Wilkommen im Kunduz!

The camp in Kunduz province where 11 Chinese construction workers were killed

KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN—Last month, a mob ran amok in the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan. Fired by rumors that local women had been sexually assaulted by foreigners, rioters burnt down the offices of two foreign aid agencies in Faizabad, where 55 members of the German military had just established a security contingent called a provincial reconstruction team or PRT.

What did the Germans do? They conducted reconnaissance.

Lt. Col. Thomas Scheibe, spokesman for PRT Kunduz, the logistical base for the Faizabad operation, said 11 German soldiers were working at the airport when the riots began. Hoping to consolidate his forces, the PRT commander ordered them back to base.

When they reached the town, the troops ran into the rioters.

“They stopped immediately and saw about 1,000 people. The street was full,” Scheibe said. “And they were not friendly looking … so they decided to go back another way.”

A member of PRT Kunduz 

Once the PRT regrouped, the commander led a team out to do some reconnoitering. But at that point, the riot was over.

According to reports, the riot ended when a local Afghan commander threatened to shoot demonstrators. Several aid workers were beaten, and they had to be spirited away by U.N. workers and Global Risk, a private security firm.

As part of a plan to increase security in Afghanistan’s provinces, NATO has assumed control of five Afghanistan PRTs. It’s a major test for the alliance, which initially confined its patrols to Kabul as part of the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan. It’s NATO’s first mission outside the European sphere.

PRTs are supposed to provide a security umbrella for humanitarian work and reconstruction projects—digging wells, building schools, paving roads, advancing credits to local farmers. It’s part of a larger plan to stabilize Afghanistan. The recurring joke may be that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the “mayor of Kabul,” but Pentagon officials who devised the scheme believe PRTs can help extend the writ of the central government. The U.S. military has over a dozen PRTs, mostly in the south and southeast; the Germans are responsible for the four northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, generally considered the most secure part of the country.

In Kunduz, there are about 280 German soldiers, with another 50 posted in Faizabad; an additional contingent of 65 soldiers is now in Faizabad to reinforce security during the elections. A few U.S. government employees are also attached to PRT Kunduz, as are about a dozen U.S. soldiers.

The Germans are keen to stress that they are not here to provide basic security—that, they say, is the job of local police. “We are part of ISAF,” Scheibe says. “Security assistance force.”

German armored ambulances 

And they take their own protection very seriously. Of the 280 soldiers in Kunduz, about 50 of them are medical personnel who staff an impressive field hospital. The rules of engagement are strict, and they go everywhere with armored ambulances. Only last week, over nine months into their mission, they began night patrols.

But security in the four provinces the German PRT is responsible for does not seem to be getting better. This summer, 11 Chinese laborers who were working on a road construction project south of Kunduz were gunned down in their tents. More recently, Afghan Vice President Nematullah Shahrani escaped injury after a roadside bomb hit his convoy in Kunduz province. The night after I left Kunduz, two rockets hit the Kunduz PRT; four soldiers were injured, one seriously.

In an interview, Joseph Collins, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations (the fashionable Pentagon term for peacekeeping), made a blunt appraisal: “The performance of our European brethren is pretty pathetic,” he said. “Pretty pathetic.”

The problem, said Collins, is that “everybody wants to help, but nobody wants to put out. NATO is incredibly badly organized, the NATO nations are incredibly badly organized. The Germans complain all the time about their overstretch, and they’ve got less than 3 percent of their force abroad.”

Andrew Wilder, an American who heads the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank, said that the alliance has fallen short of its commitments.

“I think many of us here have been disappointed by the response of the NATO member states in terms of contributing troops to the Afghan situation,” he said. “Especially when they’ve declared that this is their top priority.”

NATO is boosting its force during the Oct. 9 presidential election, but Wilder said this is not enough. “For the elections they’re increasing that by a couple thousand or so, but then after elections, they’re planning to withdraw them again,” he said.

In fairness, the Germans like to stress that the PRTs are not purely military missions. The PRT has a dual command structure, with a German foreign ministry representative (a civilian) on equal footing with the military commander (a full colonel).

This is supposed to make aid groups and other organizations feel more comfortable about working with PRTs. That’s particularly important, because some aid groups have complained that the PRT model blurs the line between humanitarian assistance and military operations.

Paul Barker, the country director for CARE International in Afghanistan, said that the PRTs are focused on “feel-good reconstruction efforts” rather than more thoroughly planned projects. And he criticized the German approach, saying that they have been too preoccupied with their own security. “I mean, we were surprised that the Germans set up a PRT in one of the safest corners of Afghanistan,” he said. “What’s the logic of doing that? But then, of course, it’s no longer quite so safe.” Barker said the British—who run a PRT in Mazar-e-Sharif, also under NATO command—are doing a better job of providing basic security.

Why is this significant? For one thing, military planners are considering whether the PRT model might apply elsewhere—say, for instance, in Iraq. And it’s an attractive job for ambitious young diplomats and soldiers who would prefer not to be confined to a giant compound in Kabul or Baghdad. The PRT concept allows them to go out and get their hands dirty with real, tangible projects rather than attending PowerPoint presentations and writing cables in the capital.

But whether it becomes the new model for managing post-conflict situations is not certain. A U.S. Foreign Service officer who works for a PRT said it’s still a work in progress. “This is a test case—we’ll have to see if the PRT concept brought any added value to reconstruction,” he said. “There’s no reason not to try. This is the first time this has been done since the CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support] program in Vietnam.”