December 1, 2005  

Hearts & minds model?

Last month AFJ took a look inside Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, and Vance Serchuk pronounced these joint civilian-military efforts to be a key to winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, buttressing the authority of the government in Kabul and providing a central effort in the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign. But, as Robert Perito, coordinator of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan Experience Project, writes, the lessons of PRTs need a larger context.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 19, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that in order to “clear, hold and build” in Iraq, the U.S. would deploy Provincial Reconstruction Teams modeled on those used in Afghanistan. Importing the PRT model from Afghanistan reflects the success the teams have enjoyed there. In Afghanistan, PRTs are small, primarily military organizations with representatives from U.S. civilian government agencies and the Afghan government. Their mission is to extend the authority of the Afghan central government, improve security and promote reconstruction.

If PRTs are now to become the cutting edge of the U.S. effort in Iraq, we should be clear about the U.S. experience with these unique institutions in Afghanistan. The U.S. Institute of Peace recently interviewed 60 American and foreign officials, soldiers, and aide workers associated with PRTs. I also visited Afghanistan in June. The lessons from Afghanistan, both the successes and what are necessary improvements, are worth close study as the model is transferred to Iraq.


Provincial Reconstruction Teams find their origin in the “Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Cells” that were established in early 2002 by U.S. military forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom. Dubbed “Chiclets,” these small outposts were staffed by a dozen civil-affairs soldiers tasked with assessing humanitarian needs, implementing small-scale reconstruction projects and establishing relations with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that already were in the field.

By late 2002, this program was expanded with the creation of the first PRTs that added a force protection component and representatives of U.S. government civilian agencies to augment the Army civil-affairs effort. The first PRT was established in Gardez in November; Bamyan, Konduz, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Herat followed in early 2003. Initial sites were chosen to provide a U.S. military presence among Afghanistan’s four primary ethnic groups, in the former headquarters of the Taliban and in the base of the country’s most difficult warlord, Ishmael Khan. The primary purpose for creating these outposts was political, but PRTs were also seen as a means for dealing with the causes of Afghanistan’s instability: terrorism, warlords, unemployment and grinding poverty.

But the lack of a central coordinating authority, a governing concept of PRT operations or a strategic plan left each sponsoring country free to interpret the guidelines and to conduct operations based on its national priorities and local conditions. Initiative devolved to the PRT commanders; operations were driven by personality and heavily influenced by operating environments. Some PRTs led by members of the coalition other than the United States were subject to “national caveats” that prevented them from conducting operations that might endanger their personnel. This approach brought beneficial flexibility, but it also resulted in an ad hoc approach to Afghanistan’s needs for security and development.

To be fair, there’s a measure of ad hocery in the U.S. approach as well. The size and composition of U.S. PRTs vary depending upon maturity, local circumstances and the availability of personnel from civilian agencies. Combined Forces Command, the leading military headquarters, does, however, have a model, which U.S. PRTs generally emulate. The teams are commanded by an Army lieutenant colonel and have a complement of 82 American military and civilian personnel.

The model’s civilian component includes representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition there is a representative from the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and a handful of local interpreters. But if there’s something like a table of organization, reality in the field is almost always different. Most PRTs do not have all their parts. Lack of skilled personnel has been a significant constraint on the teams’ effectiveness.


Among the three objectives of the PRT program, U.S. commanders viewed promoting the authority of the central government as the primary mission. In most cases, this translated directly into a policy of supporting the provincial governor. The rationale was that governors were appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and were responsible for administering central government programs. In cases where governors were competent administrators, PRT support warned off local challengers and promoted a range of initiatives. In many cases, however, provincial governors were old-line warlords or regional power brokers whose loyalties were questionable. Support from PRTs enabled these leaders to distance themselves from the central government. Many provincial leaders were suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking, misuse of public funds and human rights abuses. PRTs often faced the prospect of either becoming identified with unsavory or incompetent officials or working for their removal.

Given the importance of establishing security in Afghanistan, the restricted role assigned to PRTs was surprising. PRTs were responsible for their own protection. They were not responsible for protecting Afghans or relief organizations. The armed element in the PRT, usually a National Guard infantry platoon, was responsible for escorting the PRT commander and civilian members. During civil disturbances, PRTs withdrew into their compounds, leaving the task of restoring order to Afghan security forces or coalition combat units.

Despite their restrictive mandate and practical limitations, PRTs did provide a reassuring security presence. PRT military units conducted frequent patrolling, while their commanders called on Afghan officials and tribal leaders to discuss their security concerns. Afghans saw U.S. forces as a welcome indication of U.S. interest and international support.

