Alison Blosser is a State Department Representative/Political Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Alison's previous post: On the Ground in Afghanistan
Thanks to those who have commented already. Many of the questions so far are about the State Department's role and the pace and process for development activities, so I'll try to address those. The situation in Afghanistan is one of simultaneous fighting against insurgents and also post-conflict and preemptive-conflict development and reconstruction. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are designed for the latter activities. The teams are constituted under NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and are staffed by Coalition partners across most of Afghanistan's provinces. American troops are stationed at the PRTs in the Eastern Region, but many other troop-contributing nations have PRTs across the country (for example, the Germans run the PRT in Kunduz, New Zealand has troops and a PRT in Bamiyan, among others), and we all fall under NATO/ISAF purview. Since the PRTs are mandated to work on primary pillars of security, development, and governance, policy makers decided early on to blend civilian expertise into the military mix. We now have a U.S. State Department and a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spot at each PRT, not only the ones with U.S. soldiers. In some places, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also contributed personnel to assist with agriculture, forestry, and hydrology since a large part of Afghanistan's population relies on farming or agricultural industries for subsistence and livelihood.
Most PRTs have now aligned their management in an "executive team" comprised of PRT Commander, Department of State Officer, USAID Officer, USDA Officer, Civil Affairs Lead, Engineering Lead, and Information Officer (the military's equivalent of a Public Affairs Officer), or a similar mix of the PRT's personnel. This team is essentially the decision-making and vetting body for the PRT's activities.
The Department of State officer serves in this executive team in several roles. S/he is tasked with getting to know the key personalities, leadership, and inter-personal dynamics of the province to serve as an advisor on how the PRT's activities might fit into the political, economic, tribal, and historical local landscape. On mentoring and working to improve transparency and effectiveness of provincial government, the State representative's role overlaps with Civil Affairs to some extent. Luckily, in most PRTs this partnership works well (and there is plenty of work to do), so the Civil Affairs team and State rep can work closely to avoid duplicating efforts. Much of the mentoring is about connecting the provincial government to itself, to its districts, and to the respective national ministries. It's also about helping the province to extract nationally-controlled budget resources so the provincial government can provide the services to its citizens that a government is supposed to provide (sometimes this is called "extending the writ"-- convincing citizens that their government works for them, thus gaining their faith and support for the government rather than insurgents). The State representative is also the province's link into U.S. Government-sponsored opportunities -- officers stationed in the field can help the Embassy to identify candidates for exchange programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program or other training opportunities. From the field, diplomats can also engage the Afghan people from local TV, radio, and print media, reaching a completely different sector of Afghanistan's population than national programming to explain U.S. foreign policy objectives, or more often, U.S. Government engagement with Coalition Forces on local rebuilding efforts.
As to development prioritization, I'm happy to say we are beyond simply asking elders for a "to do" list (though we often do spot-check whether local priorities are being captured in provincial planning). It is critically important to note that Afghanistan's own government is leading the development efforts -- the Coalition, through the PRTs and other national-level mentors, serves as a facilitator. After adopting the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the Afghan Government required that the provinces create Provincial Development Plans (PDPs). During the initial phase of creating provincial strategies (a process facilitated by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, UNAMA), many provinces came up with "laundry lists" of detached projects without any priority order. However, through the process of the PRTs and UNAMA working with Provincial Development Councils, Community Development Councils (representative bodies of local populations at the district and provincial levels), and "shuras" (traditional councils of elders, often by tribe or by village) culminating in a PDP brainstorming and drafting exercise, the provinces now have strategic plans that were created through grass-roots consultations, community participation, and finally consensus voting on prioritization.
Now, the PRT takes very few direct-applications for projects from local communities. When villages ask for a project, the PRT tries to link the village leadership or elders with the relevant Line Directorate (Health, Education, Irrigation, etc.). The project proposal usually then goes to that provincial Line Director, who aligns it either within the existing infrastructure or the Provincial Development Plan. Once the project "passes muster" through the Afghan Government, it comes to the PRT for the executive team to evaluate and request funding. Whether the Department of Defense or USAID funds the project is another matter, often linked to the timeline or the scope of the project.
Here's a concrete example from Asadabad. The Directorate of Education (which falls under the national Ministry of Education) already manages and staffs approximately 315 schools in Kunar Province. These are not all hard structure schools - some are open air. Many villages have applied to the PRT for a school building, so the PRT first took these requests to the provincial Director of Education. He saw that most of these school requests were among his 315 - i.e., he could confirm he has the capacity to staff them with teachers, supply them with books, give them a curriculum, etc. The Director of Education compared the request list to his list of Afghan Government-funded development projects already committed through the National Solidarity Program (another development mechanism), and came back to the PRT saying, "OK, we'll build these 21 schools. Can the PRT help to build these other nine?" Projects in other sectors (roads, irrigation schemes, wells, micro-hydroelectric projects, district centers, health services) are similarly vetted.
On security and operational effectiveness: the security scenario varies from province to province. I won't disguise that Kunar Province has significant, regular insurgent activity. That said, the PRT is still able to cultivate partnerships with local elders of villages, local leaders, District Administrators, and provincial government officials. We have projects in some "dodgy" areas. We've noticed though that local buy-in makes an enormous difference in the sustainability and the protection of the projects, and thus in most of our contracts, contractors are required to hire 75% of unskilled laborers from within a 10km radius of the project site. The PRT's engineers hold "how-to" sessions with unskilled laborers in masonry, carpentry, and other trades, developing skills that increase the chances of people being re-hired in future projects. Doing quality assurance monitoring requires that we get "out of the wire." So we do, and we take what precautions we can.
I'll be in Afghanistan for a year, so please keep the comments coming!