Peacekeeping: The War On Poverty


March 25, 2010:  Peacekeeping in Afghanistan is supposed to include a lot of economic development. This has proved difficult. That's because Afghanistan is the poorest and least developed nation in Eurasia. Most of the population lives in the barren (of economic development) countryside. No roads, no railroads, no electricity and not much of anything. People out there live from harvest to harvest, or move herds around the countryside in search of water and grass. Most Afghans are illiterate. And then there's the corruption, which is made worse by all the other problems.

Thus only about 23 percent of the $36 billion in aid money spent over the last five years, was handled by the government. A lot of it just disappeared. More of it got spent on projects that simply did not work. There are not a lot of engineers, construction specialists and planners in Afghanistan. Just building a dirt road can be a major undertaking for the locals. With no railroads and few navigable rivers, bringing anything in from the outside (usually by truck via Pakistan) is expensive and time consuming.

Some 42 percent of the $36 billion was spent by military commanders. The U.S. quickly realized (and were reminded by the U.S. Army Special Forces) that commanders of combat units could use development money very effectively, both for the economy, and military situation. This led to the development of PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), who put much of the remaining aid money to work, along with some of the money local American military commanders have.

About half the development money was spent on security items (mainly the police and army.) Rural development (especially roads and agriculture) got 18 percent, education got nine percent, health got six percent and a bunch of other stuff got the rest. Most of the money was spent where the Taliban was not (the central and northern provinces.) 

While a good idea in theory, the PRTs ran into some unique problems. These teams of military and civilian experts, were used to speed up, and organize, the use of American resources (cash, equipment and materials) for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the beginning, the U.S. assembled the teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, letting them get acquainted and learn their jobs. Four years ago, a training program for the senior people, lasting up to 45 days, was established in the United States. By giving the key people in a PRT training, together, before they ship out, problems can be discovered and worked out. The training also gets everyone familiar with their team members, and enables the team to get working sooner, and more effectively.

The United States has had great success with its PRTs in Afghanistan. These evolved from the JRTs (Joint Reconstruction Teams) established by U.S. Army Special Forces in 2002. By 2006, there were seventeen PRTs run by U.S. troops (including five in Iraq), with another eleven operated by NATO forces. The program kept expanding in Afghanistan, until, now, there are 27 PRTs there. The program began in Afghanistan, and was later set up in Iraq as well. But the main PRT effort remains in Afghanistan.

The typical PRT has 60-100 people (depending on local needs). Most (80 percent) of these are military personnel. The rest are civilian specialists, including a police officer from the Afghan Interior Ministry. American PRTs are commanded by an  army lieutenant colonel, who is actually leading two civil affairs teams, an Army Reserve military police unit, plus intelligence and psychological operations teams. The civilians usually consist of officials from the State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rest of the troops are assigned to security duties, which can be pretty tense in areas where Taliban gunmen are operating, but is basically police work (against bandits and unruly warlord militias) elsewhere. These security troops often end up assisting in reconstruction as well. The Afghans urged for an expansion of the PRT system, not just to get more reconstruction expertise to all areas of the country, but to provide some protection for reconstruction staff (including the many NGOs that are not a part of the PRT system.)

PRTs have had problems with bureaucratic roadblocks created by different Department of Defense, State Department and USAID agendas. The State Department, when told to send people to work with PRTs, responded by providing very junior folks, with little experience in anything. The Department of Defense has people there to provide security and is, technically, not involved in nation building. But the troops can take over in an emergency, because they are, after all, in charge of security. But in active areas like Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is really running the show. Combat needs come first, and everything else, including nation building, is support. When it comes to nation building, the Department of Defense wants power, but not responsibility. Same thing with the State Department, and neither Defense or State wants to take orders from USAID.

Many Iraqi and Afghan politicians want to get rid of the PRTs, so there can be more unfettered opportunities for corruption and stealing U.S. aid money. The corruption is so pervasive in Iraq and Afghanistan that even some American officials, especially outside the Department of Defense, would like to dump the PRTs in order to keep the corruption out of the headlines. Dealing with the corruption head on is messy, and the State Department, for example, would prefer to get out of the way.





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