Theme: This ARI describes the activities of Spanish soldiers in the province of Badghis, in whose capital, Qala-e-Naw, the Spanish Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is deployed.
Summary: For those not familiar with the concept of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), it is worth explaining that they are teams comprising civilian and military elements able to act in unstable areas to secure them using their military component and to rebuild them using their developmental and diplomatic instruments. Their ultimate objective is to stabilise the intervention area by combining all their partial elements, so that a PRT should not be confused with an organisation which focuses solely on development or with a unit which centres only on combat activities. This ARI describes the activities of Spanish soldiers in the province of Badghis, in whose capital, Qala-e-Naw, the Spanish Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is deployed. I had the opportunity to lead this team and this paper offers an inside view of the stabilisation operations which are being implemented in the region, the reconstruction and security activities underway, and the problems posed by the lack of infrastructure, the conditions of the terrain and the scant capacity of the Afghan military and police forces. It also describes the working and living conditions of the PRT soldiers. Lastly, some recommendations are put forward deriving from the lessons learned on the ground.
Analysis: The mission of the international forces participating in the UN mission led by NATO (International Security Assistance Force, ISAF) is to conduct military operations to support the Afghan government in establishing and maintaining a stable and secure environment, to support the Afghan security forces in order to extend the scope of authority and influence of the Afghan government and thereby to facilitate the reconstruction and stabilisation of the country. ISAF deploys around 24 PRTs (one per province) to support the reconstruction programmes in their regions. These PRTs comprise civil and military personnel experienced in Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) or trained at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany. In fact, in the last few years, the instructors at this school have used the Qala-e-Naw PRT as a case-study to show how successful a military contingent can be in generating trust among the local population.
The Qala-e-Naw PRT involves the usual command tasks (operations, logistics and intelligence planning and management), with a Protection and Security Company, logistics and intelligence support units, experts in explosives and ammunitions disposal (Improvised Explosive Devices –IED–, and Unexploded Ordnance –UXO–), with air-tactical teams to guide the air support and special operations and transmissions teams. This military structure coordinates with civilian personnel working on reconstruction and with local personnel hired to support the PRT.
The work of the PRT cannot be understood without mentioning the work of its civilian component which focuses on medium- and long-term reconstruction projects. In May 2005, Spain began deployment in the province of Badghis and personnel from the Spanish International Cooperation Agency (Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional –AECI–) began to identify the first tasks in October of that year. Since then, reconstruction under the Spanish civilian team has not ceased. In the period analysed, civilian personnel comprised a dozen workers from the Tragsa Group, who in close cooperation with AECI personnel implemented four major reconstruction projects: the road to Herat, the provincial hospital, the drinking water and sewage network for the capital, and the airfield. The AECI action plan envisages other improvements in communications: a link with the ring road, construction of mini-dams for irrigation purposes, construction of modular buildings in rural villages to be used as schools and health centres, and FM radio coverage for the main cities in the province so that the people can receive news, health education and be informed as to government action, as well as for strictly entertainment purposes. The most urgent task was to link Qala-e-Naw with the ring road, so that the province is not cut off from the rest of the country. The provincial hospital was the best and quickest way to improve health standards and the centre is expected to become the country’s flagship establishment due to both its facilities (which are in the process of being built) and its management (when Spanish health personnel train Afghan doctors and nurses). When the work is completed at the end of 2007, Qala-e-Naw will be the only Afghan city with a drinking water and sewage network infrastructure and plans for an electricity line from neighbouring Turkmenistan are also in place. The airfield already has a 2,040-metre runway which will boost the province’s aid and development capacity.
For its part, the PRT’s military component has CIMIC teams to meet the urgent needs of the civilian population via rapid impact projects. These are projects on a small scale, of between €100 and €15,000, for immediate execution. Aid is delivered directly by our CIMIC teams, but their members must meet the local authorities in the Provincial Government Offices, and with members of the Shura Council, or they must accompany the forces in their “treks” (nomadeo) to pinpoint the population’s urgent needs and choose the projects jointly. Among other projects, the well construction and repair projects, food deliveries to widows, humanitarian aid delivery after flooding, and handover of electricity generators and classroom material to schools are particularly worthy of mention. All of these projects boost relations between the Spanish contingent and the civilian population, which in turn increases the security for our forces. Because of both their humanitarian purpose and the hiring of local personnel to execute the projects and procurements in the deployment zones, CIMIC projects are a highly efficient instrument for the PRT. However, these projects are hampered in areas further from the capital, which do not have the necessary security, and their impact could be multiplied if humanitarian organisations in the region were not so reluctant to cooperate with the armed forces on the ground due to the lack of interest or mistrust which their personnel show towards all matters relating to military forces.
Another difficulty is to develop projects without interfering in the customs, religious belief and traditions of the population. Caution on this front has always been a watchword for the Spanish soldiers involved in international operations. This hampers the execution of projects aimed at promoting, for instance, the status of women in a country where they have practically no rights or freedom to enable them to add their efforts to the country’s development and reconstruction. Sometimes, it has been enough for female PRT personnel to share conversation and tea with women in the workshops to verify their need and how grateful they are for the attention they receive. Good communication with the civilian population also makes it easier to recruit interpreters, without whose contribution any civilian or military contingent operation would be impossible. There are never enough interpreters, but thanks to the agreement with the University of Kabul, students studying Spanish are given grants to work with Spanish units deployed in the country, resolving problems via temporary four-month contracts.
