Security on the cheap: PRTs in Afghanistan

from Refugees International
Published on 07 Jul 2003
Larry Thompson and Michelle Brown just returned from a one-month visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A few months ago the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) set about creating Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in several cities in Afghanistan. PRTs, each with a complement of 50 to 100 U.S. military personnel plus civilian aid and political advisors, were established in the Afghan cities of Kunduz, Bamian, and Gardez. According to a DOD spokesperson, the objectives of the PRTs are "security, reconstruction, strengthening the influence of the central government [of Afghanistan] and monitor[ing] and assessing the local regional situations." In addition to the PRTs, military/civilian civil operations teams are spotted around Afghanistan, performing some of the same functions as the PRTs on a reduced scale.

Allies have now joined the U.S. in creating PRTs. The United Kingdom is establishing a PRT in Mazar-i-Sharif; Germany is considering a PRT in Herat; and New Zealand may soon take over the PRT in Bamian from the U.S. The establishment of PRTs in Jalalabad and Kandahar is now under consideration. Given the small scope and scale of PRTs, they have received more than their share of high-level attention. For example, Secretary of Defense Rumsfield made a lengthy statement about PRTs at a media event with Afghan President Karzai on May 1, 2003. Civilian aid agencies, especially non-governmental organizations, are often critical of PRTs. Soldiers engaging in relief and economic development projects, in the view of many NGOs, blur the lines between humanitarian and military activities and put civilian aid workers at greater risk. Moreover, NGOs are concerned that the PRTs' "winning hearts and minds" projects, such as building schools or roads, compete or conflict with their own projects and may undermine the long-term relationships they have built in Afghan communities.

Refugees International recently visited a PRT in Bamian, a civil-operations office in Herat, and spoke to military, civilian, and UN officials in Kabul about PRTs. In Bamian, Afghan and international opinion about the PRT seemed mostly favorable; the PRT seems to have fit in well in this small, intensely anti-Taliban community But in Herat most of the international aid workers in the city were negative about the civil operations office there and the proposed German PRT, while Afghans seemed only barely aware that U.S soldiers were in the city and what they were doing.

A disconnect exists between what most civilian officials believe should be the priorities of PRTs and what they are actually doing. Most civilians believe that PRTs may be useful if they focus on security. The comparative advantage the PRTs have is their capability as armed soldiers to enhance security for Afghans, the Afghan government, and international aid organizations, plus their potential ability to operate in insecure regions in which unarmed civilian aid agencies cannot. Ironically, most of the present PRTs are located in the wrong places --- relatively safe cities such as Kunduz and Bamian --- when they should be in areas where security is a serious problem.

Rather than focusing on security tasks and building on their comparative advantage, the PRTs tend to function as small-scale reconstruction agencies, but with overheads off the charts. For example, building schools is one of the frequently cited accomplishments of PRTs. Yet it is uneconomic for a PRT --- which probably eats up at least $10 million per year in personnel and support costs alone --- to spend its time building a handful of schools worth about $10,000 each. NGOs and aid organizations can do that job vastly cheaper.

An example of how the security capability of PRTs might be better applied is the 300-mile long Kabul-Kandahar highway. President Bush has promised provisional President Karzai that USAID will complete reconstruction of this highway by the end of 2003. RI agrees that this highway is important to connect Kandahar, where Taliban and anti-government sentiment continues to be a problem, with the capital city of Kabul. The route of the highway, however, passes through territory under the control of local "commanders" in which the national government is barely, if at all, present.

USAID will apparently rely upon a few hundred newly trained Afghan police to provide security along the Kabul-Kandahar highway during its construction and afterwards. Yet this seems an opportunity for the PRT concept to be used in support of a vital project to help the national government regain control of an insecure region of the country. A PRT spotted every fifty miles along this highway and working with inexperienced Afghan police and military could maintain security, enable the national government to re-establish itself along the route, and facilitate the work of aid agencies.

PRTs seem to have come about as a concept of trying to achieve security in Afghanistan on the cheap. The U.S. and its allies have declined to expand the 5,000-member international security force (ISAF) outside the capital city. Instead, they seem to be hoping a few, small PRTs scattered around the country can enhance security through good works. RI questions the impact that 50 or 100 foreign soldiers in a PRT can have, especially if they are mostly engaged in reconstruction rather than in tasks directly related to security. As in the example of the Kabul-Kandahar highway cited above, PRTs could be useful in specific instances in which their presence would contribute to accomplishing an important project, training Afghan police and military, and enhancing the stature and competence of the national government. But a handful of PRTs scattered widely around Afghanistan, mostly in "safe" areas, will not have much impact on problems of insecurity and lack of central government presence and control.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • The mission of PRTs be redefined to encompass specific objectives related to security, training and working with Afghan police and military, and supporting the extension of the central government into insecure areas. Reconstruction activities should be de-emphasized.
  • The name of Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) be changed to Provincial Security (or Stabilization) Teams (PSTs) and their composition adjusted. (CARE International informally suggested this change of name to us.)
  • To enhance security in Afghanistan and give Afghan reconstruction a good chance for success, the U.S. and its allies must agree to expand the small international security forces (ISAF) in the country by several magnitudes and to several regions and cities.