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Afghanistan: Rumsfeld's Afghan Tour Focuses On U.S.-Led Provincial Reconstruction Teams

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in Kabul yesterday that Washington wants to increase its spending in order to improve conditions in Afghanistan. The plan seems to rely on the work of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are operated by U.S.-led coalition forces.

Prague, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's plans to help improve security and living conditions in Afghanistan appear increasingly focused on the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) operated by U.S.-led coalition forces across the country.

The PRTs are part of a U.S.-led civil-military project intended to help Afghans with reconstruction and with security in areas outside of Kabul. The project already has soldiers from Afghanistan's fledgling National Army working alongside U.S. and British soldiers to build and repair damaged infrastructure like roads, water wells, and schools.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai says U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told him yesterday in Kabul that Washington is likely to increase its spending in Afghanistan during the next year. Karzai says he stressed the importance of PRTs as a way of strengthening the central government's authority outside of the capital.

"[Rumsfeld] comes with a very good message from Washington -- that of continued support to Afghanistan and probably more support to Afghanistan. We discussed among ourselves various issues that are between the two countries -- the continuation of the fight against terrorism, the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the training of the National Army, and other issues, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams especially -- that are of significant importance to us," Karzai said.

Rumsfeld provided few details to reporters in Kabul about Washington's spending plans. But the defense secretary's remarks, taken together with comments by officials in Washington, suggest that PRTs are increasingly seen as a mechanism for expanding the presence of international troops, as well as the Afghan National Army, into the country's remote and lawless regions.

Unlike the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that patrols only within Kabul Province, Provincial Reconstruction Teams do not need any UN resolution to operate outside the Afghan capital.

The U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition ultimately remains in charge of PRT operations. This allows highly trained U.S. Special Forces to be attached to each PRT as a "security element." The presence of Special Forces already has enhanced surveillance and intelligence-gathering along the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, as well as in provinces where private Afghan militias operate independently of Kabul.

Speaking yesterday after talks with Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul, Rumsfeld emphasized Washington's interest in using PRTs to strengthen the authority of the Afghan central government.

"We are most interested in the steps that the government of Afghanistan has been taking to extend the reach of the national government through a variety of ways -- including the Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- throughout the country," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld's itinerary further emphasized the importance Washington places on PRTs. Before his talks in Kabul with Karzai or his meeting yesterday with ISAF's new NATO commander, Rumsfeld first traveled to a century-old mud fortress in Gardez, in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia, where about 80 U.S. soldiers have set up headquarters for one PRT.

"We discussed the progress that is being made with respect to Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Our delegation did go down to Gardez. We met with the PRT there, and believe that that effort -- which has now been broadened to other parts of the country and has been internationalized with other nations taking both the lead and participating -- is a good thing for the people of this country. And we are encouraged to continue and expand it," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld also described some of the reconstruction tasks that are being carried out by rank-and-file coalition soldiers in the PRTs.

"The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are going out, not here in Kabul, but out across the country -- into, what, six or eight locations soon, five already -- with the task of helping people. [They're] not doing the whole job, but helping people see that schools are fixed, that wells are dug, that roads are made, that hospitals are repaired and supplied, and that generators exist. And those types of things can make a measurable difference in people's lives and further contribute to the desire on the part of people to want to return to this country and be a part of its success in the future," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld did not discuss details about the security role that U.S. Special Forces play within each PRT.

In Washington last night, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that he will ask Congress for $87 billion to fund military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the next fiscal year.

Bush's description of the security and reconstruction plans for Afghanistan echoed Rumsfeld's description of the PRTs.

"We will provide funds to help them improve security. And we will help them to restore basic services, such as electricity and water, and to build new schools, roads, and medical clinics. This effort is essential to the stability of those nations [Iraq and Afghanistan], and therefore to our own security," Bush said.

About $66 billion out of Bush's $87 billion budget request would go to the Pentagon to cover the costs of maintaining military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region.

"The Washington Post" today quotes U.S. administration officials as saying about $11 billion would go toward Pentagon operations in Afghanistan. Funds in the budget request earmarked specifically as "reconstruction aid" include $20 billion for projects in Iraq, compared to an additional $800 million for projects in Afghanistan.

William B. Taylor Junior, the coordinator of Afghan policy at the U.S. State Department, told RFE/RL last week that the focus of Bush's plan for Afghanistan will be to enhance U.S. programs already under way there. In addition to PRTs, other existing U.S. projects in Afghanistan include the training of the Afghan National Army, a national police force, a highway patrol, and border guards.

Taylor said he expects the additional aid for Afghanistan to double the current U.S. contribution for reconstruction in the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also is due later this month to meet with representatives of many nations to discuss their financial contributions toward Afghan reconstruction.