Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Why PRTs Aren't the Answer

The international military is poorly equipped to undertake reconstruction tasks normally accomplished by non-governmental organisations.
By Paul Barker

With the collapse of the Taleban regime in November 2001, Afghans were offered their best chance since 1979 to escape from a decades-long cycle of destruction and war.

The aid community mobilised to confront the massive needs of a desperately poor country - a task made all the more complex by the large-scale return of refugees and internally displaced persons and a crippling multi-year drought.

At the same time, international military forces in Afghanistan faced the challenge of bringing peace and order to a country that was divided among scores of warlords and commanders, had a blossoming opium trade, and still harboured international terrorists.

Against this background, the international military coalition in Afghanistan began engaging in reconstruction work early in 2002, initially through Civil Affairs teams and then later through Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRTs.

Since 2002, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, have been consistently critical of this approach on three grounds: quality, efficiency and security.

While NGOs do recognise the unique and vital role that international military forces play in promoting security in Afghanistan, and appreciate the risks and losses the militaries of various nations have borne while pursuing these goals, they generally feel the PRT approach is misguided.

And while not all PRTs are alike, we can make some generalisations:

1. The military does development work poorly. With decades of experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere in developing nations, NGOs have a hard-won appreciation for the importance of sustainable reconstruction interventions, and the time and steps required to achieve them. It is not enough to build a school, clinic, well or irrigation system if there is not at the same time equal attention given to creating and empowering the structures at the community level that will ensure the maintenance, operation and equitable use of whatever is being built.

NGOs work to ensure real community ownership of a project through joint planning and training, and require limited cash or in-kind contributions.

PRTs do not have the time or training to engage communities in a complete and well thought-out development process. The quick-impact, output oriented approach used by PRTs often results in buildings used for purposes other than those intended, wells going idle when pumps inevitably break, irrigation projects being designed to serve the fields of the already rich, and so on.

The fact that military-led projects require no community contribution and only superficially engage communities in a development process means that the communities will have little sense of ownership over things built.

NGOs are also concerned about structuring projects in a manner that promotes the representation of women and minority groups in decision making and which promote improved equity of access to development resources in the community. By contrast, PRTs draw heavily on the skills and experience of reservists who – while full of the best intentions – do not have a strong understanding of development best practice, and have limited knowledge of local languages and culture.

When an agency is not adequately aware of local power relations, it is very easy to prioritise and implement projects that reward the traditional power elites.

In addition, coordination of work between PRTs and NGOs has been uneven, and this lack of coordination has costs in terms of duplication of projects and conflicting plans.

2. PRTs draw resources away from the essential mission of security. Both the security and reconstruction needs of Afghanistan are enormous, and neither is being adequately met at the moment. Afghanistan is in desperate need of security and justice, but the central government is too weak at the moment to effectively rein in the warlords, drug barons and criminals who terrorise the local population.

Reconstruction and development work, along with the essential task of state-building, is made vastly more difficult in a deteriorating security situation. The military is, by definition, trained to fight battles and provide security. Time and materiel the military expends on reconstruction work are resources that are not being used to provide desperately needed security for the population.

Repeated surveys show that Afghans’ most strongly felt need is for improved security. If the military is concerned about winning "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan, it should raise its profile by the provision of security in a country where the gun still rules and law and order is not yet established, while simultaneously avoiding excesses such as rough and culturally insensitive searches and mistaken detentions. Greater international military support for police and national army training, along with speedier disarmament in general, would be we welcomed by many NGOs.

What’s more, when salaries and support costs are considered, the PRT model is significantly more expensive than other reconstruction alternatives. There are reports that PRTs have not always been rigorous in following competitive bidding processes, resulting in disproportionate profits for selected contractors.

3. The PRT model blurs the line between military and humanitarian action.

Since March 2002, over 35 NGO employees and more than two dozen civilians engaged in Afghanistan's reconstruction effort have been killed. This is a shocking deterioration since the Taleban and mujahedin years, when aid workers were viewed as impartial actors whose work was respected by all sides. In this more lethal post-Taleban era, the cost of being perceived as one with a foreign military force is a significant risk for unarmed aid workers to bear; it also sets a dangerous precedent in other post-conflict situations.

Yet when military personnel work in civilian clothing (as some NATO civil-military cooperation teams did in early 2002), drive white four-wheel-drive vehicles that are indistinguishable from NGO vehicles, and undertake the same kinds of activities as aid agencies do, the blurring is significant and apparently deliberate.

Security and development are interdependent in Afghanistan. Until this circle is squared, reconstruction will continue to move slowly, to the increasing frustration of the Afghan people. To the extent to which security and development professionals can play to their strengths and to their professional expertise, Afghanistan will be the better for it.

Paul Barker is Afghanistan country director for CARE International.

IWPR asked the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, to submit an opposing viewpoint on PRTs. ISAF declined to contribute comment, asking instead that we refer readers to their website:

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