The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan and its role in reconstruction

Reconstruction of a country devastated by more than two decades of conflict with extensive involvement by a belligerent seems counter-intuitive. However, the US Military and its Coalition partners have undertaken to assist in doing just that with an alternative reconstruction model combining both security and reconstruction termed the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT). Due to the continuing conflict and ever increasing insecurity, NGOs have been unable to penetrate into the most vulnerable areas of the country. We seek to examine both the perspectives and motives of the military in composing these civilian-military teams as well as the criticisms of the NGO community. The conflict in Iraq is drawing to a close thereby initiating yet another occasion for reconstruction. It is therefore particularly pertinent to explore whether a model combining both elements of humanitarian reconstruction and military security is feasible.

Even prior to the conflict in 2001, Afghanistan had already been torn apart by factional fighting and feudal-like fiefdoms run by warlords more interested in personal gain than national unity. The Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) led by Hamid Karzai, elected in June 2002, is faced with the daunting task of uniting a country with a weak infrastructure, continuing conflict and unsupportive divergent factions. In addition, its authority remains limited to Kabul. President Bush promised to reconstruct Afghanistan. In view of severe security threats it has apparently fallen to the US military to implement a system whereby reconstruction projects can be carried out while still protecting personnel.

Current Status of the PRTS

Initial attempts at military reconstruction were a so called "hearts-and-minds operation" of six-person civilian affairs teams scattered throughout Afghanistan1. Subsequently in November 2002, a new U.S. plan termed the "Joint Regional Teams (JRT)," was proposed as a means of stabilizing the country's fragile peace in the short term. Functions were to include:

coordination of the reconstruction process, identification of reconstruction projects, conducting village assessments and liaising with regional commanders. By January 2003, in response to a request from the Afghan government the name was changed to Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), with another scheduled change to Provincial Reconstruction Teams when the pilot phase was completed.

Currently there are three operational PRTs:

  • Gardez formally opened on February 1, 2003 and covers five provinces in the southeast;

  • Bamiyan opened on March 2, 2003;

  • Advance teams arrived in Kunduz in early March and subsequently that PRT opened on April 10, 2003.

Projected future sites are:

  • Mazar-I-Sharif, scheduled to open in June 2003 under the control of the United Kingdom.

There are a total of eight proposed sites: Bamiyan, Gardez, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Khost, Kunduz and Mazar-I-Sharif, with the additional possibilities of Kabul and Deh Raud having been mentioned at the initial briefing at the US embassy in Kabul in November 2002. Initially the PRTs were to open at the rate of one per month, however as reported by the Director of the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Task Force (CJCMOTF) after opening the initial trio, they are scheduling a planned pause in the Spring to gather lessons learnt (published during the release of this paper) and then will initiate a "steady state phase" of maintenance and progress. Future plans also include a mobile Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC).


The teams were always meant to be multinational according to statements by military representatives at a conference on Civilian-Military Cooperation held by CHC in January 2003 ( "The key for success is that they be multinational and interagency." It is therefore proposed that different Coalition nations will undertake to lead a PRT, lessening the burden on the US military. The composition of each team will vary slightly depending on location and number 40 to 60 persons. Composed of civil affairs soldiers trained in medicine, psychology, engineering, and law as well as Special Forces and regular Army units, the teams will always maintain a "robust" capacity to defend themselves as they are being purposely deployed in hostile territory. For example, Gardez, as a semi-permissive environment, has a heavy weapons platoon from Task Force 82. Although military-led, the first three PRTs already have incorporated resident USAID and U.S. Department of State officers2. The US Dept. of Agriculture has also indicated that they may want to send a representative to Bamian. Even with rapidly devolving security, the Gardez PRT has managed to reconstruct 10 schools, 3 wells and 1 health clinic since January, and Bamian has proposed to improve access to the region by rebuilding bridges, expanding clinics and rehabilitating Bamian University.


