ISAF PRT Conference
Editors Note: The text is a Chim Chim post recording his observations on the recent ISAF PRT conference in Kabul. It is an interesting take from an academic who, although young, fit and very smart, has no prior experience with the military or conflict zones. I have added in some random pictures because my brother really likes them and he bitches at me when I don’t include some in the posts. My current assignment which has kept me in semi isolation and incommunicado is about to draw to a close allowing me to embed with Col Duffy White and his Marines down south. Activity at the old FRI blog is about to pick up again – sorry about going dark for so long but soon you will all know and understand why.
The ISAF PRT Conference, held at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul from 24-28 February 2009, brought together PRT commanders from multiple nations involved in the PRT program, USAID and State Department leaders, Afghan politicians, and NGO leaders in an effort to share ideas, exchange best practices, and look for a way forward in the ongoing counter insurgency in Afghanistan. From an HTT perspective, it was an opportunity to see the thoughts and processes of civil-military efforts above the brigade level. HTT social scientists from two other areas of operation (AOs) were present for the conference in addition to my own attendance. Together we collectively operate in more than a dozen provinces. Over three days, we would gain a greater understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of the colossal international effort that is attempting to rebuild Afghanistan from the ground up.
Given the number of nations involved in ISAF, with their varying troop levels and commitment stipulations, it is a credit to logistics personnel that things work at all. I do not mean to discredit international cooperation, but the efforts necessary for ISAF to operate seem to hinder operations as a whole. The discussions and guest speakers that were brought to bear at the conference were informative both in ideas of what works, and what does not, in this ongoing conflict. There is also a further caveat to the complication in the form of diversity within Afghanistan itself. Having a civilian run PRT that coordinates with Turkish soldiers, PRTs ran by foreign militaries and aid organizations, and PRTs ran by US forces is a complicated scenario. Now add geographic, economic, natural resource, ethnic, and tribal differences that can vary substantially in neighboring provinces, to say nothing of provinces on opposing sides of Afghanistan, and one can start to imagine how vast, and daunting, the PRT project really is.
While numerous topics were addressed over the conference to varying degrees of usefulness, looking at things from the HTT perspective was a bit tricky. Sometimes, things are just out of our lane. Of note was the focus on timelines and spending. The PRTs are allocated a budget, like most government entities, and are encouraged to spend it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Entities are often chastised for not spending all of the allocated funds in a given fiscal year, and this is no exception. Given the low level of infrastructure in Afghanistan, there is no shortage of potential projects. Unfortunately, finding things to spend money on is not always the answer to a problem. For example, you can build judicial centers, but they are useless without a trained legal staff, or a legal framework to prosecute criminals, not to mention an adequate prison system with trained guards. Training judges and lawyers, while more necessary, does not carry the same price tag as construction contracts do, and is in danger of falling through the cracks. Building schools is an important endeavor, but again, without a properly trained staff and effective curriculum, you are left with a building and people, which can technically be referred to as a school.
Training and ideas are hard to quantify, and therefore more difficult for military personnel to use for measures of success. Police and border patrol mentor programs ran by CF personnel have the benefit of supervised enrollment, training, and graduation- hard numbers that can verify efforts. Efforts to train civil servants, teachers, medical practitioners, etc, have far less military involvement, and appear to be farther down on the list of priorities. I would not attribute this to blatant disregard, but rather to an aversion to unquantifiable spending that while necessary, is difficult to show progress in numbers. Over all, this mentality breeds a willingness to find quantifiable projects to spend allocated funds on at the risk of yielding few practical results, having only short term results, or developing a welfare mentality among the local population.
Schools without teachers, judicial centers without lawyers and judges, clinics without medical staff, these are the projects that are in danger of having little practical relevance, if the training of adequate personnel is not included in the initial project. Short term results refer to projects that are not sustainable, or are not continued in the future. The changeover between PRT commands can sometimes lead to disconnect in information carryover wherein short term projects fall through the cracks, or are not prioritized by the incoming unit. The danger of short term projects is the vacuum of resources, power, or oversight left when the project ends or is forgotten. Example: organizing an agricultural co-op is a good idea in a country like Afghanistan. To be ultimately successful, it must not be reliant on continued US funding to be useful to Afghan society, but integrate fully into a self-supporting capacity. When the former becomes the case the local population will often revert to their former system, or someone will step in and assume authority in the vacuum of power for perhaps the betterment, but due to high rates of corruption and low levels of education, most likely the detriment of that affected population.
