Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The PRT's Over
By all accounts, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq are pretty popular. Everyone -- be it military and civil service team members on the ground, Washington policy-makers on the Hill and in the Executive branch, or the media -- just loves them. In a conference call with PRT members a few months back, President Bush even went so far as to suggest that he envied them for what he, like many, perceived as the exotic adventure they're experiencing in the farflung corners of Iraq and Afghanistan.
And for good reason. After years of disheartening news in both theaters of operations, the PRT's seemed to capture the public's imagination with their combination of American ingenuity, resolve and industriousness, but also with their frontier-style independence. To be sure, they operate in dangerous theaters at great personal risk. But they're also such a novelty that, for the most part, they function as a sort of free electron in the military hierarchy's periodic chart. Often financed by discretionary Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds as improvised responses to conditions on the ground, the PRT's resemble a post-9/11 expression of the pre-Vietnam Peace Corps ethic, with a touch of 90's NGO euphoria thrown in for good measure: rogue units taking advantage of the chaos of a war to wage peace.
But all that's likely to change soon, since the freewheeling nature of the PRT's that makes them such a popular feelgood story also makes them a nightmare to government oversight committees. The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight, in particular, just published its first report on the PRT's, and not surprisingly focused on the need for clearly defined missions, doctrine, operating procedures, goals, and metrics to measure their success. In other words, all the institutionalized standardization that will almost certainly make PRT's more "effective" while sucking all of the life out of them.
The PRT's are a significant and innovative part of the Army's new approach to counterinsurgency, which with its emphasis on a "human-culture-society" approach to COIN resembles an art as much as a military doctrine. With the promotion of Gen. Petraeus to CENTCOM commander and the apparent ascendancy of the Army's COIN faction, that approach has now assumed the position of the "dominant narrative" within the culture of the Army. Which means that in its own way, it too will be increasingly institutionalized and formatted as it moves further from its origins as an improvised response to conditions on the ground and closer to a law of science, frozen in a textbook and captured in the vacuum of certainty.