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Afghanistan: U.S.-Led Coalition Expands 'Provincial Reconstruction Teams'

NATO is rejecting calls for an immediate expansion of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, saying it needs several months to settle into its role as ISAF commander before discussing deployments outside of Kabul. But the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan is expanding a reconstruction program that brings multinational forces to areas outside of the Afghan capital without any UN resolution. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the coalition's so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Prague, 14 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amid fighting across Afghanistan yesterday that killed more than 60 people, there are fresh calls for a new UN Security Council resolution allowing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to expand beyond the borders of Kabul province.

Those urging a wider deployment of international troops in Afghanistan include senior UN officials as well as human-rights groups and nongovernmental aid agencies. The consensus between them is that political reforms in post-Taliban Afghanistan are at risk unless the UN authorizes ISAF to work outside of Kabul.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi says ISAF expansion is needed to ensure that national elections next June are free and fair. He also said deteriorating security conditions in much of the country are stalling economic reconstruction, disrupting public services, and threatening confidence in the peace process.

But NATO officials say they will not be ready to discuss an expansion of ISAF until the alliance has had several months to settle into its new role overseeing the UN-mandated force.

Among them is British General Jack Deverell, who has been in charge of ISAF's technical operations since NATO took over command of the mission on 11 August.

"The [ISAF] mandate is very specific and was laid down by the United Nations. And there will be no change to that mandate unless the [NATO member] nations and the North Atlantic Council decide that there will be changes -- and [decide] what those changes will be -- in agreement with the United Nations."

Deverell suggests the fastest way to bolster the influence of Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai's government outside of Kabul is through so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that are being set up by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

"I think it is quite clear to everybody that Mr. Karzai will not be successful unless he is able to extend his influence beyond Kabul. And that will be achieved not just by the military. It will depend upon the increasing importance of the lines of development -- the humanitarian, the legal, the social, the political -- being successfully directed at the regions. And in that, the military play their part. But we have to be imaginative in the way we do that. It is not just a matter of drawing bigger and bigger lines around Kabul and filling them with soldiers."

Because the PRTs are operated under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition rather than the UN, the program can be expanded in provinces across Afghanistan without specific authorization from a new UN Security Council resolution.

General Deverell says that could make the PRTs the most practical way to deploy foreign troops across the country and bring stability to areas outside of Kabul.

"The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are not part of the [UN] mandate and not part of a NATO operation. But they are a very interesting way of perhaps expanding the influence of Mr. Karzai into the regions and outside Kabul. The whole of the international community, I'm sure, will be very interested to see how they work and how effective they are -- and whether they really can enhance his influence in those regions."

Detachments of combat troops are in charge of providing security for the PRTs. But the teams themselves are not comprised entirely of soldiers. The PRTs also have civilian members from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Justice Department. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture are also expected to start working with the PRTs in the near future.

According to the website of the U.S. Department of Defense, PRTs also include members of the U.S. Special Forces who work together with military reservist officers specializing in civilian affairs.

The main job of the civil affairs officers is to run reconstruction projects ranging from the building of schools and the repair of damaged bridges to helping start fledgling medical clinics or digging water wells.

Four PRT bases have been established since last December. U.S. coalition troops have set up PRTs in the southeastern Afghan city of Gardez, the central city of Bamiyan, and the northern city of Kunduz. British forces started working in late July to establish the fourth PRT in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Now, coalition forces are in the process of creating four more PRTs. They are working in places like the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, the southern city of Kandahar, the western city of Herat and the town of Charikar just north of Kabul. The plan is to complete all four new PRTs this year -- some as soon as September.

As the PRT test program grows, some coalition allies are signaling their readiness to contribute troops and specialists to take over some of the existing PRT bases.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced yesterday that his country will send an exploratory mission to Kunduz to study the participation of German troops there.

Reports say France and the Netherlands also are considering whether to join the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

New Zealand Minister of Defense Mark Burton already has announced that about 100 men and women from his country's armed forces will take over the Bamiyan PRT from the Americans.

Burton's description of the mission offers insight on how the PRTs are perceived within the overall framework of reconstruction and security operations in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

He stresses that the PRTs are not combat missions. Rather, Burton says, the PRTs are an attempt to enhance the security environment and promote reconstruction efforts across Afghanistan. He says the teams also are monitoring and assessing civil political and military reform throughout the country.

It is hoped that the mere presence of coalition forces in the provinces, combined with the reconstruction efforts, will enhance the credibility of Karzai's government -- and thus, expand its influence outside of Kabul.

At the same time, the PRT bases could eventually become regional centers for an expanded presence of multinational forces in Afghanistan -- either with or without a UN mandate.

Another possibility being explored is that troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army might eventually be deployed to work as security alongside civilian members of the PRT teams.

One big criticism of the coalition's PRT program is coming from civilian aid agencies and other nongovernmental organizations working in Afghanistan.

Many foreign aid workers question whether the PRTs will really make Afghanistan's provinces more secure for humanitarian organizations.

Denis McClean, a spokesman for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, says the safety of civilian aid workers could be threatened by the trend of military forces taking on a greater humanitarian role.

"We don't believe that military forces should have any part in the delivery of humanitarian aid, or be involved in it -- unless in very extreme and difficult circumstances. And we feel that when people see soldiers throwing aid out the back of a truck and providing humanitarian assistance, it blurs the lines of distinction between humanitarian aid workers and the military."

Other nongovernmental organizations -- like Medecins Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch -- have made similar criticisms.

They say that if civilian aid workers are seen to be working alongside combat troops from the U.S.-led coalition, they risk becoming "soft targets" for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.