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Visit to the Norwegian PRT, Faryab province, Afghanistan, 8 – 23 July 2008

August 14, 2008

By Tim Foxley

Background

I want to briefly sketch in my experiences in Faryab province last month.  I went to Afghanistan as a guest of the Norwegian military to spent time in the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction team, based in Faryab province, north western Afghanistan.  The intention, as part of a SIPRI look at the PRT concept, was to get a feel for the realities of PRT work on the ground and a wider understanding of issues in this part of Afghanistan more generally.  In this respect it was a rare opportunity and extremely rewarding – to my slight embarrassment, I seem to have taken nearly 90 pages of notes.  Before I go any further I should again send my thanks to all the men and women of the PRT and the Norwegian contingent in Afghanistan, who helped to accommodate, feed, move and above all protect me during my stay.

Faryab province is a relatively benign part of Afghanistan.  “Standard” Afghanistan problems: government lack of capacity, corruption, food and water shortages, warlords and unemployment rub shoulders with a small but growing insurgency problem in the south western part of the province.  Regrettably, earlier this week, an IED strike killed a Latvian soldier in the Meymaneh area – a very unusual event.  The camp is located adjacent to the airfield just outside of town, having relocated from the town centre two years ago after some security incidents including the death of a PRT member.  The PRT, airfield and town are in a flat and dusty river basin, overlooked pretty much on all sides by low, foothills.  Meymaneh town is generally calm and the local attitude to the PRT is somewhere between tolerant and friendly.

PRT composition

The camp was big and expanding: more construction work was ongoing to increase the footprint of the camp even further.  Almost all the personnel were military and most of these concerned with the business of feeding, accommodating, administering, moving, medically treating, providing other welfare and protecting the men and women of the camp.   Mobile Observer Teams – MOTs – could expect to be out and about across the province and had just been significantly increased in size.  As for civilians, there was a Norwegian Police force contingent, conducting training of the Afghan police, 2 from the Norwegian prison service, a legal advisor, three development advisers and I think three political advisers.  The police and civilian component was where most of the PRT’s efforts in the province were focused.

PRTs usually change their personnel every 6 months (civilians seem to spend at least a year and 18 months did not seem unusual) and this hampers continuity of work and   resident levels of experience.  Each PRT can take on a very different character, dependent on a number of factors but usually dictated by the personality of the PRT commander, the perceived security situation and political direction from the home government.  In the case of the Meymaneh, PRT IX in 2007 was seen as “proactive”, PRT X over 2007/08 as “very cautious”, more concerned with the business of running the camp and PRT XI, the current one, was seen as a return to pro-activity.  What the Afghans make of these potentially mixed messages from their international visitors is perhaps possible to imagine.

The work of the PRT

There is much talk of particular “models” of PRT although each individual PRT is a unique model in its own right, a combination of geography, politics, finances, preferred working practises, expectations and, above all, personalities.  The Norwegian “model” perhaps has a few salient distinguishing characteristics:

  • The military do patrols, the civilians do reconstruction.  Crudely put, but due to an early initial PRT mistake where MOD funding was poorly planned and wastefully applied, there is absolute separation between (MFA) civilian and (MOD) military funding.
  • The military are not allowed to undertake any Quick Impact Project “hearts and minds” work in the course of their duties.
  • The PRT does not control any of the reconstruction/aid projects itself – it channels money through approved local contractors and NGOs.
  • The Norwegian PRT is perhaps more militarily proactive than most – sending a heavily-armed convoy down to Taliban-infiltrated areas in a show of force.

Summary of thoughts, findings and questions

I conducted a fairly improvised mixture of formal and informal interviews, predominantly with PRT members, both civilian and military.  I was keen to stress to those I spoke to that this was not a “report on the Faryab PRT”, but rather to help me understand the problems of the PRT concept as a whole.  However, the following are a mix of specific and general thoughts that might be of particular interest and that I would be happy to discuss further with anyone with an interest in the subject.  Obviously I should caution that these are very subjective impressions mixing both mine and PRT members’ observations, based on a two week “snapshot”.

  •  The PRT seemed to be on a reasonably good track, in terms of reconstruction and training activities.
  • Recognition and concern that the new location and nature of the PRT risked alienating the local population and that “situational awareness” was being lost.
  • Concern that the PRT’s “presence” and reach across the province is limited and transitory: “we do not get out and about enough”.
  • A warning that, with the rapid turnaround of PRT staff, the Afghans are learning to exploit new teams (“the last commander promised me x, y and z…”).
    • Small numbers of civilian experts and advisers and such like have a disproportionately large impact, with the experience they accrue during longer tours.
    • The civilian component sometimes struggle to work in an all-military base.
    • The size and “footprint” of the PRT is perhaps out of proportion to the small numbers of civilians who conduct the bulk of the reconstruction and training effort.
    • 6 months is not a long enough tour – a lot of good work is wasted when PRT personnel leave and there is no capacity to keep things going.  Many lessons are being lost and have to be relearned as new people come in.
    • Command and control is sometimes poor within the PRT – different ministries micro-managing from Norway – too many different agendas.
    • PRT members need to learn better how to communicate with Afghans .
    • Regarding future possibilities and areas to explore: subdividing the PRT into several smaller “sub-PRTs” across the province; civilian commander for the PRT?; 12 month long tours for key PRT members?; Some “Quick Impact Project” capability; increasing (doubling?) the number of civilian advisers; relocating parts of the PRT; constructing a PRT “exit strategy”.

The relationship and the differences in attitude and approach between the civilian and military components of the PRT was striking but perhaps unsurprising. There was much mutual respect, dialogue and co-operation, but the civilians were uniformly frustrated that they could not operate as freely as they wanted and were excessively dependent upon the military.

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