Revisiting Afghanistan's Reconstruction Teams

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to Kael Weston about the closing of the first Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. PRTs are humanitarian missions run by military troops and civilians that built roads and schools. Weston spent seven years as a diplomat for the State Department, and says the teams have a mixed legacy.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This weekend, six Americans died in Afghanistan. One was killed in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan. Five others died in a roadside bomb in Zabul Province in the southern part of the country. Among the deceased: Afghan civilians, American servicemembers and U.S. civilian government workers.

Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement honoring the service of those who died. He said the group had been on its way to donate books to students at a school in Qalat, the provincial capital, when the convoy was attacked. It is a grim reminder that Afghanistan is still gripped by war and the U.S. is still fighting it. At the same time, the infrastructure of more than a decade of war is being dismantled in anticipation of a full withdrawal by U.S. forces next year.

A central part of the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been something called a PRT, short for Provincial Reconstruction Team. These are outposts filled with U.S. and NATO military troops and civilians. Their mission is mainly humanitarian, meant to win over Afghan hearts and minds by building roads and schools, and helping local governments get on their feet.

At the height of the war, the U.S. operated 26 of these PRTs. The very first one was established in Paktia Province 10 years ago. This past week, that PRT closed its doors.

KAEL WESTON: It was basically bottom-up diplomacy, bottom-up development, bottom-up counterinsurgency.

MARTIN: Kael Weston spent nearly two years on a provincial reconstruction team in eastern Afghanistan for the State Department. We spoke with him recently about how PRT's fits into the overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. And how Afghans responded.

WESTON: I think what we figured out early on is that the Afghans welcomed us, the red mat was rolled out. But I think they just didn't want to see military boots on the welcome mat. And this is our way of doing projects, our way of talking with tribal leaders.

MARTIN: So, what was the objective of those conversations?

WESTON: We were going to bring government closer to the people. That I think in the early days or before our nation got tired and overstress, was probably something that was worth pursuing. I think some of the Afghans started to call our bluff fairly early on, which is we haven't had the Afghan government here in this remote part of Khost Province.

I remember a couple of elders, sitting at 8000 feet, who said the last time we had a representative of the central government was when King Zahir Shah sent the tax collectors, and that was half a century ago. And they came up once and never returned.

(LAUGHTER)

WESTON: So, you know, you listen and they'll teach you what you need to know. But the goal was to also show that the Americans were not just a military force, that we were a partner that they wanted to keep over the long term. And I don't think you can do that if they only see night raids and compounds being searched.

MARTIN: But since you think you were successful in that? I mean, that would be a little bit confusing to see U.S. military personnel in full fatigues, armed, coming to your village...

WESTON: There was a blurred line. And it's a good question because I think for some Afghans, they saw some improvements and in some ways we failed. As I sit back, I think some of that money improved Afghan lives in a part of the world where Mohammed Atta spent time - and who is directly tied with 9/11 and the attacks on our nation, 12 years ago. And also, I think saved American lives, because the people want to see that the Americans are here to actually be more than just bombs, more than just the security message.

MARTIN: How did you define your success? I mean what were the metrics that you use? Was it how much money you spent, how many projects you built?

WESTON: That was part of the trap, I think. There was I think pressure early on to do a lot of building of things; to build roads and projects and spend money. And I know that we were there - give or take, we spent maybe $53 million dollars.

MARTIN: Fifty-three million from your PRT or...

WESTON: Yeah, for one PRT, for basically a year.

MARTIN: Wow.

WESTON: So that included maybe 50 to 60 schools. Of that, maybe a half or third or so are still functioning. If that's the report card, it doesn't look very good. But if you're trying to build a generation of Afghans, I'll say actually that's not bad.

I tell a story usually have two former mid-level Taliban commanders. And I finally - I won't say we got to be friends but we got to know each other well enough that we actually started to talk to each other. And I said why did you guys leave Miranshah, which is actually Taliban central. They said we're getting kids now, we're getting older, we're getting grayer, we're getting tired.

(LAUGHTER)

WESTON: They were in their 30s, too. So they actually knew that it was a security issue; that they just could die in this business if they kept it up.

And then, I think, most importantly they said, You know, we started to see that you Americans weren't what we have been told, which is that you were there to destroy the mosques and to, you know, disrespect our women and our religion. And then we saw that the roads were being put up and that life was getting better.

MARTIN: How did you see or did you see the mission of the PRT change over time? I understand your experience was this discrete chapter for a couple of years. But, as you followed it even from afar, did you see PRTs and how they fit into the strategy change?

WESTON: Yeah, our expectations got more realistic over time. I think we went in wanting to do what we Americans do, which is a lot quickly. I think we've shifted to do less and maybe having a more lasting effect. I think what we did is we started to see that it wasn't about money, that it was about, again, building that human capacity. And then I think toward the end of the war, which is where we are now, it's really an issue about endurance. And it's an issue about certainty and uncertainty.

One of the top commanders in Afghanistan emailed me and said that a young woman at one of the high schools told him we fear uncertainty more than the Taliban. And I think that says a lot. So that I think they're looking for an American commitment more than a large number of troops, or a big, you know, checkbook.

MARTIN: You said how many of the schools that you built are still around?

WESTON: I would say at best probably a half.

MARTIN: And do you have any sense as to what the future of those schools is?

WESTON: I'm biased. If just one of those schools is functioning right now, I will believe that the Afghans who come out of that school will be part of a better future that will make Americans safer, and not just Afghans safer. With all the money we waste in so many other ways, that even if it was just, you know, one school, I will say it was worth it.

MARTIN: Kael Weston spent seven years as a State Department diplomat, much of that time on Provincial Reconstruction Teams. He joined us in our studios in Washington.

Thanks so much, Kael.

WESTON: Thank you.

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