Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are a key element in the US strategy for stabilization and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan. But it is time to rethink their orientation and to normalize their functions, as they are less effective than they could be, due to a fractured command structure and stovepiped funding.
PRT operations are intended to enhance security, strengthen the reach of the central government, and facilitate reconstruction efforts in the field. They are flexible in design, highly diverse in both size and composition, and operate under unique command and oversight. This flexibility has allowed PRTs to adapt to their surroundings and advance their core missions.
At the same time, PRT flexibility has made their mission ambiguous. They often lack the guidance and strategy to be effective. Lines of authority are not always clearly drawn, sometimes leading to the need to refer disagreements to higher authorities. The difficult security environment for the PRTs can make coordination in the PRT planning process difficult. There is virtually no Washington, DC planning or coordination architecture for the PRTs and no overarching interagency body to coordinate PRT activities. Short tours by military and civilian participants, limited training, and differences in civilian and military bureaucracies can compound the problem, leaving a flexible, but unevenly coordinated structure.
The PRT funding mechanisms have also contributed to their uneven success. PRT resources come largely through the military’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funding; in which the civilian agencies do not play a role. State Department/USAID funds, which also provide resources, are encumbered by a lengthy and complicated approval process at the embassy, making them less flexible than CERP funding. As a result, PRT’s tend to focus on short-term projects, best supported by CERP, while long-term development goals supported by civilian agencies can be neglected. This ad-hoc funding process can leave the PRTs with a disjointed program and little in the way of long-term strategy.
The ad hoc and flexible nature of the PRTs also lets them fly below the radar of Congressional oversight, as they are not legislatively mandated. Each PRT sets different goals and metrics for its work, making it difficult to track overall progress. The teams grew organically, which did not fit well with the staffing processes at State/USAID, making civilian manning difficult. Because they have not been authorized by Congress, the legislature did not focus on increasing civilian staffing levels to make it possible to fill the requirement. As a result, the military tends to dominate PRT staffing, putting a uniform face on what should be largely a civilian engagement. The lack of Congressional oversight also makes long-term planning and measurement of performance difficult.
The forthcoming report on Afghanistan strategy needs to include a close focus on the PRTs to ensure these problems are being corrected. If civilian reconstruction is to be central to US engagement there, these tools must work more effectively than they have to date.