Perhaps the strongest risk faced by development is balancing good intentions with self-sufficiency. In a country with over 40% unemployment, a violent insurgency, and a world renowned drug production problem, creating jobs is critical to success. Job creation is a delicate undertaking, and should be done with a keen sense of longevity and resilience. If a project does not have the capacity to continue to employ people long after all the money has been spent, and initial support has packed up and gone home, it is akin to putting a band-aid on a hemorrhage. When identifying needs in local communities, problems should be vetted to understand how local populations have historically managed the issue. Often when identifying problems, developers will see an opportunity for a project, and therefore rationalize spending of an allocated budget, and assume they should go forward. At times, they will accurately identify pressing problems such as water quality, endemic illness, erosion, education, etc. Seemingly often though, there is a failure to ask, How did Afghans deal with this problem before we noticed it?
With some issues, it is true that they have simply lived with and/or ignored the problem. In other situations, they have had their own means of reconciling a problem before well-intentioned developers appeared waving solutions and projects around like they were given by divine mandate. If developers, USAID workers, military Civilian Affairs personnel, or whomever notice that irrigation trenches surrounding a village have become filled with silt and it is impeding agricultural development, the solution is not to hire Afghans to clean the trenches; even though it appears to be a solid project to fund, providing employment and improving local infrastructure.
Afghanistan is a largely (over 80%) agricultural nation, silt-filled irrigation canals are something they have been dealing with since the first floods after they built the first irrigation canals many hundreds of years ago. We should not pay them to do something they have been doing for time immemorial, but rather focus on improvements and innovations that are both useful and lasting. If this is not the case, communities may come to rely on PRTs financing jobs they already did, relying on that income to the detriment of what has traditionally been the livelihood of the community. When the funding stops and nothing has really been gained from the interaction, it has the potential to engender ambivalence or even hostility among Afghans who feel they are at risk simply cooperating with CF in the first place.
- How have Afghans historically addressed this issue? This is important in identifying potential solutions (if needed), and mitigating any social disturbances they may cause.
- Will this noticeably alter social harmony? No one can predict the future, but you can brainstorm on implications. Some will be missed, but careful thought in understanding the cultural implications of the scenario could tell developers if a perceived solution may do more damage than good by upsetting social equilibrium in the community.
- If there is a local way of dealing with it, does it need to be replaced, or simply enhanced? When a solution is called for, the less foreign, the better it will be.
- Does the project require indefinite funding or non-Afghan oversight to be effective? We will not be here forever; the project should be able to endure long after we are gone.
- What is the correlation between price and outcome? Big price tags are often prioritized over small ones, as they further the goal of spending allocated funds over the fiscal year. Smaller, although often more useful, projects may be ignored as a result. A village might benefit substantially from a small footbridge over a river; they may not need a four lane suspension bridge that can support a tank regiment.
- What will happen after the project is completed? Will there be community ownership, public use and maintenance (government controlled), sole ownership and/or control, a legal framework to ensure it is used properly in the future? The farming co-op you develop will be self-defeating if someone takes it over and begins extorting locals for participation/use of equipment.
Colleagues of mine in the development world claim such concerns to be common in security and development education, yet mistakes that fail to take into consideration the above concerns happen all too regularly.
It cannot be emphasized enough, that the success of development and counterinsurgency as a whole is directly linked to successful dialogue with the local population. While kinetic operations target insurgents, non-kinetic operations, development, and dialogue must be present. If we are sending a message that we are here to help, we should do so in a way that demonstrates a knowledge of culture and society, shows a willingness to enable, and instills confidence in the local population that their quality of life will improve and the insurgency will not win.