November 1, 2005  

Innovative teams are building goodwill at the grass-roots level

The front-line fighters in the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan are in the American and coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. In the classic counterinsurgency mold, these are relatively small operations combining civilians, including Afghan government officials, nestled in a protective military security shell, along the lines of civil action patrols in Vietnam. The PRTs clearly are keys to success in Afghanistan.

Recently, I visited the PRT in Ghazni, in the hills southwest of Kabul. Ghazni has a lot of history, but little else. The PRT is located in and around a former Taliban madrassa, a long, gray, concrete corridor of a building south of the city center. Although co-located with a combined-arms battalion — comprised of soldiers from the 116th Infantry Regiment of the Virginia National Guard at the time of my visit earlier this year — the American military base is easy to miss, little more than a smudge of Hesco barriers, canvas tents and plywood bee huts along an otherwise desolate stretch of the Kabul-Kandahar road.

Despite an unprepossessing appearance, however, PRTs such as the one in Ghazni are part of an important and evolving experiment in counterinsurgency warfare, with potentially far-reaching implications for the way the U.S. government wages the war on terror.

The idea for PRTs was conceived in late 2002. The teams comprise not just soldiers, but diplomats, development policy experts (from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture) and representatives of the Afghan government in Kabul to the far-flung corners of the country. While PRTs dispense money for reconstruction projects, the strategic purpose of these civil-military field teams is arguably more political than economic. By engaging in high visibility, feel-good humanitarian activities, PRTs — which, when U.S.-run, typically consist of just 70 to 80 people, the overwhelming majority for force protection — assert a kind of “benign ownership” over their area of responsibility, extending the reach of coalition forces and planting the flag of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The Ghazni PRT, for example, is involved in a range of activities, from training local police to refurbishing schools. The base also has a hole-in-the-wall clinic that attracts between 15 and 30 patients a day. Although the medicine on offer is rudimentary — mostly geared toward head colds and indigestion — the clinic is popular among provincial Afghans, for whom any health care is a radical advance. In early 2004, the clinic would typically see a woman a month; a year later, it was treating as many as 10 a day.

Although a handful of PRTs were established in the early months of 2003, it was not until later that year that their numbers rose dramatically. The expansion was coincident with the arrival of Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador in Kabul and a push by the U.S. military to flatten its force posture throughout the country, while still maintaining a relatively light footprint. Consistent with the best counterinsurgency theory, decisionmaking was decentralized, pushing soldiers and civilians alike into closer proximity with the Afghan population.

By intensively engaging across a spectrum of Afghan society, PRTs not only have an opportunity to shape the local balance of power, but simultaneously to glean valuable intelligence. It has been estimated, for instance, that the dozen or so Foreign Service officers posted to PRTs are responsible for generating half of the State Department’s political and economic reporting from Afghanistan.

Given their modest size and separation from Kabul, PRTs unsurprisingly put a premium on flexibility, informality and ad hoc improvisation. “Over the last few weeks, I’ve been educating myself about bridge design and construction,” said one soldier during a weekly staff briefing in Ghazni, shortly before launching into a detailed presentation about the needs for local infrastructure.

On my first night in Ghazni, we took a convoy a short distance over snow-covered roads for a dinner meeting with the provincial governor. The National Guardsmen rode in Humvees, but the PRT commander preferred his sport utility vehicle, amicably arguing along the way with his State Department adviser about the relevant lessons from Vietnam-era programs.

In practice, PRT support for local governance has tended to translate into close ties with the provincial governor, appointed by President Karzai. Sometimes, this has given spirit to an otherwise weak, but decent, representative of the new democratic order sent from Kabul; in other instances, it has amounted to reciprocal back-scratching with a local power broker, who has ties to drugs, militias and worse. Often as not, it’s been a little of both.

Gathered in an L-shaped reception area warmed at its center by an incongruously large wood-burning stove, the dapper, young governor of Ghazni welcomes his American guests. Over cloudy cups of green tea and plates of dried fruit, conversation occasionally veers toward security — especially concerning a problematic police chief with ties to an Islamist radical group — but mostly the focus is on provincial development: municipal snow removal, funding for the local university, the uneven electricity supply (as if on cue, the lights flicker out intermittently.)

Teeth gnashing

It is precisely this blurring of traditional lines between security and reconstruction — a distinction, incidentally, that nations such as Germany and Canada have tried to reassert in establishing their own PRTs in Afghanistan — that initially prompted a great deal of teeth gnashing by relief workers and nongovernmental organizations. American officials retort that this is a distinction the Taliban and other extremist groups, in their murder of aid workers, burning of schools and intimidation of would-be voters, clearly do not respect.

“There are no neutral spaces in Afghanistan anymore,” says one U.S. military official.

Despite all the attention PRTs have attracted, it’s striking just how little money theyspend. Of the $1.4 billion nonsecurity-related funding obligated in 2004, for instance, PRTs accounted for barely $100 million, less than 10 percent of the total. In fact, the overwhelming majority of aid money in Afghanistan is increasingly focused toward long-term, large-scale reconstruction projects, in which the PRTs play a comparatively small role.

More important than the raw sum of money the PRTs disperse, however, is where and how they work. Consider that the two major metropolitan provinces of Kabul and Kandahar together received approximately 70 percent of funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development for “local” projects last year. PRTs provide a desperately needed pipeline into Afghanistan’s other 32 provinces, where a dollar of aid can go a long way. In particular, they can operate where the strategic need is greatest, but where traditional aid agencies are least capable of operating: areas where the Taliban still have a grip on the local populace, or where warlords remain the dominant political force.

As the war in Afghanistan evolves, the role of PRTs will undoubtedly change, too. The Bush administration is pushing for all of the sites to be turned over to NATO by the end of next year, suggesting a future in which they become the instruments of a long-term, Balkans-like peacekeeping mission. It would be far preferable, however, if instead of making PRTs into appendages of the international community, they could be reoriented toward an aggressive program of building local institutions, improving the quotidian workings of Afghan governance at a grass-roots level.

Still, the very existence of the PRT program is itself something of a miraculous achievement. The PRTs are, after all, an all-too-rare expression of interagency innovation and cooperation in the war on terror: a serious, sustained attempt to fill a pronounced gap between the Bush administration’s strategic ends and institutional means in Operation Enduring Freedom.

The real challenge with PRTs, then, is not simply how they can be made more effective to suit the local conditions in Ghazni and at 20-plus other locations across Afghanistan, but whether the concept can be replicated elsewhere. Where else besides Afghanistan is the Department of Agriculture on the frontlines of the war on terror?

Vance Serchuk is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.