Integrating Civilian and Military Efforts in Provincial Reconstruction Teams — David Kobayashi

Provincial reconstruction team helps Afghans build footbridge in Surkh Rod District

Since their 2002 formation in Afghanistan, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have been at the forefront of U.S. efforts to coordinate civilian and military power. PRTs, organizations composed of 50-100 military personnel and a small number of civilians, have performed a variety of tasks from reconstruction projects, such as rebuilding schools and roads, to political and security initiatives, such as advising local government officials or training indigenous police forces. Yet, as of late 2008, the PRT strategy and doctrine continue to evolve and success remains confined largely to a tactical level.This case study analyzes the effectiveness of PRTs as a tool to facilitate unity of effort between civilian and military organizations in America’s counterinsurgency campaigns. The study focuses primarily on U.S. operations in Afghanistan; however, the text also analyzes the evolution of the PRT concept with the deployment of teams to Iraq.

PRTs represent a field-based attempt by the United States government to integrate civilian and military elements of national power on a small scale. The creation of PRTs in Afghanistan appears to have been an ad hoc response designed to enhance local security, reconstruction, and the authority of the central government. However, the literature suggests that the concept has not been well-integrated with larger U.S. strategy. Initial efforts to deploy PRTs in Iraq also seem to have been similarly reactive. However, with the implementation of President Bush’s “New Way Forward in Iraq,” the number of PRTs in the country has been greatly increased and their activities have been better integrated into the larger U.S. approach.

Despite the ad hoc nature of PRT deployment, the teams were often able to effectively coordinate civilian, military, and NGO efforts in the field. In Afghanistan, PRTs were vital in promoting coordination between civilian and military activities through Provincial Development Councils—meetings between PRTs, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, NGOs, provincial governors, and tribal leaders. However, cooperation was sometimes marred by confusion concerning the responsibilities of agency representatives within the PRT. Similar interdepartmental conflicts emerged in Iraq over differences regarding the provision of logistical support and security.

The PRTs’ ill-defined and limited mandate often hampered coordination and unity of effort. In addition, unclear responsibilities and authorities frequently prevented effective interagency cooperation. Scarce, disproportionately distributed resources and limited training (especially among civilian agencies) also frequently hindered coordination and led to an overrepresentation of the military in field-based decision-making. Finally, differing organizational cultures at times produced tensions between civilian, military, and non-governmental personnel participating in PRT activities. Nonetheless, PRTs often fulfilled valuable functions in Iraq and Afghanistan and continue to do so due to the flexibility of the approach and the development of good interpersonal relationships between civilian and military personnel, which has occurred on some teams.

A final assessment is not possible at this time but lessons have already been learned and the impacts of PRT work are evident. Yet overall, PRTs appear to have made a positive contribution to Afghanistan and Iraq and to the effective coordination of American civilian and military efforts. However, success has been partial, and many fear that Provincial Reconstruction Teams are insufficient to deal with the issues facing both countries.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams are one of the only existing institutions designed to improve U.S. civilian and military cooperation and expand U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite varying assessments of overall effectiveness of PRTs, a degree of consensus has emerged that PRTs have improved coordination between the military and civilian sectors of government; however, experts generally find this coordination to be ad hoc and incomplete. While the core concept of PRTs appears good, further definition of the functions and responsibilities of these organizations has proven difficult and some worry such description might constrain the flexibility of PRTs. Finally, differing institutional cultures and insufficient training and resources frequently led to interagency tension, although many disputes were eventually resolved amicably.