The PRTs have numerous stated objectives. Among these are:

  • Extending the influence of the central government outside of Kabul

  • Trying to pull some of the Kabul-centric NGOs and IOs out into rural areas of the country

  • Facilitating the conditions for Phase IV (Reconstruction)

Objective 1: The Afghan president is struggling to exert the authority of his fledgling government beyond Kabul. The US has therefore attempted to engage the administration in as many steps as possible: the locations of the PRTs were conjointly determined by President Karzai with Lt. General Daniel K. McNeill, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and the US government has asked that the central administration play a larger role in deciding how aid money is spent3.

Objective 2: According to U.S. Army Major David Bernacki, Civil Military Operations Center officer in charge of the PRT located in Gardez, "What I see the PRTs bringing to the table is assessment of areas which have not been touched by the international community because of security concerns ... and securing help in those areas."4

Objective 3: Phases I and II were periods of active conflict to remove the Taliban and Al Qaeda from power, while Phase III refers to the stabilization of the country. With the focus of the US military shifting to Iraq, it has become critical to stabilize the fragile Karzai government, since any perceived deterioration becomes an entry point for anti-government elements to take control. In January 2003, there were increasing tensions in southern Afghanistan, particularly around the Pakistani border. As of January, Phase IV had not been declared. The military must therefore continue to be actively engaged in stabilizing the country.


According to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a March 2003 Department of Defense (DoD) briefing, it is still too early to say how long the teams will be in place. It is assumed that the time line will probably vary from province to province. In addition, according to the military: "That timeline, once again, will be determined by President Karzai, the Joint Task Force (JTF) commander, and each one of those coalition nations in that negotiation process at the national capital on who's going to be the leader of the PRT."

Government Involvement

President Karzai's government has been extremely supportive including the formation of a cabinet committee to provide guidance and support for the PRTs. The Committee includes the Minister of Interior, Ali Jalali, as chairman; the Minister of Education and Special Advisor for Internal Security, Younis Qanooni; the Ministers of Finance (Ashraf Ghani) and Rural Rehabilitation and Development (Haneef Atmar); the National Security Advisor (Zalmai Rassoul) and Foreign Affairs advisor (Yahya Maroofi).

The Afghan National Army (ANA) has also demonstrated its support by deploying a battalion to Bamian and the planned deployment of another battalion to Gardez, to assume security stabilization alongside the PRT.

Other International Participants

In a March 2003 DoD briefing, Donald Rumsfeld stated, "A provincial team has an American component, a very small cadre of Americans, in many cases, they're joined by troops from other nations, and they're also joined by civilians from our own government, as well as United Nations representatives present inside Afghanistan."5 In a February 24 Provisional Reconstruction Team update, the participation of other countries was confirmed by former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley, "The British, Italians, and French have joined the Germans in expressing strong interest in providing staff and resources for other PRTs." The Gardez PRT is expected to include two Italian Coalition officers by May 2003. The PRT Headquarters has had two Coalition officers on staff (British and French) for some time and has recently added four more Romanian).

Liaisons with the local community

Throughout the Afghan conflict, the US military has liaised with local leaders. Part of the PRTs methodology has been to continue this practice in order to bring local leadership closer to the central authority. According to Capt. Billie Cartwright head of CAT-A projects in Bamiyan, one of the gratifying aspects of working in that particular district, is that the residents are overwhelmingly pro-American, which makes working there easier for the team. Military representatives also confirmed this sentiment in the January CHC Civil-Military Cooperation conference, "When there's no fighting going on, the military, NGOs and IOs are welcomed."


Afghanistan continues to be a highly unstable environment. Initially the presence of the PRTs in Gardez decreased security incidents from thirty in December 2002 to one January 20036. However, since the recent conflict in Iraq there has been an escalation of fighting throughout Afghanistan, and an alarming regrouping of the Taliban in Gardez and Shkin that culminated in an attack on March 25. Additionally,

  • UN agencies have had to pull staff out of Gardez in response to grenade attacks and suspend its programs in three districts of Zabul in the south and in Sar-I-Pul in the north in response to attacks by the Taliban.

