Afghan President Hamid Karzai, everyone’s favorite punching bag in Afghanistan, has decided provincial reconstruction teams — PRTs — are, in fact, bad for his country. "The Afghans want to have a government of their own. The Afghans don’t want a government from abroad," Karzai told reporters in Kabul. "The transition means giving the whole thing to Afghan ownership and leadership. Naturally then the PRTs will have no place."
This didn’t used to be controversial. When the first PRT was created in early 2003, it was actually called a provincial transition team because the idea was to transition control of an area from U.S. to Afghan control as capacity was built. Of course, that first PRT, in Gardez, Paktia, only had one civilian on it who was supposed to monitor all the reconstruction and governance activity in three provinces. Soon, the PRT program got a new name — reconstruction this time, not transition — and by 2007 there were 25 PRTs across the country.
Evaluations of PRT performance have been mixed at best. One researcher at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies found in 2008 that PRTs "lead to counter-productive results such as the strengthening of local Power Brokers and the weakening of the government in Kabul." This is because coalition forces "again and again form an alliance with local militias and supply them with weapons and money."
The idea of transitioning reconstruction and governance from PRTs to the Afghans was stillborn, as well. In 2008, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He said PRTs "operate without any transparent or common doctrine or even reporting lines for nonmilitary actions." Further, he said, "there are no agreed-upon benchmarks for determining when that transition [to Afghan administration] can take place and when it should take place." Even actual members of PRTs have said that "no amount of development will improve security conditions." Their efforts, while admirable for many reasons, did not actually contribute to the broad goal of defeating the Taliban.
PRTs, in other words, are a mess, and they have been for a long time. Because there is no plan for how PRTs should be used, or just as importantly how they could eventually be transitioned into normal Afghan governance, it’s difficult to complain when Karzai wants them gone … until you realize what that really means: relying on the notoriously corrupt Afghan government. The United States doesn’t like how the Afghan government operates, nor do many Afghans — they see it, rightly, as being distant from normal citizens and rife with greed and corruption.
However, the Afghan government is how the United States will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan. Building a stable Afghan government that can defend itself is one of the main pillars of the Obama administration’s strategy for the country, and when PRTs funnel hundreds of millions of dollars away from Afghan government control and oversight — however troubled — they are directly undermining the very government the United States is relying on for victory. This is why the World Bank has thrown millions of dollars at various "capacity building" projects in the country in an effort to improve its administration and oversight. It is also why funneling more aid through the government — however gradually — is actually better for the long-term health of Afghanistan, even if it contributes to aggregate corruption.
Regardless, this might be something of a tempest in a teapot anyway. As Peter Marton, a research fellow at Corvinus University of Budapest noted on his blog, Karzai didn’t exactly demand that PRTs be instantly disbanded. Rather, he called for a gradual transition of greater Afghan self-rule over the next three years, and he noted that by the official transition date of 2014, the PRTs will be unnecessary because the Afghan state will have taken over administration of reconstruction projects.
In other words, what Karzai is calling for is precisely what establishment policy advisors want anyway: a responsible transition from NATO to Afghan rule. It’s neither shocking nor controversial that he’d start talking about this right now, either, because it takes years to undo the enormous buildup of people and equipment that the PRTs represent — and just as long, if not longer, for their functions to be transitioned to Afghan hands.