Perhaps the PRTs’ most important contribution was in security sector reform. PRTs provided training and equipment to the Afghan police and constructed police stations, courthouses, jails and border check points. Where PRTs were located near Afghan National Army units, they conducted joint patrols and provided support if the Afghans were challenged. The presence of American military units empowered Afghan security forces to face down militia commanders, remove illegal checkpoints and seize weapons caches.

As military units operating in a “nonpermissive” environment, PRTs used quickly built village improvement projects to demonstrate good will and encourage popular support. Civil-affairs teams hired local contractors to construct schools, clinics, wells and other village improvements. Projects were financed by funds from the Commanders Emergency Response Program that could be disbursed on the PRT commander’s authority. Rapid turnover among civil-affairs personnel, pressure to demonstrate progress, and limited knowledge of local conditions often resulted in the hasty construction of buildings without reference to the Afghan government’s capacity to support these activities. Schools were built without teachers and clinics without doctors.

Although it may be that soldiers and aid organizations are learning to work together better, it’s clear that problems remain. In Afghanistan, PRT involvement in reconstruction provoked criticism from NGOs, which argued that relief workers relied on an aura of neutrality for their personal safety. If the same soldiers both fought insurgents and built clinics, the boundary between civilian and military efforts would be blurred. NGO representatives also argued that soldiers were not experts in development and that civil-affairs projects reflected a lack of expertise. Economic development involved more than constructing buildings, especially if construction was uncoordinated with local authorities.

NGO criticism, along with PRT internal evaluations and the arrival of USAID representatives, produced a shift toward better coordination and a longer-term approach to reconstruction. Military civil affairs “hearts and minds” projects were reserved for insecure areas where NGOs could not operate. In secure areas, PRTs worked on government infrastructure such as roads and public buildings. These projects were beyond the capacity of private agencies, which supported this approach. PRT Project Review Committees became expert at utilizing a mix of funding sources to accomplish long-term projects.


What can be learned from the PRTs’ mission in Afghanistan?

1 Improvisation is not a concept of operations. Absent an established concept of operations and a clear set of guidelines for civil-military interaction, PRT commanders and civilians had to improvise. This was problematic since military officers and civilian agency personnel came from different “corporate cultures” and had different, sometimes competing, mandates. Without an interagency agreement on individual roles, missions and job descriptions, it took time and trial and error to achieve a common understanding of mission priorities.

The fact that civilian agency representatives arrived without their own administrative or logistic support meant disagreements were most likely resolved in accordance with the priorities of the military commander who controlled the available resources. Fortunately, most PRTs arrived at workable accommodations, but not without the inevitable tensions arising from disagreements over priorities. The most effective PRTs were those where the military and civilian elements fused into a close-knit and mutually supportive team.

2 Stability operations is not a game for amateurs. The State Department, USAID, and USDA did not have the capacity to surge personnel and resources into Afghanistan, highlighting a problem that affects all U.S. government civilian agencies. Recruiting a single, usually junior, officer or a recalled retiree for every U.S. PRT represented the limit of State’s ability to provide staff for what was a cutting-edge effort to develop effective civil-military cooperation. With only a thousand foreign service officers worldwide, USAID was forced to rely on contactors to staff PRTs. USAID fielded a team of dynamic representatives, but none possessed career-long expertise and all had to learn on the job. USDA officials were able to utilize their expertise despite the lack of predeployment training, an overall strategy or job description.

3 Spend-and-build is not a strategy for development. The PRT reconstruction mandate lacked accurate evaluation metrics, consistent staffing, and quality control. Using the amount of money spent and the number of buildings constructed as measures of effectiveness had obvious shortcomings. Applying these measures to the work of PRT civil-affairs teams resulted in projects that were questionable both in terms of relevance and quality. Short tours and frequent turnovers further aggravated the problem. Absent agreed measures of effectiveness, there was no means to determine whether civil affairs-directed projects really increased local support or promoted development. Creation of Project Review Committees and the presence of USAID and State Department representatives moderated the inclination to undertake low budget, short-term projects.

4 PRTs are military, not development, organizations. Much of the controversy surrounding PRTs would be dispelled if the name (and mission) were changed to Provincial Security Teams. PRTs excelled at providing a security presence and performing duties related to disarmament and demobilization and de-mining. They also made welcome contributions to security-sector reform through police training and assistance. Failure to concentrate on providing stability risked not creating the secure environment required by private relief agencies with real development expertise.