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Provincial Reconstruction Teams: useful concept, flawed execution?

October 28, 2013

Summary: The British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand will close in March 2014.  The fragmented and inconsistent international efforts in and around PRTs remains easy to criticise although the UK’s effort was probably more coherent than most.  Valuable lessons should be identifiable and the PRT experience in Afghanistan is something that is likely to offer much for future stabilisation efforts across the world.  But President Karzai’s criticism of PRTs as “parallel structures” hampering the development of Afghan local government was damning.  Final judgement on PRTs might need to wait until the sustainability of the projects, plans and systems upon which so much money was spent can be assessed in the longer-term, after the internationals have handed over to the Afghans themselves.

Helmand PRTI attended an interesting but unfortunately short discussion about the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province at Copenhagen University.  There was a good selection of hands-on PRT expertise in attendance.

By way of background, the Provincial Reconstruction Team concept was developed after a request by President Hamid Karzai in 2002 for ISAF to expand its presence beyond Kabul and into the provinces, where the influence of central governance was generally between weak and non-existent.   According to the ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Team handbook of October 2006, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) were intended to “assist the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to extend its authority, in order to facilitate the development of a stable and secure environment in the identified area of operations, and enable Security Sector Reform and reconstruction efforts”.

Although the characteristics and activities of individual PRTs were quite variable (and, indeed, this was a particular criticism), the concept revolved around mixed international civilian and military teams operating from local bases and facilitating reconstruction, security, aid and development projects.

The PRTs provide a good, specific, example of the dilemmas created by the militarisation of development.  At the peak of the PRT experiment in Afghanistan, there were 26 such outposts across the country, commanded by many different nations.  (See my report from my two week “embed” with the Norwegian PRT in Faryab province in 2008).  Western governmental aid agencies (DIFD, CIDA, USAID) generally operated from them.  Some of the PRTs performed well in difficult circumstances—they ensured that at least some development work was undertaken in even the most difficult parts of the country.  But many criticisms were soon levelled at them:

  1. There was a great variety of capabilities and resources
  2. The command structure was military
  3. There was significant “micro-management” from national capitals
  4. There was often a significant lack of coordination with other aid agencies and even internally between civilian and military components.
  5. Much of the work initiated was ultimately not sustainable or well thought through due to pressure to be seen to be doing something by national capitals.

The British PRT was established in Helmand in 2006, after the US initially set it up in 2004.  The British (working closely with Danes and Americans) operated the PRT through three distinct phases of security, namely: “kinetic” combat (2006 – 2008), COIN (2008 – 2011) and transition (2011 to 2014).  The PRT will close in March 2014 and hand over to the UN.  I don’t know if there is a general consensus here, but my sense is that the UK-led PRT in Helmand was probably one of the better ones, in terms of concept and execution.

From the discussions on Thursday, some interesting claims, points, thoughts and ideas came out:

The concept of PRTs was good, but the execution quite flawed.

  • A sustained period of stability of at least 18 to 24 months was necessary before plausible development could start to take root.
  • Afghans – population, local and national government – were not involved early enough in the process.
  • Even though opinion polls clearly have flaws, in terms of measuring progress, a survey baseline looking at popular perceptions should ideally be established as soon as possible to generate a plausible database of what the population feel.
  • The multinational nature of the PRTs – individual nations running their own PRTs more or less their own way – did not ensure a coherent set of working practises.  Perhaps more coordination at the ISAF HQ level would have reduced the strategic incoherence.
  • A civilian lead for the PRTs was preferable as soon as possible – and civilians with a rank equivalent of senior military commanders, e.g. 1 or 2 star generals, to enable them to get things done.  (I think only the British and Germans had civilian PRT chiefs).
  • The “political economy” of the poppy was not really understood.  Eradication was a bad idea in the absence of alternative livelihoods for poor farmers living in an uncertain and unstable environment.
  • The Afghan National Security Forces appear to have performed well against the Taliban in Helmand this 2013 “fighting season” – they “held the ground”.
  • Infrastructure – too much was built: money thrown at problems and buildings went up with too little consideration of how they would be sustained and maintained in future years.

Final thoughts

I am not sure how hindsight will view the PRTs of Iraq and Afghanistan but it is certainly an important area to work through and worthy of further study during and after this final phase of the PRT life cycle.  This is a concept that is probably applicable across other parts of the world.  A lot of time, effort, money and lives were put into this project, but it is still quite a straightforward matter to line up a long list of criticisms.  The large doses of arrogance and naiveté that the international community demonstrated seem to have restricted the impact of what could have been a good idea.  It does seem that the UK PRT was heading in the right direction – but only time will tell whether the achievements and efforts can be demonstrated as “self-sustaining” once Afghans (or other internationals) pick up the reins. But Karzai’s regular railing against PRT “parallel structures” that were doing lots of things in the short-term but little to enable the longer-term development of home-grown Afghan capacity still seem to be the most potent assessment of the PRT performance.

Further PRT reading:

AAN paper, Beating a Retreat, May 2012

USIP US PRT lessons identified

Markus Gauster, PRTs in Afghanistan, Jan 08

PRT paper – model or muddle, Winter 05-06

PRT, m_sedra paper, the PRT debate, 05

20111003, effectiveness_of_prts_in_afghanistan_-_e_rouge

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