Washington, 20 October 2005 (RFE/RL) – Three years after they were introduced, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are winning cautious praise from international bodies and the Afghan government.
Twenty-two units are now deployed from Faizabad in the northeast to Kandahar in the south. Their roles have evolved since the first team was introduced by U.S. forces in the eastern town of Gardez, but they remain focused on small projects such as building bridges, renovating schools and clinics, and in some cases training Afghan police.
PRTs also helped with security in presidential elections in 2004 and in September's parliamentary polls.
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told an audience of foreign-policy experts on 26 September in Washington that the PRTs are playing a constructive role in stabilization efforts.
“As a whole, it’s a positive experience," Abdullah said. "While it will not do the job of counterterrorism in a specific term and manner, it is a complement to the efforts of stabilization of Afghanistan and in the war in a broader sense."
"While it will not do the job of counterterrorism in a specific term and manner, it is a complement to the efforts of stabilization of Afghanistan and in the war in a broader sense."
The United States, which commands a separate antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan, runs 14 PRTs. One of them, in the western province of Farah, is under NATO command. Most of the rest are in the less secure eastern and southern regions of the country.
Lithuanian troops command a PRT in western Chagcharan. There are also PRTs headed by forces from the Netherlands (Pul-i-Kumri), Germany (Faizabad), Italy (Herat), and Britain (Maimana), as well as units turned over to NATO control in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz. A non-NATO country, New Zealand, commands the PRT in Bamiyan, and Australia is considering heading its own unit.
All aim to improve security and extend control of the Afghan central government. But the PRTs handle civil-military activities in different ways depending on the environment and the priorities of troop-contributing countries. The troop contributors set conditions for deploying forces, such as restrictions on how far they can move from bases or the hours of the day they operate.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai told RFE/RL that this flexible approach has attracted a growing number of troop contributors.
"It's a model that's growing in popularity because it works," Appathurai said. "But the key is, of course, that it's a flexible model. A PRT in the north, where things are pretty relaxed, comparatively, is very different from a PRT in south, where it has to have a much heavier military element."
The U.S.-run PRTs usually have about 80 soldiers and a smaller civilian component, including officials from the U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID). Their emphasis has been economic assistance and quick impact projects, such as wells, schools, and roads.
Britain started the PRT in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and places more focus on security assistance. Its forces have been credited with de-escalating conflicts between militias loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad. They have also helped with the roundup of heavy weapons in the area and with training local Afghan security forces. German PRTs are among the largest, with about 300 personnel each. They have a limited military mission but a large economic assistance role.
Not Without Problems
Robert Perito is a specialist with the U.S. Institute for Peace, a congressionally funded organization that on 26 October will release a major study of Afghan PRTs.
Perito told RFE/RL that the lack of standardization among PRTs poses some problems. For example, even as NATO expands its jurisdiction in Afghanistan, no single commander can direct the operations of various PRTs until the restrictions of troop contributing countries are removed.
Another problem, Perito says, is gauging the effectiveness of the PRTs.
"I think that's one of the major failings of PRTs, is that they have not established standards and they have not established measures of effectiveness," Perito said. "What you are left with then is anecdotal information, where people will tell you a story about a PRT doing this or not doing that, and people's impressions, so it is in fact very difficult to evaluate what they have accomplished."
U.S. officials say the PRTs provide useful “eyes and ears on the ground” for both military and civilian planners. Military officials say some Afghans have alerted PRTs to bombs, mines, and insurgent activity.
U.S. aid officials say that on one major reconstruction project -- the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway -- PRTs operating in Ghazni channeled important feedback from villagers in affected regions. Officials say project planners in Kabul gained insight into the importance of feeder roads to the highway, as well as the capabilities of local Afghan construction workers.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Darrel Pearman, who helps support the PRT in Parwan, north of Kabul, told RFE/RL that there has been an improvement in the coordination of projects this year.
“Things have become a lot more structured, and smart people have started thinking, 'Hey, we need to start working this in a systematic way,'" Pearman said. "So now we’re looking at roads and infrastructure improvements and those types of projects, and we think in a systematic way -- ‘OK, so let’s try to link this provincial capital with this provincial capital, fix all the roads in between those.' "
The improved coordination coincides with the increasing deployment to U.S.-run PRTs of full-time staff from the USAID.
The agency's assistant administrator for Asia, James Kunder, told RFE/RL that the lack of standardized practices in the 22 PRTs is an obstacle to improving the functioning of ministries -- such as health and education -- in the provinces:
"While we can have 22 different perimeter configurations, we can't have 22 different public health reporting systems in Afghanistan because the Ministry of Public Health has declared what the official Afghan public health reporting database will be," Kunder said. "And so this is exactly one of the issues we're looking at that is very critical for the applicability of PRTs in other settings -– how do we make them specific enough to take into account local conditions, but how do we make them consistent enough with the overall Afghan priorities? And that requires a degree of standardization."
Ill-Equipped For Aid?
A report commissioned last summer by Britain's Department for International Development said most PRTs remain primarily military missions. It said they are not equipped to deliver assistance in ways that will have a long-term developmental impact in rural Afghan communities. The report also called for broader efforts by PRTs to increase the capacity of Afghan security forces on the regional level.
Kunder of USAID acknowledges the challenges.
"I am not going to report perfection to you," he said. "We still have work to do. We still have to get better at this. We still have to make sure that we pay full attention to the priorities of the Afghan ministries, and we're still working out the modalities for accomplishing that and responding to the needs of the local villagers on the ground that the PRT teams encounter on a daily basis."
The PRTs are attracting increasing scrutiny as NATO plans to assume more control of the units in southern Afghanistan from U.S. forces. U.S. and NATO officials are discussing a long-term plan to turn over responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan to NATO. It would maintain the distinct missions of anti-terrorism combat operations and attempting stabilization through PRTs.
U.S. policymakers are planning to transfer the model to another nation-building effort. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that, starting next month, coalition-run PRTs will work with Iraqis as they train police, set up courts, and help local governments establish services.