Provincial Reconstruction Teams: a rant with a boring title

A dawn chorus of gunfire followed by five or six helicopters buzzing low overhead this morning in Kabul. No news yet as to what it was about.

A few weeks ago I had the honour of attending the PRT conference at ISAF headquarters. PRTs being Provincial Reconstruction Teams: the controversial military units operating under ISAF (International Security Assistance Force, itself under NATO) to provide security, with the added bonus of a small civilian component thrown in to do the ‘reconstruction’ bit.

The conference was a talking shop for PRTs from across Afghanistan aimed to improve their work and, rather sweetly, provide a ‘brief respite from tactical operations’. Non-ISAF folk were allowed in for one day of it, so I popped along to see what was going on.

Sitting in a sweat-stained gym cum conference hall surrounded by lots of burly soldiers for several hours was indeed an honour.

Nothing personal against soldiers, it’s just that I don’t feel all that comfortable in such a militarised environment, least of all in Afghanistan.

More discomforting was the discussions that took place. Introduction and updates were given about various initiatives such as NSP (too many acronyms in this post: the National Solidarity Programme, a government-run, country-wide community development and governance programme) and various coordination mechanisms.

These were all well and good unto themselves and some, hearing from the UN about preparations for the future parliamentary elections for example, were fascinating.

But here’s the rub. PRTs have been used in Afghanistan since 2001, as well as in Iraq. Seven years down the line and still much of the discussion is on how to improve coordination, including civil-military coordination. For sure, coordination mechanisms will be continually evolving but still it was worrying.

There was a brief talk by someone from the UN about humanitarian responses, to the winter cold and food shortages for example, with an almost angry plea for military actors not to use the word ‘humanitarian’ to describe what they do.

The key principles of humanitarianism include neutrality – not taking part in hostilities or taking sides in a conflict – and independence – serving no other agenda, political, religious, or military, than the needs of the people affected by war or natural disaster.

Such principles, the very concept of humanitarianism, are thus impossible to uphold by military forces. A man with a gun giving out food to starving orphans is, almost by definition, not being humanitarian. Call it disaster relief or some such if you will, but please avoid the ‘H’ word.

At least that is the widely held view of most people within the aid world (and one of the reasons why PRTs have been so controversial). Yet some of the military folks at the conference were not so chuffed with this proscription on their use of the word.

Seven years (in Afghanistan alone, not counting Kosovo or other times) down the line and we still haven’t dealt with this? Still there is a fundamental lack of understanding within the military about the fairly simple concept of humanitarian principles? Maybe the divide in approaches and mindsets is too great a gulf to cross.

There was a short but detailed presentation on ‘tribal relations’ in the south, highlighting the complexity of the networks and issues. Fantastic, but have the people fighting or ‘reconstructing’ these areas not had a much longer briefing on all this already?

The same for the presentation on NSP: all good stuff, but dear gods please don’t tell me that these intelligent, highly-trained officers have not come across this, the largest single development initiative in the country, before.

Maybe some, particularly in the less secure provinces, have more pressing things to concern themselves with than NSP. Maybe with personnel being rotated every six or twelve months, there is not time to get to grips with ‘tribal relations’ in the south.

Maybe I should just shut up and try and think of a better title.

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5 Responses to “Provincial Reconstruction Teams: a rant with a boring title”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Maybe you could look at it from the other side of the issue? Why, despite the fact that soldiers of one type or another have been running around Afghanistan for centuries do humanitarian actors not understand even the simplest military concept? Why does your definition of ‘humanitarian’ over ride theirs? If they told you what the definition of humanitarian principles were would you find it condescending?

    Officers being briefed on the NSP? God I hope so! Especially as you point out most soldiers are rotated in six to twelve months. Did you arrive knowing everything? Probably not. Why would you expect anything different from them?

    If you really want the military folks to listen and understand it might be wise to drop the attitude. Nobody likes to be condescended to. Not even soldiers.

  2. harryrud Says:

    ‘Maybe I should look at it from the military’s perspective’ was, believe it or not, going to be one of my final maybes. But then I decided such even-handedness didn’t fit with the title ‘rant’. It was not my intention to patronise the military though, and your point is taken.

    And no, I did not arrive knowing everthing, nor will I leave knowing everything. My point was that this conference, half way through or towards the end of several people I spoke to tours of duty, did not seem the best time or place for an ad hoc briefing on NSP.

    As for humanitarian actors not understanding the simplest military concept, I would suggest that may be because, on the whole, humanitarian actors do not take on military activities. Whereas with PRTs, the military have decided to take on ‘humanitarian’ aims. ‘My’ definition overrides theirs because mine is based on humanitarian law, every guiding principle the aid world has struggled to slowly develop, and with the case of the ICRC, with the Geneva Conventions. The PRTs’ definition rests more on the wish for QIPs, ‘hearts and minds’ and good publicity. Understandable aims, but not quite the same.

    Meanwhile, because of all those soldiers running around Afghaninstan for centuries, many Afghans have a very good understanding of military concepts: either how to fight foreign soldiers, or how to run away from them.

  3. Franz Says:

    I was one of the civilian PRT personnel at the conference, the second I’ve attended since starting my assignment in Afghanistan. Here are a couple of observations from my perspective as a (government) civilian working with the military at a PRT.

    The PRTs — mine, at least — do not undertake “humanitarian” tasks arbitrarily, and seldom undertake them at all. Under really dire circumstances, we collaborate with the UN, NGOs, and most of all with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to get humanitarian assistance to people. Last winter, for example, the ANA (Afghan National Army) were the only organization with vehicles that could pass the roads in order to deliver urgently needed food aid, and the PRT played a minor role in assisting coordination between the World Food Program (WFP) and the ANA, at the UN’s request. What the PRTs are concerned with in respect to humanitarian aid is capacity building; that is, assisting the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) to stand up and sustain emergency response agencies in the provinces and districts. This is consistent with the PRTs’ mission of “working ourselves out of a job” by providing human and infrastructure capacity building to the host country through reconstruction projects such as roads and bridges as well as technical assistance and mentoring in public administration. We operate in the background and are only concerned with assisting the GIRoA to win hearts and minds by functioning more effectively; we do not seek publicity for ourselves.

    As for the the presentation on the NSP, I’d observe that the NSP is a sort of moving target, much like the GIRoA agency that deals with sub-national governance, the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG). I’ve been working with the NSP all along, but it was informative for me — as I’m sure it was for my military colleagues — to hear from the headquarters of the NSP about how the program is evolving and developing new initiatives as well as new approaches to implementation of existing mandates.

    I think anyone in the business would agree that there’s a lot to be frustrated about in Afghanistan and plenty of justification for ranting, whether you’re a civilian doing real humanitarian work, a government civilian working with the military, or a military member. The challenge for all of us is to not to throw up our hands in despair or to drive each other crazy.

  4. harryrud Says:

    Thanks for your comment Franz, good points all.

    The thing that interested me with the NSP presentation was how there was not a single mention of the Facilitating Partners (FPs, the NGOs that implement NSP on the ground). I understand that the Government want’s this to be seen as a Government programme, as it is, and so to downplay the role of others. But when it comes to co-ordination, especially with PRTs dealing with CDCs, to cut-out the FPs from the equation seems like a good way of confusing things.

  5. Promoting vice « harry rud Says:

    […] while back I wrote something about Provincial Reconstruction Teams, commenting on what seemed to me, in one limited example, to be a lack of formal briefing on events […]

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