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Afghanistan: PRTs Go Beyond Humanitarian Issues Into Security Realm

A civil affairs program led by the U.S. military has become a mechanism for expanding the presence of international troops across Afghanistan. While much has been written about the humanitarian projects of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), little has been reported about the security elements linked to the program. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in Afghanistan with U.S. troops. In this report, he sheds new light on both the security elements and intelligence-gathering aspects of the PRTs.

Kandahar, Afghanistan; 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The expansion of an international military presence across Afghanistan has progressed rapidly in recent months through a program of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

U.S. Army Colonel Craig Morton is the officer in charge of planning the growth of the PRTs. "PRTs ultimately will be in all [of the Afghan] provinces. When we got here [just under] a year ago, there were only two PRTs in existence. And today, operationally, we have 12," he told RFE/RL. "By the end of summer or early fall, we'll have four more, for a total of 16. And at that point, we will have covered half of the provinces. Now, how long it will take to get the other half of those provinces covered by PRTs, I don't know. Of course, most of the provinces are actually covered by PRTs. It's just that some PRTs have more than one province. The ideal situation is to have one PRT per province."

A lot of what we're doing as the military out there is small-scale reconstruction compared to what the civilians can do."
Thirteen months ago, when the first PRT was created in the southeastern Afghan town of Gardez, it was described by U.S. officials as a way to bring stability to Paktia Province and to bolster the local economy through the construction of wells, roads, schools, and medical centers.

But few details have emerged about the security elements associated with the PRTs. In the southern parts of Afghanistan, where remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda continue to operate, at least four PRTs have been set up in close proximity to what the U.S. military calls "forward operations bases," or "fire bases."

A fire base is located at the forward edge of a potential battle area and is used for the deployment of combat troops. Commanders are positioned at fire bases to control combat operations. Logistical teams also are there to resupply combat troops with food and ammunition.

With Pentagon officials saying a spring offensive will soon be launched in southern or southeastern Afghanistan, attention is focusing on fire bases and PRTs in or near the towns of Khost, Gardez, Ghazni, Qalat, and Kandahar. U.S. Marines are being deployed at the fire base near Khost.

Independently of PRTs, U.S. forces also have established fire bases near the southern towns of Orgun and Shkin, which are both in Paktika Province near the border with Pakistan. There also are PRTs and fire bases in or near the eastern towns of Jalalabad and Asadabad.

Morton confirmed that PRTs in areas were the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are still active -- such as those near the border with Pakistan -- also work closely with U.S. Special Forces. "Some of our PRTs are co-located with Special Forces assets. Some are not. And that was not necessarily by design," he said. "But when we go into a province, especially in some of the less permissive areas, if the Special Forces had a camp there and they could provide us security, then in at least a couple of instances there, we have co-located with them. And so, it's a synergistic kind of an existence out there where [Special Forces] sometimes provide us some security. They provide us some intelligence. And we provide humanitarian assistance and reconstruction and that sort of support."

U.S. Army public affairs officers say some local Afghans who benefit from the humanitarian programs of the PRTs are providing information to U.S. forces about the activities of Taliban fighters in the south and southeast. Meanwhile, security elements for the PRTs also conduct patrols and can gather intelligence on the activities of Taliban cells or the militias of feuding Afghan warlords.

A new PRT opened this week in Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, about 145 kilometers northeast of Kandahar. So far, there are no reconstruction projects there. But combat troops from the 2-22 Infantry Battalion of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division were deployed near Qalat about two months ago to set up the defensive fortifications for a forward operations base.

Those troops also have been conducting what they call "presence patrols" to let local residents know that the U.S. military is active in the area. Suspected Taliban fighters appear to know about the new U.S. position. Last week, the fortification at Qalat was attacked with rockets and mortars.

It is not just U.S.-led antiterrorism operations that benefit from the PRT network and its nearby security detachments. The work of the Gardez PRT and of nearby U.S. Special Forces are credited with driving away local warlord Padshah Khan Zadran. That Pashtun mujahedin commander had been allied with the United States in the fight against the Taliban regime. He fell out of Washington's favor after launching rocket attacks into Gardez twice during 2002.

Last autumn, British officials at a PRT in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif negotiated a cease-fire between the feuding militia factions of ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Tajik commander Mohammad Ata. Previous cease-fires between those rivals had collapsed repeatedly after the fall of the Taliban. But the new deal is backed by the presence of British military observers in the PRT. So far, the cease-fire has held.

PRT officials also have stepped in to bolster the repeatedly delayed UN disarmament program at the German-run PRT in Konduz, the Bamiyan PRT that is run by New Zealand and at the U.S.-run Parwan PRT near the Bagram airfield.

International aid groups have criticized the use of military troops in the PRTs for reconstruction projects, saying the practice makes their jobs more dangerous because hostile Afghans assume all aid workers are connected with military forces.

Anatol Lieven, an expert on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he questions whether the eventual departure of foreign troops from the PRTs will mean that their reconstruction projects will be destroyed. Morton says he thinks that will not happen because the ultimate goal of the program is to have control of the reconstruction projects transferred to civilians -- including both international organizations and Afghans.

"I don't think we're planning on leaving in the short term. I think we're probably planning on staying here until the region is stable and until there is some assurance that those projects are going to remain. A lot of what we're doing as the military out there is small-scale reconstruction compared to what the civilians can do," Morton said.

Morton said he hopes that, in the medium term, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will take over the "command-and-control" functions at PRTs. But he says it is unclear when ISAF will have the ability to take over all of them.

Some conservative religious leaders in southern Afghanistan reject the PRTs and are telling their followers that the bases are secret fronts for Christian evangelists. Colonel David Bennet, the Bagram-based public affairs officer for the U.S. Army's civil affairs programs, dismisses those allegations as disinformation aimed at derailing the antiterrorism coalition's efforts to win the support of ordinary Afghans.

"There is no religious tie, whatsoever, to the PRT concept. Our desire is to get as many different countries involved in the growth and development of the PRT system or programs and the advancement or the extension of the Afghan national government. Our desire is for, in the long-term, the Afghan national government to provide the good governance for the country. It will be for Afghanistan. It won't be for other countries or other religions."

Residents of Kandahar and Ghazni also tell RFE/RL that Afghan militia fighters, claiming to be part of the PRTs, have ransacked and looted property in house-to-house searches. Morton was surprised by such reports. "The only armed [Afghan] employees of the PRTs are guard forces," he said. "Sometimes they guard the compound. They are sometimes used as mobile guards -- mobile security. But they never, ever operate independently of the U.S. forces. So I would deny that that's happening unless some other [Afghan] forces are using the PRT name for their own purposes. This is the first I've heard of it. It's alarming, if that is the case."

Morton says U.S. combat troops sometimes conduct searches in buildings where Taliban or Al-Qaeda suspects are thought to be sheltering. But he said any Afghan militia fighter who conducts such a search is not doing so on behalf of a PRT.