  • Mercy Corps International announced on the 19th of February that it had to suspend operations in some parts of Afghanistan due to a deteriorating situation in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan.

  • In March, the IOM was the target of a bomb explosion in Kunduz.

A surge in anti-western sentiment, post Iraq, may have contributed to the March 27th murder of ICRC delegate Ricardo Mungia, a water and sanitation engineer in the Southern province of Uruzgan. In response, the ICRC has had to temporarily retreat to Kabul and suspend operations. However, in a deteriorating security environment, both humanitarian agencies and the military are targets:

  • March 29: Two US servicemen were killed in Helmand in southwestern Afghanistan when their convoy was attacked.

  • March 30th: rocket attacks on the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force. This could possibly have been a misdirected attack since the American embassy is next door.

  • April 10th: UN and international aid agencies were forced to close their offices due to fighting between two rival groups in Meymaneh - Jamiat [Jamiat-I Islami led by Burhanuddin Rabbani] and Jonbesh [Jonbesh-e Melli-ye Eslami led by Abdul Rashid Dostam] who had been part of the Multi-Party Security Commission who had been leading the disarmament proceedings in the north.

How Well are PRT and NGOs Working Together?

Even in view of the above security concerns, since the initial proposal of the reconstruction teams, there has been severe criticism from the NGO community.

  • Foremost has been the claim that an occupation force cannot be simultaneously engaged in military operations and assistance without violating the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.

  • IRIN also reported that aid agencies, such as CARE International, have criticized the military for lack of experience in such projects and that NGOs and locals are a cheaper solution to reconstruction.

  • ACBAR's executive coordinator, Rafael Robillard also told IRIN that undertaking aid work traditionally carried out by NGOs risks the Coalition losing its main focus on providing security.

  • The military has also been criticized for engendering confusion amongst the populace as to who is combatant and who is a humanitarian aid worker.

In response to such claims, the military is seemingly well aware of the problems of simultaneously being a belligerent against a former regime and supporting the current interim government. In fact, the military has asserted that, "Most of us would agree ..... that the military is not the right individuals to execute reconstruction-type activities. There are NGOs and IOs out there that are better at doing it, that's what they're supposed to do. ..... The first objective of the PRTs is to go out and provide a more safe and secure environment in Afghanistan so that we can provide the environment for all the reconstruction enablers to come in and do what they do best."

As of February 2003 in a report by Reconstruction Coordinator Bill Taylor, 'NGOs in the field are finding PRT's a big plus."7 And until the recent escalation in hostilities, there had been an increase in the number of NGOs in Gardez, from one in late December when the PRT was established to five in February. During the CHC conference in January, the military acknowledged the concerns voiced by NGOs in situational papers such as the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) Briefing Paper on the Development of Joint Regional Teams in Afghanistan and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR) Policy Brief.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul recently published guidelines on the operations of the PRTs. In addition, a "lessons learned" consultation workshop on PRTs is scheduled to be held in Kabul on 5-6 May, 2003 at the UNAMA compound. The workshop will allow NGO, UN agencies, donors, government, and military operators to provide feedback and voice concerns. Such initiatives appear to be welcomed by the NGO community.

The Limited Role of External International Organizations

United Nations

With United Nations Security Council resolution 1401, delivered on March 28, 2002, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) was established, delegating Lakhdar Brahimi as the Special Representative (SR), and Jean Arnault as the Deputy Special Representative (DSR) on Political Affairs and Nigel Fisher as the DSR on Humanitarian and Development. As an assistance transitional authority, it is mandated to assist in the implementation of the Bonn Agreement8, promote national reconciliation and manage all United Nations humanitarian relief, recovery and reconstruction activities. However, even the UN has been constrained by deteriorating security. In February 2003, IRIN reported Fisher as saying, "Our overall attitude to security generally is that we have to continue working here and that in fact continuing reconstruction work is contributing to better security."9 There has however been some resentment on the part of aid workers who were quoted in an article in the NYT on April 5, 2003, as saying that UNAMA has down played the gravity of their predicament."10

