In the battle to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are often on the front line. William Maley looks at how they have evolved and what’s next for them.

As an innovative approach to building peace and security, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan were very much a response to unanticipated circumstances. They were largely new in structure, although elements of the PRT model were earlier seen in conflicts such as Vietnam.

The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 provided for the deployment in Afghanistan of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Given that Afghanistan lacked a credible national army or police force, ISAF was seen as essential to dealing with a looming security vacuum in rural areas.

What is a PRT? ‘Provincial Reconstruction Teams’ are small teams of military and civilian personnel working in Afghanistan’s provinces to provide security for aid works and help humanitarian assistance or reconstruction tasks in areas with ongoing conflict or high levels of insecurity.

How many are there? There are 25 spread across many parts of Afghanistan, with 12 under Regional Command East, 5 under Regional Command North, 4 under Regional Command West, and 4 under Regional Command South.

Which countries lead them? Numerous NATO countries, as well as New Zealand.

When did the PRTs begin operating? In January 2003

Unfortunately, the politics of contributor countries undermined the Bonn strategy. This, and the logistical difficulties of deploying PRTs all over the large and distant Afghanistan, meant that ISAF was deployed just to Kabul. It was only after two years, and much lost momentum, that ISAF expansion beyond the capital was authorized by United Nations Resolution 1510 in October 2003.

It was during these two years, when ISAF expansion was blocked, that minds turned to other ways of establishing an international presence in the countryside: the PRTs became the device of choice. Ironically, their military components are now linked back to ISAF, which itself is under NATO command.

The task of replacing ISAF as a source of security was always a difficult one. But as time has gone by, one point has become increasingly clear – there is no single ‘PRT experience’. Instead, a range of factors come into play which shape what PRTs can achieve, and in what ways.

First, PRTs vary according to location, and the specific security and development needs in a particular area. The experience of the New Zealand PRT in Bamian has been very different from that of the Canadians in Kandahar.

As time has gone by, one point has become increasingly clear – there is no single ‘PRT experience’

Bamian province is geographically encapsulated, relatively ethnically homogeneous, and well run by a local administration where Afghanistan’s only female governor enjoys strong community support. This relatively low-threat environment means the PRT has successfully provided ambient security and has largely avoided being drawn into activities which are properly those of the Afghan authorities.

In Kandahar, by contrast, the population and the PRT are exposed to attacks by Taliban militants reportedly operating from safe havens in Pakistan. The local administration has had a very patchy record of achievement. And local politics is marked by intense rivalries between different forces aspiring to power.

As a result, the Kandahar deployment has proved far more difficult to manage than that in Bamian. This is reflected in the relative casualty rates. More than 40 Canadian soldiers have been killed. New Zealand’s deployment has not seen a single death from hostile attack.

Second, PRTs vary according to the practices and military cultures of contributing states. The problem of ‘national caveats’ on the ways in which forces might be used has long been a serious concern for commanders in Afghanistan. These caveats reflect significant differences in the world-views of contributing states. They are manifested in both their militaries’ organizational cultures, and in what they see as appropriate roles for their PRTs.

For example, some militaries are committed to using kinetic force to establish a credible, robust presence. For others, this might reflect both a failure of imagination and a reluctance to use negotiation as a way of achieving concrete objectives.

But even within a single state PRT, a change of leadership can significantly affect how a PRT operates. Individual PRT commanders bring different levels of knowledge of the Afghan environment and different understandings of what the task of the PRT should be. Some throw themselves with gusto into the experience – others wish to get out of the country as quickly as possible.

Third, PRTs vary according to how effectively they engage with local leaderships and populations. Successful PRTs need to bring positive change in their environments. Even if well-run, a PRT will have done little to foster continuous reconstruction if it does not lay the foundation for stable local development.

By now it is a common place observation that development of this kind requires serious engagement between outside actors and internal forces. Again, there is quite a degree of variety.

In rural Afghanistan, personal ties tend to shape people’s behaviour more than links between formal organizations. This benefits PRTs which can leave personnel in place for longer periods, as they can cultivate these kinds of informal ties.

It also helps PRTs who have staff with relevant language skills. PRTs operating in the north, where Persian is more widely used, have an advantage over those in the south where Pashto is more common: Persian is relatively easy to learn, whereas Pushtu is exceptionally difficult.

There are further coordination complications arising from the nature of the PRTs’ tasks. For example, PRT leaderships tend to be much closer to provincial administrations than to the central authorities. This can create problems when provincial administrations are not fully attuned to the central government’s priorities – particularly as strategic reconstruction priorities are formally set through consultation between donors and the Afghan government

The most successful PRTs have been those best attuned to recognizing Afghans’ conceptions of Afghans’ needs. A good PRT leadership strategy is to spend as much time as possible listening, rather than talking

PRTs can also be more interested in their home government’s priorities than those of the Afghan government. It is tempting for PRTs to meet local (and donor) needs through ‘Quick Impact Projects’, and these can on occasion be beneficial, especially if they have been carefully devised with locals. But unfortunately, some of these projects can also prove to be costly, unsustainable white elephants, and reflect a lack of understanding of the complexities of Afghanistan’s diverse micro-societies.

‘Development’ is not simply a set of projects; it involves capacity-building, sustainability strategies, and above all an understanding of how societies operate. The most successful PRTs have been those that are best attuned to recognizing Afghans’ conceptions of Afghans’ needs. A good PRT leadership strategy is to spend as much time as possible listening, rather than talking.

This has led to tensions on the ground between some PRTs and experienced NGOs (Non-governmental organizations), which tend to approach reconstruction from a much more rigorously ‘developmental’ perspective. Many NGOs fear a blurring in locals’ eyes between ‘humanitarian assistance’ and ‘development’, on the one hand, and the prosecution of a global ‘war on terror’ on the other. This is especially so when reconstruction is presented as a way of counter-acting political forces such as the Taliban and al Qaida.

But perhaps just as serious is the difficulty that Afghans may have in distinguishing between PRTs, on the one hand, and other international military forces on the other. With some uniformed personnel engaged in reconstruction, and others making forceful use of military power, confusion among Afghans is hardly surprising. With civilian casualties mounting, it will likely become more difficult to protect PRTs from a backlash.

Within PRTs, too, there can be tensions between military and civilian components. These can have either positive and creative or negative and destructive consequences, depending on how they are handled.

There is one final issue which is as yet not much discussed: what processes should be put in place to manage a transition to local ownership of PRT activity? The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police will eventually have to take over some security responsibilities which PRTs currently are handling, but as yet there is no clear timetable or template to govern such a transition.

Afghanistan cannot confidently assume that the current pattern of PRT deployment will be sustained for more than the short-to-medium term. Ultimately, it will be domestic politics in contributing countries, rather than the needs of Afghanistan, that will shape the transition.

And if casualties climb, international commitment to running PRTs may decline. For this reason, Kabul would be wise to begin thinking now about how to handle such a situation – no matter how distant it may be.