Sunday, January 15, 2006

PRTs: Performing (Really) Teams?

One development that has been held out as good news in Iraq is the transfer of the Provincial Reconstruction Team concept from Afghanistan, associated with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. David Barno, not to mention Bob Bran of Blogistan. PRTs were essentially invented as a response to the obvious need to expand security out of Kabul, though the US Army in southern Afghanistan was uninterested in anything that might tie its hands in rearranging the ridgelines in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the NATO member states unkeen on contributing further troops. The idea was, essentially, to set up mixed civil-military groups to run reconstruction and administrative/military reform projects in centres of population, that would also act as a deterrent to further warlord fighting and expand the authority of the Kabul government, without establishing a massive military presence.

So far, so sensible. Initial results were shaky, and suffered from problems including many NGOs not liking the idea of cooperating with the military (although one suspects the proposition that this was a far better idea than AC-130 strikes on wedding parties had considerable persuasive force. Manipulation is a two-way process..). But with time and commitment, they seem to have achieved something - or at least, more than the neo-Air Cav chopper blitzkrieg advocates can claim either in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The US Army War College's journal Parameters has a fascinating report on the project, well worth reading in conjunction with Brigadier Aylwin-Foster's now heavily blogged critique of the main force US Army in Iraq. As is often the case, although the PRT remit began very fluid, this seems to have been a long-term advantage, as the aim was clearer (compare Iraq, where the Coalition armies' remit is as clear as day, their strategic aim barely defined). From a British point of view, there's room for some gloating, too - it seems to be a great pity that now the US military establishment, having banged its head raw on the Iraqi wall, is more receptive to the famous "influence" that the special relationship is meant to offer, we are also suffering from the collision with the brickwork.
The civilian and military members of the UK-led PRT in Mazar-e Sharif, by comparison, trained and deployed together and understood that their mission was to support both military and civilian objectives. One example of the results of these different approaches was that while the Mazar PRT made it a priority to support civilian-led missions like police training, disarmament, and judicial reform efforts, the PRT [US-run] in Gardez initially resisted State Department requests for police training assistance. Civil-military coordination on the US-led PRTs has certainly improved over time, but limited pre-deployment preparation, strained resources, and confusion over priorities continue.

Despite these challenges, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have been one of the few efforts in Afghanistan to approach civil and military S&R tasks in a coordinated fashion at the tactical level. Military patrols, demining, school repairs (with either military or civilian oversight), UN assessments, police training, and other tasks all take place within a single province. The diversity of nations, organizations, and personalities struggling to implement their particular programs impedes even the most concerted efforts to pull things together. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan uses regional offices to share information, but real coordination is more than information sharing, it is integrated action. Integration among national, functional, and civil-military stovepipes generally occurs only in the host-nation’s capital, at best. PRTs, however, have achieved at least some unity of effort in the field by serving as a hub for both military and civilian activities and by closely aligning their efforts with the Afghan central government.

As with coordination, the UK-led PRT in Mazar-e Sharif was particularly effective in building relationships. The PRT commander in September 2003 had extensive diagrams detailing frequently-changing factional loyalties and interactions. PRT members traveled extensively through their area of operations. When tensions rose, PRT members stepped into the middle of the action, sometimes physically placing themselves between armed groups. Their efforts prevented factional fighting from breaking out or escalating on a number of occasions. In contrast, the German-led PRT in Konduz could travel only within a 30-kilometer radius and was accused by UN and NGO staff of avoiding areas where factional tensions were high. PRT members took a delegation (including the author) to visit the Konduz governor in February 2004, and described their close relationship with him. They did not seem aware, however, that the governor would be replaced the next day by the central government..
Well, someone ought to be in line for a medal if that is at all representative of the UKPRT's performance. This is interesting, too:
The UK military relied on its government’s Department for International Development for funding assistance projects. While this limited the military’s freedom of action, it may well have been a blessing in disguise. UK military personnel coordinated closely with their civilian agency counterparts in order to access their funding. They also tended to focus more on building relationships based on security-related cooperation with local authorities.

PRTs could, in extremis, call on the ultimate stick—bombs from above—but military airstrikes lack subtlety, and even the threat of them was generally not helpful for day-to-day interactions. PRT members relied primarily on trying to reward good behavior, but there was one stick President Karzai used that the PRTs could reinforce, as appropriate, in the murky world of provincial diplomacy: job insecurity. Karzai was not shy about firing ineffective or corrupt governors and police chiefs. PRTs were in some cases instrumental in supporting leadership changes, and in other cases their interactions with local officials seemed only remotely tied to the central government.

For example, the PRT in Gardez helped the governor, a trusted appointee of President Karzai, to transfer the corrupt provincial police chief to Kabul. When the new police chief arrived with a well-trained police unit to assist in the transfer process, the presence of PRT soldiers demonstrated US support for the central government and helped prevent a firefight between the newcomers and the departing police chief’s private militia.13 PRTs were most effective in relationship-building when they could both reward cooperative local partners and hold uncooperative partners accountable. The appointment of an Afghan Ministry of Interior official to each PRT in 2004 was particularly helpful in improving the ability of the PRTs to build relationships and strengthen the reach of the central government.
Now, this is all very fantastic, but can it last? Answering a question of mine, Bob Bran, who served on a PRT and General Barno's staff, remarked that the State Department and the Army considered them "nondoctrinal", or to put it in English, bureaucratically wrong. And the transfer to Iraq doesn't seem to be working out for reasons that the battling Brigadier has covered in some detail: Washington Post link.
But with the Pentagon eager to draw down forces in Iraq, defense officials are reluctant to take on new or expanded assignments, particularly those seen by some as having more to do with reconstruction than combating terrorism.

"We're very much in the watch-and-wait mode right now," said a senior military officer at the Pentagon. "Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld has spoken of the importance of not stepping too far forward in the area of reconstruction just yet."
Well, that's the sound of a point being missed by a mile. Before the recent financial cutoff, even the White House seemed to have (temporarily and for PR purposes) got a grip on the idea that you cannot win this kind of war just by killing all the bad guys. Remember that National Strategy for Victory in Iraq? Clear, Hold, and Build? Bah. Brig Aylwin-Foster:
The most striking feature of the US Army's approach during this period of OIF Phase 4 is that universally those consulted for this paper who were not from the US considered that the Army was too "kinetic". This is shorthand for saying US Army personnel were too inclined to consider offensive operations and destruction of the insurgent as the key to a given situation, and conversely failed to understand its downside.
A good question regarding the roll-out of the PRTs to Iraq, which hasn't really been answered, is whether sufficient tactical-level consent exists for them to operate - after all, a low-profile strategy might have worked in the spring of 2003, but the degree of insurgent dominance of roads and urban centres is now a very difficult problem for a type of unit that is specifically meant to make contact with the people. Certainly some parts of Iraq might well be possible, but then, those are the bits (Kurdistan) where there is really no problem.

More broadly, is it time to put a permanent PRT or three on the Army's order of battle? It would seem to be an excellent use of the Territorial Army - many of the TA infantry have been used as individual reinforcements and gate guards, whilst a lot of their officers have been knocked back from going to Iraq completely, and a few specialist trades run into the ground.

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