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Afghanistan Reconstruction in Retrospect: A Journey of  Ten Years

By: Ajmal Shams

In 2002, when the interim government of President Hamid Karzai came to power in Afghanistan, it virtually started from a scratch. The state machinery, for all practical purposes, did not exist. This degeneration of the state had already started during the post-Najib Mujahideen’s anarchic rule, civil war and continued fighting among warlords for power and political influence and non-stop interference by neighboring countries.  The Taliban’s rule had further exacerbated the nature and quality of the state institutions. Such were the circumstances when Mr. Karzai came to power. Expectations were high and government had limited or no capacity to deliver services. The international community came up with a system of forming Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) for delivering their development projects in provinces. Therefore, it was quite natural for the PRTs’ mechanism of the delivery of infrastructure services to have people and the fledgling Afghan government’s support. These PRTs were more active in border areas than other parts of the country because of the former’s higher political significance and vulnerability to potential insurgency. Also, these were the trouble spots where the new government needed critical linkages with local population for extending and legitimizing its rule.

After more than a decade of the PRTs engagement, they are gradually being phased out as a consequence of the Transition. It is important at this stage to revisit the accomplishments and shortcomings of PRTs, the impact they have had on the lives of Afghans and what did not go right during various phases of PRTs-sponsored projects.

The main focus of PRTs development efforts was obviously the infrastructure where transportation topped the list of priorities followed by administrative buildings, clinics and schools. Roads and bridges were important not only for the rapid movement of people and goods but also for providing quick supply routes for security forces stationed at various geographical points across the country. PRTs built thousands of kilometers of roads particularly in remote provinces whose accessibility to Kabul was one of the main challenges both for the security operations and reconstruction activities. In the beginning of Mr. Karzai’s administration, provinces had few administrative buildings in dilapidated conditions. In order for the state to exhibit its credibility, it was vital to establish functional building facilities for the government operations both in provincial capitals and districts. A remarkable job was done by PRTs in this regard despite shortcomings. Of all the nations that had military presence in the country, US PRTs were predominant both in terms of available funding and capacity to provide development and humanitarian projects.

PRTs mainly worked with Provincial Administrations that identified priority and most-needed projects. Although provincial authorities provided essential institutional support, they had limited role when it came to the planning, design and implementation of the projects. This was partially because provincial governments had low technical capacity and little connectivity with the center, which is the legitimate source of official planning for each individual province. This situation, however, varied from province to province. The ability of the provincial governor to effectively communicate with PRTs also played an important role in how the PRTs shaped the development trajectory in a certain province. There are instances, where the capability of the governor and good working relationship resulted in attracting adequate funding and good coordination. Jalalabad and Kunar are good examples, where a proactive role by the provincial governors Gul Agha Shirzai and Fazlullah Wahidi respectively has resulted into effective and efficient utilization of provincial funds by PRTs. Other provinces might have their own success stories or less effective PRT engagement.  

Although a timely response to urgently needed infrastructure services, the PRT mechanism was not without faults. PRTs contracted a large number of projects to Afghan Contractors who had little or no capacity and/or previous experience. Most of these contractors would claim financial and technical resources, which they did not possess. PRTs, however, had limited technical and monitoring resources for oversight. There was hardly a system of check and balance and most of these projects went to the lowest bidders. It was here that the quality was compromised for lower cost, which was the only criterion for awarding projects. This situation, however, did not persist for long and PRTs continued to evolve by increasing their technical capacity and adopting measures that required the Contractors to comply with technical standards. Supervision and monitoring by engineering teams of PRTs increased. The appearance of the Army Corps of Engineers added value and technical quality to US PRTs financed projects. In spite of all the measures, PRT projects remained least cost-effective. While the lack and/or compliance with institutional, legal and regulatory frameworks are the main reasons for the generally higher cost and lower quality of infrastructure, the excessive greed of Afghan construction industry is also to be blamed.    

Regardless of the technicality and engineering quality of PRT financed projects, the economic value of this huge development intervention by PRTs has been remarkable. Thousands of unskilled laborers, technicians and engineers were recruited. This has had an important impact on the lives of people in provinces. This, however, has also given rise to a new class of the rich, who proverbially became rich overnight by winning projects due to being the lowest bidders.  The social problems created by this “Get Rich Quick” phenomenon, partially spurred by PRTs speedy procurement procedures, remains a challenge for the Afghan society. The PRTs mainly followed their own country-specific regulations with little consideration of the relevant Afghan laws in place. However, virtually all PRTs projects had Provincial Government endorsement implying ownership and responsibility of operation and maintenance by the concerned sectoral directorates.

One of the challenges of the infrastructure created by PRTs is its sustainability due to limited or no institutional operation and maintenance plan in place as part of the project design. Moving forward, the Afghan government must obtain a complete inventory of the assets created by PRTs and the equipment and resources provided to the Provincial and District governments as a first step to take over the complete ownership.

It is quite noticeable that the PRTs operational policy was driven mainly by a sense of urgency to spend the planned annual budget rather than the long-term national development plan. However, the question arises as to whether any such development strategy existed when the PRTs intervention was launched. The much reputed Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) was completed in late 2008.   Regardless of all its shortcomings, the document’s completion timeline did not keep pace with the work undertaken by PRTs and there was no way this gap could be bridged. Despite all the inadequacies, the work done by PRT nations in rebuilding the war-ravaged Afghanistan is remarkable and has had a tremendous impact on the socio-economic lives of ordinary Afghans. Now that the beginning of the end has already started, as a grateful nation, Afghans must appreciate the great job done by PRTs and the nations they represent.

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