The small number of civilian teams sent by the US and NATO indicate a lack of commitment. Sweden and Poland, who sent medium-sized deployments, compared to other donor nations, sent nine and eight people, respectively, and only achieved those numbers post-surge. According to Rory Stewart, the U.K. Embassy in 2008 held 350 people, and only three of them actually spoke Dari, the predominant language in Afghanistan. Stewart also discovered that in the Afghan Section of the Foreign Office in London, nobody assigned to the section had ever been to Afghanistan. Although the US led the effort, US development staff statistics are only marginally better. In August of 2009, just before the surge, the US Embassy, known locally as “Fortress America,” held just 311 civilians, with another 159 in the field, or 470 in the country. After the surge, the US civilian team rose to 944 members, compared to almost 100,000 service members. The total number of foreign government employees in Afghanistan is below 2,000. The individuals pursued noble objectives, but they were set up for failure. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summarized it best when she said, “We didn’t have the right skills, the right capacity to deal with a reconstruction effort of this kind.”
Western Recommitment to the Development Program
Although the US and its partners were not willing to make the necessary commitments to rapidly developing Afghanistan, they were not willing to let GIROA attempt to accomplish the task either. Of the limited quantity of ODA that did arrive in Afghanistan, up to 80 percent of it was spent off-budget, meaning it was not spent by GIROA, but rather by NGOs, USAID programs, and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). This kind of donor spending is troublesome for a number of reasons. First, donors often lack effective monitoring processes. The pressure to spend sooner rather than later does not allow for the proper vetting of local partners or for active supervision. Second, development personnel are rarely in-country long enough to understand the environment properly. The average deployment is for six months. It may take months of negotiations and countless cups of tea to get to know a local elder well enough to make a decision about his trustworthiness. Instead, donors rush to decisions and often choose poor partners with self-serving, divisive goals. Lastly, donor objectives are beholden to domestic taxpayers and their political agendas. One GIROA ministry found four consultants from four different countries working, unbeknownst to each other, on the same project. With more than 60 political entities and thousands of private organizations in operation, there were bound to be some coordination issues.
The eventual goal, according to the Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS), is to funnel 75 percent of aid spending through the central GIROA budget. Doing so would help to create a more transparent and efficient development program. GIROA estimates that external aid projects have only a 20 percent impact because so much of the money goes to pay overhead costs and foreign consultant salaries. GIROA claims an 85 percent impact rate for projects that they run. The US remains skeptical of that number, leading GIROA to propose a third option, where donors contribute to a trust fund, which they can jointly manage. However, the US does not trust GIROA to run an effective development effort. It’s easy to see why the US would be hesitant to hand over more money when repeated reports show that officials regularly skim from projects and more than half of all aid money given to GIROA goes unspent. Instead of funding GIROA projects, the US relies on PRTs and the largely unregulated NGO scene to implement its development program.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams
The PRTs are effective, tightly run, joint military-civilian teams that oversee and coordinate development projects at the provincial level. In 2010, there were 27 PRTs in Afghanistan, of which 12 were directly American-led. The average US PRT has 80 to 250 people in it, with only three to four civilians. The civilians are usually from USAID, State Department, Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture. Of the 1,055 people working in US-led PRTs in 2008, only 34 were civilians. Military personnel make up the rest of a PRT.
The PRTs are the lynchpin of the ISAF’s counterinsurgency strategy. The goal of that strategy is to “shape, clear, hold, build and transfer,” meaning that the US will attempt to focus on a specific geographic area where they can push the Taliban out and attempt to quickly establish basic government services before transferring control to GIROA. The PRTs handle the “build” phase of the counterinsurgency plan. This strategy has been very successful in programs like Operation Moshtarak (which means “together” in Dari), the name for a post-surge, American-led effort to secure Helmand province. PRTs, however, have three major limitations. First, they are part of the external budget, so they are not coordinated with anyone except other military efforts and a few USAID programs. Second, their development agendas remain subservient to military objectives and consistently fail to win the trust of local partners. Lastly, the size of the overall PRT program is very small compared to other development programs, especially in the NGO and security sectors.
