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PRTs in Afghanistan: More for Less? March 10, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) concept has been both a source of policy inspiration and controversy – inspiration because of the way that U.S. diplomats, aid workers, and service-members adapted to circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan, and controversy because of the teams’ ad hoc and near-term approach to operations.

Funding for these teams illustrates each of these characteristics.  A heavy reliance on the Defense Department’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) allows for quick and flexible funding in response to needs in the field, but also tilts another interagency concept toward DOD.  As CERP funding has grown, reaching $1.2 billion in FY2010, so too has the dilemma.

Like an apprentice subject to the interference of a hovering mentor, the Government of Afghanistan is nearly suffocating from this attention.  PRTs’ uncommonly deep pockets, with finances that exceed some national donations, aggravate already-complex donor politics, according to Mark Ward of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.  Even more substantially, Ward noted, PRT resources crowd out the Afghan government’s development efforts.  In so doing, the PRTs increasingly stunt the government’s maturation and undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.

Not only is the Afghan government displaced in this situation, the public image replacing it is one funded and staffed largely by the military.  While American policy emphasizes civilian-led government, PRT operations often communicate a starkly different message in which wealth and capability are tied to a uniform.  Service-members and the Defense Department should be commended for their take-charge approach to situations, such as this, that require action.  Depending on them in this capacity, however, undercuts American policy, in addition to the Afghan government.

Spending with this narrow, short-term focus yields fewer results for more money.  Instead of handing off financial and leadership responsibility, this process demands extraordinary resources now and even more in the future.  It’s simply counterproductive.

One element of this problem is being addressed.  Congress authorized DOD to transfer CERP funds to the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program in FY2010.  This allows DOD to support the same development efforts by investing directly in the Afghan government rather than indirectly in the PRTs.  Doing so properly emphasizes strengthening the Afghan government and limiting the duration of our investment.

DOD’s role as lead investor, however, remains unaddressed.  In fact, the dilemma is tightening.  After growing from an FY04 base of $40 million, DOD’s FY2011 CERP request moves this trend upward by another $100 million, from $1.2 billion now to $1.3 billion next year.  Actions of this type doubtless speak louder than words, leaving Afghan citizens and their government to conclude that civilian-led government is an lesser priority.  It’s time for Congress and the Obama Administration to cooperate in resolving this problem by separating DOD and PRT-delivered aid in Afghanistan.

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