Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I heart Provincial Reconstruction Teams

David Axe wrote a totally sweet article for yesterday about U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in Iraq and Afghanistan:

First established in Afghanistan in 2002, PRTs were initially Army-led and included mostly Soldiers. But with the number and size of PRTs expanding throughout Central Command’s area of responsibility and constant deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for combat operations, the Navy and Air Force have stepped in to relieve some Army’s manpower pressure, taking over leadership of 12 of the 24 American PRTs in Afghanistan.

Half of the 20 American PRTs in Iraq are led by the Army as well, with the other half led by State Department staffers - though, the department is having a tough time finding the personnel to assume the risky duty. There are as many as 100 people working in each PRT.


The problem is they don’t have the security to get around they way they should,” Cardon said.

Still, Cardon’s and Wilson’s teams managed. One of the Iraq teams’ biggest successes was coordinating pest mitigation for the large date palm industry in Karbala, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad.

“There are these insects that come out and have to be sprayed within a six-week period. The Iraqis were having problems doing this for some time,” Cardon explained. So one of his PRTs stepped in, arranging for helicopters to do the spraying - a move that “should mean dramatic improvement in the date harvest.”

Next up: adding more State Department personnel to his PRTs and tasking them to train the Iraqi government in basic budgeting so ministries and local institutions can execute projects like the date palm spraying themselves.

“I’m trying to get the PRTs to focus more on building government capacity,” Cardon says.

I'll admit, I have a big soft spot for the PRTs. Peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction is a truly noble pursuit. The U.S. should treat it as an integral part of confronting terrorism and improving our image abroad.

The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has done a great job of recording and studying the PRT experience. They have conducted debriefing interviews with about 75 former PRT staffers and published the transcripts on the USIP website as part of an oral history project on reconstruction. Robert Perito, USIP's senior program officer for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations has also written smashing reports on the evolution of PRTs in Afghanistan and Iraq. They provide an enormous amount of detail about the PRT's organization and missions, as well as some of the key problems they encountered.

I was really surprised to find out how very different the U.S. PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan are. In Afghanistan, PRTs are essentially small infantry companies (fewer than 100 troops) with a representative from the State Department, Agriculture Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) attached to them. From Perito's description, it appears that the staffers from State didn't do much besides file reports, while the USAID and Ag representatives were out in the field working with the locals. Although the PRTs encountered some really problems, they have remained largely unchanged since 2004.

PRTs in Iraq, on the other hand, are sixty-man subunits attached to brigade combat team and they are lead by a foreign service officer. Their staff also comes from a much more diverse background, including 2-3 staffers from the State, 1 from Agriculture, 1 from Justice, 1 from USAID, two contractor advisers from civilian assistance companies, and only 3 soldiers. After undergoing a major reorganization in 2005, the roles and responsibilities of each PRT member are more clearly defined than for PRTs in Afghanistan.

The reports also reveal some interesting details about PRT work. PRTs in Afghanistan operate with a fair amount of autonomy from local governments because many local leaders are warlords. Since there is no real effort to coordinate the PRTs in Afghanistan, most of their projects are done in a scatter shot fashion. This is exacerbated by the fact that the notoriously short attention span of military commanders has lead to a number of ill-planned or rushed projects. PRT work in Iraq is better coordinated and planned out. They also work closely with local governments to improve governance, budgeting and public services. The main weakness of PRTs in Iraq is their lack of contact with the local population (not going "outside the wire" enough) and inadequate resources.

USIP also wrote a great report responding the oft-asked question of "Why aren't we enlisting the assistance of the NGO community?" According to Michael Dziedzic and Michael J. Siedl, working with the U.S. would tarnish NGOs' reputation of neutrality. Humanitarian groups are often afforded a great deal of mobility and access in war zones because place the idea of alleviating suffering above politics.

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