As part of the external aid budget, the ISAF poorly coordinates PRT efforts and as a result struggles to win the trust of locals. US-led PRTs coordinate only amongst each other and the international effort lacks a cohesive overall plan. There is also broad variance in the way individual PRTs coordinate civilian and military affairs internally. The Germans very closely coordinate affairs, while the Swedish and Finnish civilian development staffs operate somewhat independently, and the Norwegians maintain a strict separation of responsibilities and duties.
Traditionally, independence was an important trait for an aid worker, allowing the aid workers to discuss problems with both sides in a conflict and deliver aid to those caught in the middle. However, in Afghanistan, the PRTs progressively blur the line between military and civilian, muddling development efforts, and hampering trust-building with local Afghans. Regardless of the division of labor, the civilians in a PRT often wear military uniforms and travel with a large security contingent. The average Afghan is unable to tell the difference between a soldier and a civilian development professional.
PRTs spend a large portion of their money just on public diplomacy and trust-building initiatives. However, many Afghans remain skeptical of the development effort, believing that things will return to the way they were before, once the Americans leave. A 2008 report suggested that the PRTs might actually be counterproductive because they usually end up empowering one local power group over another, often a militia, and they provide a parallel system of government that undermines GIROA. Afghans do not know who to go to for their services and end up trusting no one. One village elder described his hesitancy to embrace the local PRT: “Americans are like Kuchi nomads. They come with their tents for some time, and before you know them, they leave.” The Taliban, he continued, tell locals that “NATO is leaving, but we will be here.” Ongoing public trust issues and ill-defined PRT roles have undermined the impact of PRTs.
Jonathan Goodhand calls the PRTs the “poor-man’s ISAF” because the ISAF concentrates most of its troops and spending in the Kabul region. As a result, the Kabul region was the first to stabilize from a security standpoint. Meanwhile the PRTs, which have a much closer relationship with the rural provinces where most Afghans live, remain relatively small and underfunded. Many Afghans believe there is a direct relationship between inadequate resources in the countryside and the relative instability of the rural areas. Total PRT spending is below $120 million per year. The US Army says that it fears a “blizzard of cash” in the provinces, and so, maintains very tight control over the finances of PRTs. The Department of Defense (DOD) assembled some baseline figures for helping potential donor nations gauge the costs associated with running a PRT but admits that it does not formally track spending by PRTs. DOD estimates that donors need $20 million to establish a PRT and will require roughly $110 million per year in continuing costs.
In American-led PRTs, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) controls virtually all funds. CERP projects are subject to strict approval standards. The PRT commander can only approve projects up to $25,000; a higher-level commander in Kabul must approve anything larger than that. Amazingly, the Army prefers to pay by electronic funds transfer, despite the banking limitations of the environment. By itself, this process should raise serious questions about the character of individuals chosen for PRT projects. Given the realities of Afghan village life, anyone with a bank account capable of receiving electronic funds would probably have tenuous local ties, suspect motivations, or both.
In addition to funding caps, the projects must also be self-sustaining, which means that anything that might require ongoing subsidies, like electricity production, is out of the question. USAID civilian officials are not as limited as PRT commanders are and are able to run parallel operations from their positions within a PRT. These additional programs are co-located with the PRT but are subject to differing budget and accounting requirements. In addition to CERP programs, USAID officials spent an additional $638 million in 2006, $1.1 billion in 2007, and $706 million in 2008. Examples of these types of programs include the popular Local Governance and Community Development Program and the Alternative Development Program, a poppy replacement plan. USAID programs get aid to the rural provinces where Afghans need it most, and they do represent a significant development investment beyond the PRTs, but they remain limited by many of the same factors that constrain the PRTs, including coordination issues, failures of public trust, and overall funding shortfalls.