Time to Reevaluate the Role of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan?

Recently, reports out of Afghanistan have detailed a lack of oversight and strategy with respect to U.S. and international efforts aimed at reconstruction and development. A report by the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and Karen DeYoung’s article (Washington Post, Oct 27, 2010) detail a lack of local input into Afghan reconstruction and development. The news was alarming but not entirely surprising to anyone who has worked these issues in Afghanistan. It did however raise an important question. Where are the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in this process and is it time for a change in their mission focus?

As the former Commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Farah Afghanistan earlier this year, I was very surprised by the lack of local involvement and coordination cited in the article and the SIGAR report. The mission of the PRT’s is the opposite; to extend the reach of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GiRoA) to the people by providing security, reconstruction and development and improving governance. As such, my team and I were always informing and, more importantly, coordinating with the Provincial Governor, Line Ministers and the Provincial Development Council on Afghan priorities for reconstruction and development. The Governor’s priorities were very clear; building capacity by developing roads, water projects (safe drinking water and water for irrigation) and electricity followed closely by access to health care and education. Most of our projects followed these priorities and further looked to the ability of the provincial government to sustain the projects once they were completed. In fact, any request for Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) funding, our primary weapon and funding source, required PRT’s to verify that the projects were coordinated with the local government and sustainable by Afghans.  No CERP funding allows for the payment of salaries to government officials. We collaborated with local NGO’s on their projects and shared information on local grievances and issues.

We were also very fortunate to have a very talented and dedicated core of civilian officials assigned as part of our PRT, one each from the State Department (DOS), US Agency for International Development (USAID) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the latter of which was a farmer in West Texas and intimately familiar with the agricultural issues in an arid and predominantly agricultural province. Together, our civ-mil team which also included my Army Civil Affairs team lead, formed the Inter-Agency Command Team which collaborated on the key issues affecting the province and worked to find Afghan solutions. I did not see a lack of training or effectiveness on the part of my civilian counterparts.  

The problem was something different, though. The much discussed civilian “surge” actually resulted in only one additional USAID development officer assigned to the PRT, a unit which was responsible for aid and development in an area roughly twice the size of Maryland and contained over 1 million Afghan citizens. It seems the civilian “surge” impacted Kabul more than the rest of the country. The State Department recently announced a $511 million expansion of the embassy in Kabul.   

The issue is not just one of insufficient resources. Based on the recent reporting on the situation overall, and my own personal experience, the overall coordination of all PRT’s in Afghanistan could be better aligned and a more coherent development strategy communicated to all involved. More importantly, with USAID, PRT’s and NGO’s all seeking to assist in the R&D mission, one entity should be designated as being overall responsible for tracking and implementation of R&D efforts in their Area of Operations. In Farah, for example, my team and the few NGO’s that were present in the province met fairly regularly to ensure that collectively, we were not paying for the same project two or even three times over (something that local players sometimes attempt, as a means to work the system) and that we all understood that the mission was the protection and betterment of the citizens of Afghanistan. With a minimal increase in mostly civilian personnel, PRTs are ideally suited to assume the responsibility for all aspects of reconstruction and development in their areas through the USAID, State Department and USDA officers who are actually closest to the population and the issues.      

The time has come to revisit the role of PRT’s after eight years in Afghanistan, which developed from an ad-hoc structure, but are now key ingredients to success. They should transition from small teams, whose focus has just been on quick impact projects (usually $5,000 or less), to taking on this needed task of coordinating reconstruction and development projects at the district and provincial levels in areas in which we are holding and are able to effectively build. This will far better facilitate the institution-building efforts necessary to allow Afghans to govern themselves.