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)

Many NGOs have proposed the UN-mandated peacekeeping force currently being led by Germany and the Netherlands as a preferable peacekeeping measure. Whereas the ISAF has made a positive impact on the security situation in Kabul, the limitation of its mandate to the areas immediately surrounding the capital in fact contributes to the escalating insecurity. Both President Karzai and the UN Secretary General have often called for an extension to improve security throughout the country. However, the force barely numbers 4,800 troops from 22 nations. The general opinion is that this is an insufficient number to maintain the peace. A true peacekeeping force would need to be closer to 30,000 troops.11 In contrast, the US continues to maintain 8,000 troops in the area. The ISAF has also suffered from turnover in leadership due to its rotating six-month mandate.

As of April 16 2003, NATO, which was providing 95% of the force as well as providing logistical and planning support, has declared its intention to take over the peacekeeping force beginning in August to ensure continuity.

However, a key impediment to the continued progress of humanitarian assistance and reconstruction by NGOs and other international organization continues to be deteriorating security. The ISAF continues to be hamstrung by its limited extension and until more emphatic security measures are implemented, Afghanistan will continue to be subject to acts of terrorism and violence.

Response to Concerns

The politicization of aid

As can be seen above, the situation in Afghanistan, like that foreseeable in Iraq, is a complicating intertwining of a humanitarian crisis and an armed conflict. Barbara Stapleton, in the BAAG briefing paper categorized the emergence of a "new humanitarianism". As conflicts down grade from high intensity conflict to persistent low level fighting, humanitarian agencies are not guaranteed safety. The merging of development and security therefore is becoming a more critical necessity. By comparison, prior military interventions included the use of Civil Affairs soldiers in reconstruction and humanitarian activities, and assisting in supporting the work of others. Even while "inadvertently" overlooking aid to Afghanistan in the latest national budget12, in 2002, the US did devote the largest share of its Afghan spending on humanitarian aid signaling a shift in its focus from conflict to reconstruction13.

Conflicting Purposes

As reported by Marc Kaufmann in the Washington Post, the US military has "taken to playing both sides against the middle" spending millions building up the Afghan National Army while at the same time funding local militias and warlords it supposedly needs for the war against Muslim extremists14. There have been criticisms from the international community, on the apparent contradiction in this practice.

It was reported in the New York Times on April 26, that the popularity of the US presence is waning, especially as fatal errors are made. "Villagers complain that the Americans are arresting the wrong people, often because they are misled by the local militias working with them who hunt down personal enemies ... encouraging animosity among Afghans."15 This perceived systemized bias is increasing ethnic divides in total contradiction of the military's official objectives. Cooperating local communities run the risk of becoming the targets of retaliation by the still powerful opponents of the central government, including such fundamentalist leaders as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Dadullah who have called for a holy war against the American presence here and the government of Hamid Karzai.

Neutrality, Impartiality, and Independence

The confluence of humanitarian aid and military objectives is seen by some as putting at risk the security of international personnel. Caroline Douilliez, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Kabul said "As a general position, we feel it creates confusion in the minds of those who receive the aid and creates confusion among those who carry out military and humanitarian missions at the same time."16 This opinion was also shared by Sally Austin of CARE who was quoted as saying, "Our security is being put at risk ... their understanding of neutrality and humanitarian principles is pretty weak." George Rupp, president of the IRC was quoted in the NYT17 on April 1, 2003 as saying that "a military-led relief effort would 'jeopardize all burden-sharing by UN agencies and other governments. It would also compromise the independence and safety of humanitarian aid workers around the world."

