I was at a conference at the U.S. Army War College a few weeks ago when I picked up a copy of a short 53-page booklet on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The booklet was written by Dr. Carter Malkasian and Dr. Gerald Meyerle of the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and is entitled Provincial Reconstruction Teams: How Do We Know They Work. A CNA team traveled to Afghanistan for two months in 2007 and two months in 2008, where they conducted field research with the Khost, Kunar, Ghazni, and Nuristan PRTs. Although published in March 2009, many of the author’s observations are still relevant today. The manuscript serves as a great introduction and overview of an important initiative ongoing in Afghanistan that the general public is largely unaware of.

I have been fascinated by the PRT initiative since its inception and much of my graduate work was focused on its development. Although PRTs play a vital role in the U.S. military’s overall counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, they have been shrouded in controversy from the start. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have criticized the teams, believing that the military should not have a role in reconstruction and humanitarian work. One prominent NGO, Doctors without Borders, actually left Afghanistan out of protest. In a 2004 report they stated, “The violence directed at humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan comes amid consistent efforts by the US-led coalition to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political aims. MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] has repeatedly denounced the coalition’s attempts to do so.” The thought that militant insurgents associated with the Taliban are murdering doctors and aid workers due to U.S. military engagement in humanitarian work always seemed a tad bit ridiculous to me. And, as it turns out, the claims are without merit. A study conducted by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point found no statistical correlation between the proximity of military units and violence against NGO aid workers in Afghanistan.

Regardless, the debate continues, and the Malkasian and Meyerle report contributes greatly to the discussion. Before we get into the details of their work, many of you are probably wondering what a PRT is. PRTs are small units (60-500 personnel) deployed in a province to deal with a wide range of security and reconstruction work. In addition to a team’s military strength (which is largely made up of civil affairs, psychological operations, and special forces personnel), civilian representatives from agencies such as the Department of State (DOS), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are also present, allowing civilians to carry out reconstruction and stabilization efforts in largely unsecure regions of the country. PRTs do not engage in combat operations, and their stated objective is “to capitalize upon battlefield gains and undermine insurgent recruitment by strengthening ties between citizen and state.” They fulfill their mandate through the execution of reconstruction projects and regular meetings with Afghan leaders at the village, district, and provincial levels. The initiative was first established in Gardez in January 2003 and today there are 27 teams operating throughout the country.

The U.S. isn’t the only country that operates PRTs in Afghanistan, numerous other NATO nations are also contributing to the effort. These fall under ISAF’s operational command; however, individual nations determine the size and structure of their teams. Teams vary in size and mission focus, as they are tailored to the local needs of their area of operations.

(Source: NATO SITCEN Geo Branch)

Malkasian and Meyerle set off to Afghanistan to address the following questions:

(1) Do PRTs really make a difference?
(2) Do they help improve security or the capacity of the Afghan government to govern?
(3) Even if they do, could not another organization, like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or the Afghan government itself, do the job just as well, if not better?

The researchers came to the conclusion that PRTs do, in fact, make a difference by strengthening governance and contributing to security. They recognize that other agencies play important roles in reconstruction work; however, PRTs are vital to work being conducted in contested areas of the country. It has been reported that insurgents going through Afghanistan’s amnesty program admitted that projects carried out by PRT Khost actually caused them to question Taliban propaganda and reconsider their position. A road built by PRT Kunar in 2006 linked Jalalabad to Asadabad, resulting in a decrease in IED incidents from 17 in 2006 to 7 in 2007. The road also opened up a lane for the delivery of goods and services to rural areas previously difficult to access. Another road constructed by PRT Kunar in the Pech River Valley increased trade and economic activity, giving people an alternative to joining the insurgency as a means of income. By the time of the road’s completion, a survey revealed that citizens living in the Pech River Valley believed that the road had increased security and economic opportunity. IED attacks also fell dramatically, as the road’s pavement made it difficult to lay explosives (in contrast to dirt roads previously in place).

Several locals have been hired to construct roads such as these throughout Afghanistan. An Army colonel once informed me of the significance of contracting locals for infrastructure work. He stated, “If the U.S. military builds a bridge for a community or erects a building, the people are content. However, if that bridge or building gets destroyed, there usually isn’t much of an outcry from the general population. If, on the other hand, you contract locals to construct that bridge or building, they have an immediate stake in it. Not only do you provide them with work, but if the Taliban destroys their project, it really ticks them off – because they built it.” Utilizing infrastructure projects like this can be a vital tool in rebuilding Afghanistan while countering the insurgency at the local and provincial levels.

Roads have linked people together in these areas, resulting in increased political participation. U.S. officers, such as those working with PRT Ghazni, have also served as “mentors” to key officials, including members of the provincial council and the provincial development committee. The researchers concluded that these activities have resulted in increased security and better governance, answering the second question posed at the beginning of their project.

As for whether or not another agency could do the same work as PRTs, Malkasian and Meyerle conclude that they cannot. The researchers note that agencies such as USAID have been invaluable to reconstruction work in Afghanistan and few provinces have not benefited from their presence; however, PRTs have done most of the work in particularly violent provinces. This is due to the team’s military presence, which allows them to conduct large-scale projects in dangerous areas of the country that many civilian agencies and NGOs often avoid. The example of Paktia in 2003 is provided by the authors, when the Taliban killed two German civilians operating in the area. As a result, most of the NGOs left the province and many did not return for over a year; however, the PRT remained to carry out reconstruction projects. This also occurred in Kandahar and Helmand in 2005.

For those interested in reading Malkasian and Meyerle’s full report, copies can be downloaded for free in .pdf format here.