Peacekeeping: NATO Helps Out in Afghanistan


October 26, 2005: NATO is heavily involved in Afghanistan peacekeeping the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) system. There are some 8,500 troops, and several thousand civilians, assigned to 22 PRTs, or protecting them. The PRTs are very international. One, for example, is commanded by Lithuanians, and includes personnel from the United States, Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Sweden, with more on the way from Hungary and Romania. NATO now commands ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force), which it took over in 2003, about a year after ISAF was established, and is gradually taking over PRTs, and peacekeeping throughout the country.

The PRTs evolved from the JRTs (Joint Reconstruction Teams) established by U.S. Army Special Forces in 2002. Thirteen PRTs are run by U.S. and coalition troops, with nine operated by NATO forces. The core element of a typical PRTs has 83 people. This includes 79 military personnel and three civilians, plus an Afghan minister of the interior police officer. American PRTs are commanded by 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, the U.S. Agency for International Development 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 basically police work (against bandits and unruly warlord militias) elsewhere. These security troops often end up assisting in reconstruction as well. The Afghans have been urging the 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.)

There was some resistance from NGOs when the first four PRTs appeared in 2003, on the grounds that their military component would endanger all NGOs, because the hostile elements in the area would assume that the NGOs were "working for the Americans." This attitude soon changed when the NGOs realized that the Taliban, and the many outlaw bands about, did not care. The Taliban wanted to drive all foreigners out of the country, armed or not, and the bandits were more likely to go after unarmed NGOs, than armed PRTs. This is why the Afghan government wanted the PRTs. Without them, the NGOs would do what they normally do when confronted with hostile, and heavily armed locals; pay protection. This is often in form of goods and services meant for the needy locals. It usually works, but only at the cost of making the bad guys more powerful. NGOs have been rethinking this tactic, as people (especially the media, which the NGOs cultivate in order to raise money) began to see that the bad guys were sustaining themselves with NGO payoffs. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were not interested in making a deal, and many of the bandits, once bought, would not stay bought.

The PRTs have reduced the remaining Taliban strength in several ways. Partly by freeing up more American combat troops to go after Taliban raiding parties, and partly by providing aid to pro-Taliban tribes, and convincing them to come over to the government side. Over two decades of violence have worn down even the pro-Taliban tribes, and made it easier for them to accept rule, or at least cooperation with, the central government.

PRTs have been less successful in dealing with the warlords (tribal leaders strong, and wealthy, enough to maintain their own little private armies) and the drug gangs (who have profits from the heroin trade, and don't need any other foreign aid.) The government, however, now has fewer restless tribes, thanks to the PRTs, and can devote more forces to dealing with unruly warlords, and the growing power of the drug gangs (which are usually tribal).

A major problem with international staffing of PRTs are the language, cultural and national differences they have to deal with. Many nations contributing troops to Afghan peacekeeping have put restrictions on what their troops can do (in response to political issues at home). This makes life difficult for the PRT commanders, and the other members of the team who have to work around these restrictions. But the NATO PRTs are a test of the organizations ability to act as an international outfit. Either you can do it, or you can't, and Afghanistan is the test.

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