Aid groups raise concerns on use of coalition reconstruction teams in Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Nancy Lindborg
In Kabul, late November 2002, the U.S.-led Coalition Forces in Afghanistan first presented to the international humanitarian community their new concept for deploying "Joint Regional Teams," now relabeled Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs.

The primary goal of the PRTs, as presented by the military, is to enable the Coalition forces to play a more robust security role through increased involvement with non-military activities and greater direct engagement in the reconstruction process. The PRTs would enhance overall coordination of the reconstruction effort, at both the national and local level.

PRTs are planned for at least six provincial areas throughout Afghanistan and will include multi-national representatives, civil-military teams, USAID and State Department officials, security forces, linguists and other specialists in the region.

Since that initial meeting, however, there has been increasing concern within the humanitarian community that the PRTs will fall short of achieving the critically important security objectives while also undercutting much needed gains in long term reconstruction efforts. This based on the following key concerns:

  • PRTs, as currently structured, could dilute the ability of the military to exercise its core function of providing security the focus shifts to reconstruction and non-military activities. Only the military can provide security, which is paramount for successful reconstruction of Afghanistan, while there is significant capacity and expertise among the Afghans, the UN and NGOs to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance at a fraction of the cost.
  • PRTs duplicate existing civilian structures and capacity for coordination and data collection.
  • An expanded role for Coalition forces in collecting information on humanitarian needs and conducting reconstruction will further blur the lines between humanitarian workers and a combatant military force and related intelligence gathering apparatus. This blurring creates increased security risks for the humanitarian workers in an already highly insecure environment.
  • PRTs will primarily provide assistance on the basis of short-term military and political objectives rather than more impartial needs assessments aimed at longer-term sustainable development.
Since the PRTs were first introduced, a further concern has been the inconsistent statements by various U.S. government officials on the scope and mandate of the PRTs. Since the written terms of reference for the PRTs are apparently classified, so no common reference is available.

The military noted in the initial November briefing they would conduct an evaluation after the first two teams were deployed before proceeding with the remaining teams. This review provides an opportunity for serious and constructive dialogue, with hopes the PRTs might evolve into structures that better respect the mandates and capacities of the humanitarian groups committed to helping Afghans rebuild their country.

Based on the dialogue since November, there are several key recommendations for the PRT review, including:

  • Most importantly, the PRTs should have a serious and robust security mandate, particularly in the absence of an expanded international security assistance force, with the ability to call in additional forces and members of the Afghan National Army as needed. They should assist in demobilization and disarmament efforts and help train the ANA.
  • Clarification of the PRT scope of work and purpose.
  • All reconstruction activities should fall under the civilian leadership to ensure it meets long-term needs of the Afghan community and integrates into existing humanitarian structures.
  • The military to engage in assistance work only in those rare circumstances where an emergency arises and civilian assistance workers are unable to meet those needs due to lack of logistical capacity or insecurity on the ground.
  • Should the military elect to engage in general assistance and reconstruction work, they should focus on the large infrastructure repair work that best uses their capacity. To avoid confusing military and humanitarian workers, Coalition forces should remain in uniform at all times.
The security situation in Afghanistan is starting to seriously unravel. Continued banditry and firefights plague many of the provinces. Now more than ever, the military needs to focus on what only it can do.

Without questions, the U.S.-led Coalition forces and the international humanitarian community share the common goal of assisting the Afghan people achieve a long-awaited stable and prosperous peace. The PRTs can be an important part of that effort without compromising the ability of the humanitarian community to contribute and help speed this important effort.

[Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in Monday Developments, a publication of Interaction.]

Nancy Lindborg is Executive Vice-President, Mercy Corps.