Provincial Reconstruction Teams tasked with rebuilding ruined infrastructure and institutions are trying to take the lead in the U.S. strategy to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. But the PRTs’ seemingly peaceful missions belie the extreme dangers they face every day, with security concerns often hobbling their efforts to make a significant impact.
Small, lightly equipped and often working far from the protective umbrella of U.S. and coalition troops, more than one PRT has had a close call.
Just ask Air Force Capt. Rockie Wilson. From August to December last year, Wilson led a combined Army-Air Force PRT trying to rebuild roads and train local government officials in Qalat province, northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan. The 70-mile road network the PRT was working on featured deep dips that Wilson says were perfect spots to hide Improvised Explosive Devices.
But the first Taliban attack on his team involved small arms rather than roadside bombs.
“My life flashed before my eyes,” Wilson says, smiling shyly as he recalls his stereotypical response to getting shot at for the first time.
But the six-months of pre-deployment Army training kicked in, and he maneuvered his Humvees to cover while his machine gunners and an attached Afghan Army unit opened fire. They were able to keep the Taliban’s heads down long enough for Wilson to call in a pair of A-10 Warthog attack jets, killing many of the attackers and scattering the rest.
But the engagement did not come without cost. One Afghan army soldier in the patrol died and two were wounded.
First established in Afghanistan in 2002, PRTs were initially Army-led and included mostly Soldiers. But with the number and size of PRTs expanding throughout Central Command’s area of responsibility and constant deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for combat operations, the Navy and Air Force have stepped in to relieve some Army’s manpower pressure, taking over leadership of 12 of the 24 American PRTs in Afghanistan.
Half of the 20 American PRTs in Iraq are led by the Army as well, with the other half led by State Department staffers – though, the department is having a tough time finding the personnel to assume the risky duty. There are as many as 100 people working in each PRT.
Division commanders are given a lot of leeway on how to use a PRT based in his combat zone. In Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Edward Cardon embeds his teams – which are based south of Baghdad – alongside his combat brigades. Cardon told his PRTs to help local Iraqi government officials develop the skills to identify reconstruction projects and issue contracts on their own – a philosophy shared by teams in Afghanistan.
“I’m a believer in PRTs,” he says, adding that he makes sure they have priority for helicopter support and escorts for their ground convoys. But even with escorts, the threat level often restricts their movement.
“The problem is they don’t have the security to get around they way they should,” Cardon said.
Still, Cardon’s and Wilson’s teams managed. One of the Iraq teams’ biggest successes was coordinating pest mitigation for the large date palm industry in Karbala, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad.
“There are these insects that come out and have to be sprayed within a six-week period. The Iraqis were having problems doing this for some time,” Cardon explained. So one of his PRTs stepped in, arranging for helicopters to do the spraying – a move that “should mean dramatic improvement in the date harvest.”
Next up: adding more State Department personnel to his PRTs and tasking them to train the Iraqi government in basic budgeting so ministries and local institutions can execute projects like the date palm spraying themselves.
“I’m trying to get the PRTs to focus more on building government capacity,” Cardon says.
Which is what Wilson spent much of his time doing half the world away in Afghanistan last year.
With road work underway employing local contractors and labor, Wilson and his PRT took it to the next level, sponsoring a “contractors’ fair” to teach local managers how to organize workers and submit contract bids. The team also visited local schools to teach basic construction skills to young boys, hoping to lay the groundwork for eventual fruitful employment.
It’s all part of Central Command’s increased emphasis on “non-kinetic” solutions to Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s long-term problems.
“PRTs are very much the next news story,” Cardon said.