sense if you have the right people. Does anyone see the State Department, USAID, and USDA each ponying up the hundreds of people it would take to place just one person in each district?

Enter Nathan Hodge.

For the most part, PRTs have concentrated on provincial issues, but a new plan is getting underway to bring civilian experts down to the local and tribal level, in part through something called “district support teams.”

It’s the diplomatic equivalent of sending soldiers out to remote combat outposts, instead of keeping them on large forward operating bases. The PRTs I have seen in Afghanistan are usually based in or near the provincial capital; their primary relationships are built with the local governor and provincial-level officials. The next phase would involve sending diplomats, aid workers or agricultural experts out to critical districts, where they would potentially have the most impact. As the military has learned, building relationships with district sub-governors (pictured here) and local police chiefs is key.

Yes, indeed. So, what’s the plan? Are we somehow going to find a 1,200 civilians to staff the 398 (or so) teams that would be required to staff each district support team with a diplomat, development professional, and agribusiness expert in Afghanistan?

“These teams will be critical in engaging and mentoring district and community leadership in areas which have been exceedingly difficult to reach due to terrain and personnel,” the report said.

In addition, the State Department has mulled the creation of “fly-away teams” composed of of one to three civilians that can travel out to forward operating locations, as well as “tribal engagement teams” that would be established in primarily Pashtun areas…

Staffing these expanded teams, however, will require some effort. An interesting point of fact: The State Department has recently recruited a number of people for “limited non-career appointments” in the Foreign Service — essentially, augmenting the U.S. diplomatic corps with temporary hires.

Yes, quite interesting. Nothing says “serious commitment to counterinsurgency” like turning it into another Peace Corps stint run by grad students. But also, we’re creating expeditionary teams that won’t actually be based locally, and “tribal engagement teams” that will be based in Pashtun areas. That sounds terrifically disorganized, and a repetition of some of the fundamental misconceptions about how community engagement needs to happen the last several years. Does anyone really think those fly-away teams, most likely based in Kabul, will be worthy the cost in fuel it’ll take to get them out to these forward locations? Given the State Department’s truly onerous security regulations, does anyone really think these teams can ever get close enough to the actual population to do any good? And let’s not even mention the terrible anti-civilian biases that still infect military planning.

This whole idea still feels really terribly thought out. We know how to do this—we’ve done it on smaller scales. Why are the guys in charge refusing to learn from their own successes?

Image courtesy The Department of Defense.

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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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Michael Hancock August 11, 2009 at 8:02 pm

It was bad enough having to convince people that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I wasn’t a spy or an employee of the State Department. I can’t begin to describe what a bad idea it is to blur the line between the PC and the DEFENSE Department.


This is not to say that the Peace Corps has no place in Afghanistan, but PCVs Do Not Wear Camouflage. They don’t. They shouldn’t. And they sure as hell don’t carry guns or have mandatory weapons training.

BruceR August 11, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Canada has a version of this now: Joint District Coordination Centres (JDCCs) in key districts in Kandahar Province. It doesn’t work too well.

Security is an issue, so you end up working out of defended locales, and only move with Western military support, limiting access, and devoting military resources that could best be used elsewhere. To the degree you have a district leader of questionable legitimacy or effectiveness, it only serves to prop them up past their due date. To the degree they’re actually successful, they undercut any attempt by provincial leadership to exert their own authority through normal channels, or are seen to, anyway. Of course civilians willing to take duty shifts at the radio in a combat zone (which is much of what you end up doing, by default) are scarce.

The idea of large numbers of civilians being introduced in the current environment, at least in the south, is a fantasy. The greatest source of ANSF casualties when I was there was police station overruns. If it’s not at least of the strength of a Western platoon house, it’s vulnerable. And if we could have put platoon garrisons in those “exceedingly difficult to reach” districts, we would have before now. Something about bombs on the roads, or something.

You’d achieve greater effect for the same military outlay by using the same personnel as police mentors, instead.

M Shannon August 12, 2009 at 3:21 am

This could work if the force protection levels were dropped down to one expat security guy and a large squad of locals with strong local support and by adopting a very low profile.

Could DOS/ USAID could recruit the necessary program staff to put these in district centers? In the east most DACs can expect to be fired at (usually with no ill effect) monthly and have a bi-weekly IED planted on the main road. How many DOS and USAID folks are up for this level of adventure?

This might work from the security perspective but whether it’s worthwhile from the development angle is another question. Each team located in its own compound would cost several million dollars per year. Increasing grants to NGOs already working in the districts would get more bang for the buck without increasing the number of western targets and armed foreigners.

Military security would be counter-productive and cost far far more as well as diverting troops from other tasks. If the troops use aggressive convoy techniques the program could easily stir up the rebellion instead of damping it as well as making the situation more dangerous for NGOs in the area.

BruceR August 12, 2009 at 8:09 am

To be clear, I’m a big fan of smaller, more dispersed forces. You can cover a lot of ground with a bunch of mentor teams, an ANA battalion plus mentored police, and a Western company working out of a small FOB. It’s practically the only template that I saw that worked in the high-combat areas. I’m also partial to Tim’s ideas on Free Range International for even smaller teams.

I worked with a team in a governance location for a while where we had exactly 2 Western soldiers dedicated to defending us, and maybe half-a-dozen other Westerners in the wire, along with a whack of PSCs and other Afghans, and lots more help on call. I also worked in small dets in ANA HQs where other than our own vehicle crews any Western armed help was a nice long drive away from us. In both cases it worked real well: I think our small group could have hurt anything that came after us. Note we were still wholly reliant on the Western landowner force for all our mobility and supply, though. And all of us had guns. And we didn’t advertise we were there, necessarily, either.

The original paper called for 20-30 Westerners guarding every district centre in the south and east, in order to stimulate district governance. That would give you force protection, but not force projection. I’m saying if we’d had those kind of numbers to spare, we could have manned 3-4 mentored police substations each, instead, in each district, with better effect.

By contrast, bringing in large numbers of civilians that would contribute little to their own defence and spreading them around the country in small groups would be a major drag on any security-building required in the same area.

AJK August 12, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Having an American district commander working alongside (but certainly not with) an elected/appointed Afghanistani district commander? The downside of more localized force projection is that it will likely quite literally put an American flag in every town. At what point does that just become colonization? When the “buy all opium so the Taliban doesn’t” kicks in?

District Development teams aren’t necessarily a bad idea, but it sounds like nobody took second-order consequences into consideration.

BruceR August 12, 2009 at 1:45 pm

District leaders are not elected. Appointed by the central govt in most cases, and often relieved peremptorily in the same fashion.

Aoit August 15, 2009 at 11:37 am

This seems to be the same as the original invasion. Special Forces, Green Berets, working with the locals. The program was designed by the US intelligence committee and had some RPCVs working in it. It’s the old ‘Kennedy Green Berets and PC(they’re training in cultures and languages alot alike).’

This failed when they stopped giving out cash and later the money was given to NGOs who handed it out like Mercy Corps with old Kennedy connections(Shays and Chayes). This also has stopped because it’s too dangerous. This concept has failed because it was relying on old connections and old ways of doing things in modern warfare and Afghanistan. The concept is blamed for calling this a ‘NATO war’ where things are handled differently, probably why the ‘green berets and PC’ went after the money and got it.

The concept is really considered spy work and paying informants. NATO has become known for all it’s American spies and failures with military lives. Allot like Georgia, it’s become an excuse to leave NATO and this might be the real issue.

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