Losing Focus

By all accounts, a situation where the US military is rebuilding kindergartens while the UN engages in disarmament and demobilization would indeed appear to be an exchange of mandates. A recent project by the Gardez PRT has been school reconstruction while UNAMA was reinforcing the recently dismantled Mazar-I-Sharif Multi-Party Security Commission responsible for disarmament in the north. Recent infighting amongst the members, Jonbesh and Jamiat, as well as access to an arms cache resulted in the deaths of thirteen. With massive influxes of returning refugees seeking homes as well as unemployed demobilizing fighters, it is critical that disarmament procedures continue throughout the country in order to avoid the security situation becoming a potential deterrent to repatriation. The objectives of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration clearly relate to the PRT objectives of securing sections of the country for humanitarian assistance and eventual reconstruction. But the military cautions: The PRTs are not peacekeeping forces, and do not represent an alternate form of the extension of ISAF to the provinces....Their mission in this sphere is limited: It is to assist -- that is, to assist others - in the removal of causes of instability.18

Female Inclusion

Another civilian concern was that a predominance of male soldiers would obscure and overlook women's issues. However, an effort has been made to include women in the PRTs: CAT-A projects in Bamiyan are headed by a woman, the aforementioned U.S. Army Captain Billie Cartwright of the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion.

Political Developments

On May 1, 2003, on a visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opened a joint news conference with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai with the good news: "We're at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities."19 Rumsfeld also visited training camps where U.S. Special Operations forces are training newly-recruited Afghan National Army soldiers. Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he hopes U.S. force could be out of Afghanistan by the end of summer 2004. McNeill added, "The international community needs to step up and help to rebuild the country which has been devastated by decades of war."


Afghanistan will continue to be in need of assistance for the foreseeable future. As generally accepted and reported by IRIN, the only true solution in Afghanistan will be an enforceable and mutually reached peace agreement between the warlords. The United Nations has chosen to engage in a "light footprint" approach allowing for more local engagement. However, in a country torn apart by ethnic divides, feuding warlords and loss of humanitarian impunity this creates a void between the need to increase security and continue reconstruction measures. The PRTs offer a compromise. While their coordinators acknowledge that they are not experts and that they are not attempting to usurp the acknowledged responsibilities of humanitarian experts, they are simultaneously working with the people of Afghanistan to reconstruct their country and protecting their personnel. In a situation of devolving security such as Afghanistan, it should be recognized that military presence is required in order to at least begin to make an imprint on the immense devastation inflicted upon Afghanistan. It also behooves the Coalition forces to heed the expertise and immense reservoirs of knowledge accumulated amongst NGOs in order to best benefit the people of Afghanistan.


1 Constable, Pamela "Courting Afghanistan, Brick by Brick" Washington Post, December 8, 2002 pg. A32

2 PRTs: First Lessons Learned in Initial Implementation, CJCMOTF Summary Discussion, April 30, 2003.

3 Kaufman, Marc "US shifts role as Afghanistan founders" Washington Post, April 14, 2003 pg. A10

4 Denyer, Simon "US Army under fire for giving Afghans Aid." Reuters, January 13, 2003

5 DoD Briefing, March 2003

6 PRT update via Amb. Robert Oakley - Feb. 24, 2003

7 Provincial Reconstruction Team update via Amb. Robert Oakley - Feb. 24, 2003

8 Security Council Resolution S/2001/1154

9 IRIN report "Afghanistan: Security Concerns remain for NGOs" February 3, 2003

10 Carlotta Gall, "A Nation at War: Aid Workers" New York Times, April 5, 2003

11 Rashid, Ahmed "US Role in Afghanistan Draws Critics" Wall Street Journal, date?

12 In an apparent oversight, the Bush Administration failed to request any funds for aid in Afghanistan in the latest national budget. Funds were fortunately appropriated and distributed by Congress.

13 Agence France Press "US Army launches controversial humanitarian programme in Afghanistan" Feb. 1, 2003

14 Kaufman, Marc "US Role Shifts as Afghanistan founders" Washington Post April 14, 2003 pg. A10

15 Gall, Carlotta, "In Afghanistan, Viol