Reconstruction teams hindered by lack of resources, skills

House committee is “amazed” that groups’ missions in Iraq, Afghanistan are not more defined.

Teams dedicated to the job of rebuilding critical infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as rebuilding schools and restoring electrical power, are plagued by low funding, not enough staff and poor leadership, according to a report released by the House Armed Services Committee.

So-called provincial reconstruction teams, which also provide security in local areas, try their best to make do with what resources are available, but the government "has not gone far enough or fast enough," to support them, according to a six-month investigation into the PRT program. "[P]rocesses and structures in Washington still resemble what was used in the Cold War," rather than what is needed in today's conflicts, the report said.

PRTs were supposed to exemplify the type of interagency unit that could combine development expertise with military muscle to conduct nation building in war-torn countries. Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan often perform a local security function, but their main role is to fund local development projects and enhance ties to the national government.

Initiatives that PRTs have undertaken include school construction and repair, initiating hydroelectric projects, building clinics and hospitals, providing medical supplies, conducting village assessments, digging wells, building dams and irrigation channels, founding orphanages, renovating electrical grids and power facilities, and establishing micro-businesses.

Yet, the agencies involved are often at a loss to define exactly what they want PRTs to do because there is no clear definition of their mission or operation plan, the report noted: "[W]e were amazed that, after five years, the PRT mission has not been more clearly defined."

Furthermore, there are no established metrics to judge PRT effectiveness. The committee "disagrees with those who suggest that the only metric for success of the PRTs is when they are no longer needed," the report said.

Of the 26 PRTs in Afghanistan, the United States leads 12, while NATO countries staff the remainder. In Iraq, there are 11 stand-alone teams, and an additional 13 that work as a part of combat brigades. The PRTs in Afghanistan are led by either an Air Force lieutenant colonel or a Navy commander. In Iraq, State personnel lead the PRTs. Their structure is similar, with about 50 to 100 members, including civil affairs and psychological operations teams, along with three or four civilians, typically development experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development or the State Department.

PRTs are mostly ad hoc outfits, commonly described by sources in the committee report as a "pickup game." They are largely personality dependant for their success or failure, and there are no clear lines of authority, because the leaders often answer to multiple commands both in the country where they operate as well as to civilian agencies in Washington.

The report recommended establishing unity of command for PRTs at the local and national levels. "[T]here is no 'quarterback' for PRTs," the report said, nor is there one for stability, reconstruction and security planning or operations. "The nation needs these quarterbacks now."

The lack of clear lines of authority complicates PRT funding as different agencies control various funds leading to "a confusing array of 'pots of money' with differing authorities and limitations." the report noted.

PRTs draw heavily on the military's Commander's Emergency Response Program funds, because of the wide discretion given commanders and for the money's timely dispersal. Funds from other sources, such as from USAID and State, can take months to get approval and come with restrictions that dictate the projects that are funded, rather than actual local needs.

Shortages of basic equipment, such as radios, computers and office equipment, hinder PRT efforts. The teams often are given worn-out or discarded military equipment from combat units, including worn Humvees, which frequently break down. PRTs also suffer from a lack of qualified interpreters.

A significant challenge is finding people with the needed skills, such as civil affairs and development, who also are willing to serve in combat zones. While Defense provides the majority of PRT members, there are not enough civil affairs staffers to fill all the teams' open slots.

For the most part, PRT commanders and military personnel lack civil affairs training, the report said. As the Pentagon makes stability operations a core military mission on par with combat operations, the secretary of Defense must clearly define the important role civil affairs will play and how many more civil affairs trained troops might be required.

The report said because there are not enough people with the needed skills and experience to carry out the PRTs mission, positions are filled with those who happen to be available or who volunteer. Some personnel did not so much willingly volunteer, as they were "volunteered" by their organizations, according to the committee's survey of PRT members. Because government workers lack many of the skills needed for post-conflict reconstruction, private contractors frequently are hired.

The report echoed recent comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates other agencies with expertise in reconstruction and development must cultivate more of an "expeditionary" capability for nation building in distant conflict zones.

Several sources told committee investigators that they feared that serving with a PRT would be a "career disruption, not career enhancing," because officer promotion boards might not place the same value on this service as they would for troops serving in conventional combat units. PRT personnel said their jobs are more special operations than those of conventional units, and should be seen as the cutting edge of overseas deployments.

Neither the military nor civilian agencies offer a career track for personnel performing what the government calls "stability and reconstruction operations." Some respondents to the committee investigators said they would be willing to serve another PRT tour, but there did not seem to be an attempt to capture past experience for future use, and when finished, they "completely fall off [the government's] radar."