Actually, Karzai is right about PRTs

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 ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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."

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.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He blogs about Central Asia at www.registan.net.

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.