The PRT Underwear Gnomes Come Out in Force

by Joshua Foust on 1/31/2010 · 6 comments

It’s sad to think about the extent to which American foreign policy is guided by magical thinking (by almost any definition). This is especially so in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where policymakers, pundits, and think tankers seem especially opposed to viewing the region as it actually is, rather than what they wish it to be.

One of the ideas people are convinced will “fix” Afghanistan is the Provincial Reconstruction Team. These teams, usually a company of soldiers headed by a Navy or Air Force field grade officer and a few USAID or USDA officials, are meant to kickstart development efforts, mentor the local governor on how to administer his area, and administer government programs.

It all sounds very lovely in concept. But what’s the end state? PRTs were originally called Provincial Transition Teams, since they were meant to transition administration from the U.S./ISAF to the Afghans. You don’t hear PRT people talking about transition much anymore, at least officially. Worse still, despite years of trying, I haven’t been able to find, conclusively, where or when a PRT actually made a measurable difference in its area of operations. And the few times actual PRT workers or soldiers have discusses their experiences, it’s been qualified success at best, often bordering on failure.

In 2008, the House Armed Services Committee released a report about the effectiveness of PRTs. I wasn’t pretty:

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

Oh. Well, the HASC report goes on to say 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.

So this lack of coordination and broader mission—made worse by overlapping and dischordant national missions and caveats from NATO member countries—is the backdrop for the PRT conference in Prague last week. Judah Grunstein reports:

Perhaps most evident, however, was the way in which civil-military cooperation remains in many ways — at the very least — awkward, more along the lines of a shotgun wedding than a love story. Nick Grono, deputy president of the International Crisis Group, understatedly observed that the military’s tendency to view civilian actors as components of its strategic planning conflicts with NGO operational interests and agendas. Tomas Kocian, from the Czech NGO People in Need, stated flatly that the military involvement in PRTs compromises the humanitarian role of NGO and humanitarian efforts…

More troubling was the fact that the overall effort, as described by its practitioners, amounts to an enormously ambitious and exceedingly challenging nation-building project, despite Obama having explicitly downgraded nation-building as an operational priority in his new strategy. A good deal of the discussion of governance, for instance, centered around the intricate task of grafting bottom-up traditional governance institutions onto the top-down structures already in place.

Of course, later that same day, Grunstein ran across the same Dexter Filkins article I did. While the PRT conference was all about “fixing” the relationship between the central government and the provinces—as if there is anything to fix, since all personnel and resources flow from Kabul outward—the people on the ground, like the commander in Nangarhar, are actively discarding that initiative and undermining the government. There is, in other words, a serious clash between rhetoric and action. Grunstein:

I’d wondered, while listening to U.S. and multinational officials engage in a very delicate song and dance routine about how development and reconstruction aid has to be channeled through the local Afghan government, exactly how that would play out on the ground, given the well-known shortcomings of Afghan local government. I guess now we know.

I’m also taken aback by the timing of this one. On the one hand, it reinforces the credibility of the “reintegration” narrative by offering an Afghan equivalent of the Anbar Awakening that turned the tide in Iraq. But on the other, it’s a live grenade in the lap of the Afghan government on the day of the London conference. And having seen in Prague how prickly and engaged on the issue the Afghan delegation — most of whom traveled on to London — was, I can’t see how this helps.

It really doesn’t help, especially if you’re comparing the Shinwari to the Sunni Arabs in Iraq—a bad idea no matter how you slice it. Either way, we can at least take some comfort in realizing that the international community seems guided by the underwear gnome theory of strategy—that if they just think hard enough, then they can magically make Afghanistan into whatever they wish it to be and declare victory.

Wait, I don’t take any comfort in 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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Madhu January 31, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Fantastic post.

The magical thinking is equally applied to Pakistan and has been for the past, oh, 50-odd years or so. The various aid to Pakistan bills (with or without conditionalities), the visits to the region by high-powered officials and Generals in order to appear on television like poorly coached sychophants, the “we feel your pain on Kashmir, and hey, now that we do, do you still think India is a threat?” are the international community equivalent of a big, fat, giant Foreign Policy consensus PRT.

Sometimes, you can’t reorder another person’s priorities no matter how hard you try. Take that to the level of a nation, and it’s just that much harder.

Sorry, but after your righteous post I felt the need to vent.

Madhu January 31, 2010 at 6:02 pm

“One of the ideas people are convinced will “fix” Afghanistan is the Provincial Reconstruction Team.”

Not to belabor the point – and I will leave you alone after this, promise! – but look at the sections in the leaked QDR on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then think how the Foreign Policy community is convinced it can “fix” Pakistan. Pretty freaking presumptious, eh? No grand reordering of an entire society stuff going on there, eh?

Okay, done now. Again, sorry.

Joshua Foust January 31, 2010 at 6:10 pm

No need to apologize. I agree with you, and find it deeply frustrating.

By the way, you might enjoy this: David Kilcullen musing on the need for PRTs for Pakistan (and Parag Khanna too!)

Oh, the humanity. Or lack thereof.

Madhu January 31, 2010 at 10:14 pm

PRTs for Pakistan? Well, now I’ve heard everything.

Honestly. I give up.

What are the odds that, say, five years from now there will be another one of those Foreign Policy “Af-Pak” articles detailing the lost monies from the various “good governance” programs? There’s, like, one a week now. I’d say about 100%.

Fnord January 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm

With all due modesty, i dubbed the term holistic strategy three years ago. Seems to still be in effect. Magical thinking indeed. Where oh where is the UN engineering division?

David M February 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/01/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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