By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 5, 2007 - Provincial reconstruction teams are extending the reach of the Afghan government and helping stabilize Iraq as its government transitions to self-reliance, a panel of Defense Department officials told Congress yesterday. Panelists told the House Armed Services Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee that while these teams are making a strong impact, sustaining their efforts will require more civilian reserve capability beyond what the Defense Department can provide.
In Afghanistan, PRTs have matured since November 2002 from a single U.S.-led pilot project in Gardez to an international effort involving 25 teams in most of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, said Mitchell Shivers, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Central Asia affairs.
Twelve of the Afghanistan PRTs are led by the United States and 13 by coalition partners. All fall under the broad authority of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
In contrast, the State Department has the lead for all PRTs in Iraq: 10 pre-surge PRTs, 15 embedded PRTs and five provincial support teams on the ground, explained Mark Kimmitt, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
The United States leads seven of the 10 pre-surge PRTs, with the other three led by Great Britain, Italy and Korea.
Fifteen additional PRTs, formed as part of President Bush's "New Way Forward" strategy, are embedded into Army brigade combat teams and Marine regimental combat teams to focus on district- and local-level governance, Kimmitt said. In addition, one- and two-member provincial support teams serve in areas with no major U.S. force presence.
Despite uneven effectiveness in some areas, the overall PRT effort in Afghanistan "is achieving noteworthy results and requires sustained support," Shivers told the congressmen. "We jointly are extending the reach of a government in a nation that has endured decades of war and nearly complete destruction of its infrastructure, economy and political institutions."
Air Force Maj. Gen. Bobby Wilkes, the Joint Staff's deputy director of politico-military affairs for Asia, shared Shivers' assessment that PRTs are increasingly more important to Afghanistan's progress. "For the International Security and Assistance Force, the PRT is now the principal vehicle to leverage the international community and Afghan government reconstruction and development programs," he said.
Wilkes cited the role of PRTs in coordinating U.S. interagency efforts in Afghanistan. Many counterinsurgency experts consider effective interagency cooperation key to establishing conditions needed for counterinsurgency efforts to succeed, he noted.
He pointed to the U.S.-led PRT in the Panjshir Valley as an example of this success. Strong cooperation between ground forces, the local government and the local population has led to 90 completed projects that improved transportation, access to electricity and market opportunities, he said.
"The activities of the PRT are setting the conditions that bring more local support to the central government, further separating the local population from the insurgency, and continuing to transform the lives of the Afghan people," Wilkes told the subcommittee. "The PRT is an entity to facilitate progress and ensure both the counterinsurgency and national development efforts are complementary and ultimately successful."
Kimmitt noted that PRTs in Iraq have a different function and role than those in Afghanistan "and are achieving different effects." Their mission is to help Iraq's provincial and local governments by promoting security, rule of law and political and economic development. Meanwhile, they also help the government provide provincial administration necessary to meet the people's basic needs.
Much of this is done by teaching local leaders and local governments, the business community and elected officials the technical, managerial and fiscal skills needed to provide essential services, Kimmitt said.
"The result is they're growing self-reliant at the local and provincial levels," he said. He called PRTs "the forefront" of "bottom-up progress."
Early signs show that embedded PRTs are succeeding, too, Kimmitt said, expressing hope that the teams will work themselves out of a job. "Over time, we hope to see increased capabilities from the Iraqis to govern themselves, because at the end of the day, the purpose of the PRTs is to put themselves out of business and hand this responsibility over to the people of Iraq," he said.
In Afghanistan, Shivers said, progress being made, although steady, "will take many years and will demand sustained interest and commitment of the United States and the international community."
The challenge in fielding future PRTs and sustaining this effort will be finding well-qualified, experienced people to serve as team members, Wilkes said. The Defense Department is the only U.S. government agency capable of "surging" its force, he said, but the country needs to be able to build a civilian rapid-response capability, too.
A reserve of civilian experts, civil engineers, retired local government officials, business executives, water and sewer managers, comptrollers, public health administrators and other specialists would give the United States a surge capability that doesn't exist today, he said.
Kimmitt said he shares Wilkes' vision of a civilian reserve force. He noted that although the State Department has the lead for PRTs in Iraq, the Defense Department was needed to expedite the standing up of surge PRTs. "This demonstrates the need for civilian reserve capacity ... within civilian agencies to create and fund a civilian reserve to rapidly deploy and draw on outside experts in types of contingency operations, when needed," Kimmitt said.
"The lesson of Iraq, and Afghanistan as well, is that our nation will be well-served if there exists a surge capacity in the non- military skill sets that are so important in the kinds of conflicts we have been engaged in since the early 1990s," Wilkes told the subcommittee. "We must build additional civilian capacity to participate in these efforts. It's vitally important that we increase the capabilities within civilian agencies."