By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow
Note: Last week we discussed how Hamid Karzai was playing the two-level game in calling for the removal of Western security contractors from Afghanistan (the directional distinction is important; the Government of Afghanistan relies on a small army of local security contractors, which is evidently less problematic) and promised more on the fallout from the President’s comments on Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Well, the wait is finally over—find Part 2 below.
When President Karzai called for the “speedy” removal of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) last week, it made headlines because most people thought PRT’s were doing good work in Afghanistan (full disclosure: the author briefly worked to become a part of a Human Terrain Team, which has a somewhat related mandate and scope to that of PRTs). What’s even more surprising, however, is this blog from Foreign Policy.com’s excellent AfPak Channel, which actually agrees with President Karzai “PRTs, in other words, are a mess, and they have been for a long time,” and argues for PRT responsibilities to be transitioned to officials in the Government of Afghanistan.
While PRT’s have a lot of room to improve, saying they’ve been a “mess” for a long time just isn’t true. A number of different agencies have issued assessments of the PRTs almost every year since their inception, and mostly contain qualified praise like this 2005 USIP report: “PRTs provided a positive international presence in places where there otherwise would have been only combat forces conducting kinetic operations,” and a 2005 study by the Danish Department of Conflict and Security Studies entitled “PRTs in Afghanistan: Successful but not sufficient” (although this Save the Children brief dissents, it’s criticisms are more with the general military development projects than with the PRTs themselves). This 2006 USAID report concludes that: “Provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) have been an effective tool for stabilization in Afghanistan . . . [they] have helped create conditions that make increase political, social, and economic development possible,” and this 2008 independent survey by the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton finds that “PRT’s have become an integral part of peacekeeping and stability operations. . .”. Each of the studies listed examines the failings of PRTs—and there many to chose from—but overall each concludes that PRTs have been a positive force in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Regardless of this offending description of PRTs, the AfPak channel is certainly right about one thing—transitioning the PRTs over to capable Afghans is essential, but doing so may prove arduous. The basic principles of counter-insurgency doctrine call for the Allied Country (or in this case, the countries that make up ISAF) to hand over basic governmental services, including development projects, to the Host Country (Afghanistan) as soon as security conditions allow. But the US has been hanging into responsibility for the PRTs precisely because they have been successful, and turning the teams over to Afghans is a scary when even the President’s brother is a suspected drug lord. So many segments of the Afghan government are corrupt that Afghan control may sap PRTs of their efficacy, taking away development projects from the most volatile parts of an already ravaged country.
In any event, ISAF doesn’t have much of a choice. The current Government of Afghanistan isn’t optimal, but for better or worse, they’ll be taking control of their country in a couple of years. PRTs are effective now, but figuring out how to keep them useful under Afghan leadership is going to be a challenge as the ISAF mission winds down. How this will happen—and even if this will happen—is anyone’s guess. As Haitians—who know a thing or two about difficulties—and the recently anointed Arcade Fire would say, “mountains beyond mountains.”