The Situation Seen from the PRT’s Standpoint
Badghis has a surface area of around 8,000 square miles (a bit smaller than New Jersey) and its population is around 500,000. Socio-cultural conditions are very poor: the literacy rate is very low, especially among women. It is the second-poorest province of a country which ranks fourth from last on the poverty league table, and its child mortality rate is 16% for infants aged under five. The province has six districts, of which the two located furthest to the north –Bala Murghab and Gormach– are mainly Pashtun (94%) and the majority sympathise with the Taliban. The rest of districts are mainly Tajik (65%) and in general do not object to the Spanish presence in their area. Justice is implemented under the authority of tribal councils, which makes it extremely difficult to introduce a legal system with judges from outside, who, furthermore, are largely mistrusted due to the huge levels of corruption in the country.
The terrain is very rough for any kind of operation, whether civilian or military, because there is not a single mile of tarmacked road, which hampers movement and makes it very difficult for the government to react swiftly to any incident. Deep ravines, large areas with no usable roads, major watercourses which cannot be crossed for many miles and other obstacles all create an extremely restrictive environment for operations. Examples are the 54 hours it took one convey to travel the 68 miles between Qala-e-Naw and Bala Murghab, due to the mud along the route as a result of rainfall, or the five days during which access to Gormach was completely cut off for the same reason. The difficulties of the terrain mean that High Mobility Tactical Vehicles (known in Spanish as VAMTAC) and the rest of the contingent’s vehicles encounter many areas where access is off limits. Furthermore, the need to avoid overloading makes it necessary to carefully calculate the equipment on board to avoid breakdowns in vehicles which are already punished by the state of the roadways. During winter, helicopter support capabilities are very limited due to the terrain and the weather, which prevents them from being able to reach the airfield, so that it is considered necessary to have an aircraft fuelling system, as well as navigation aids, which allow evacuation on health grounds to be sustained and guaranteed at any location within the province. These difficulties also affect the Afghan security forces, preventing or hindering their presence and action in the districts where the Pashtun are a majority. When it does not rain, these districts are a six-hour drive away. If there were a permanent auxiliary base in the Bala Murghab area it would be possible to enhance operations in the northernmost districts. This would facilitate the presence and capacity of reaction of our forces and their operational logistics, as well as improving their rest, not to mention the boost to the reconstruction work in those districts from having a support point for protection and rest of civilian workers, since they would avoid having to travel for six hours each way daily to perform their work.
At the security level, the situation in the province of Badghis was calm except in the two Pashtun areas to the north, where attacks on police stations occur with variable frequency –killing policemen– which is why in these districts the police forces wait inside their quarters without performing practically any duties or imposing their authority. Insecurity has always been more linked to crime and violent tribal relations than with the attacks of the Taliban. In fact, these attacks generate more concern in broad sectors of Afghan society than among PRT forces. The inefficiency of the Afghan security forces along with the poor condition of the road network generate a difficult security situation which makes it impossible to control large areas of the country. The police forces in the province of Badghis amount to just 600 policemen, of whom some 300 are deployed in the capital, and the rest of districts have between 40 and 50 policemen. They are, in general, brave men (there are no women among them) who, for a salary of less than US$100 accept without reservation and with considerable discipline the authority of their commanders, withstanding difficult weather conditions, piled together on the back of a pick-up truck and huddled in their blankets for hours until some incident stops the convoy, when they deploy rapidly at their officer’s command.
This situation started to improve with the intervention of US Operational Mentor Liaison Teams (OMLTs), whose job was to reorganise and train the Afghan police forces at the time. Local police capacity has improved steadily with the technical assistance and the delivery of new all-road vehicles, weapons and ammunition, and transmission and infrastructure equipment, and there are plans to build a new police station in Qala-e-Naw, since the current quarters do not meet the minimum conditions required (a situation that is better than in the rest of the stations of the province or control points established in adobe huts with no utilities or electricity). However, structural problems remain, such as corruption. An example of this is that the US OMLT’s first task was to identify and register all Afghan policemen in the province so as to know exactly what the existing force consists of and also to arrange the direct payment of their salaries into a bank account, so as to prevent their bosses from keeping part of their wages.
In the province of Badghis at that time there were no Afghan National Army (ANA) forces, although a permanent deployment had been requested several times to the Afghan authorities for the districts of Bala Murghab and Gormach. If development is indispensable to the success of the mission, so is security, and this ultimately depends on Afghan self-sufficiency. It is therefore necessary to support the government of Afghanistan in training and deploying its armed and security forces. Spain could contribute its experience sponsoring the creation in the province of Afghan military units, which would help boost security in the area, and avoid the need to increase the numbers of our contingent. This could be achieved by deploying OMLTs to train Afghan military units of the battalion type (kandak), as various members of ISAF are doing. This kind of unit could also be created by recruiting troops among personnel from the area who are more familiar with the terrain and who have tribal links with residents of the area. This is an idea which was already implemented by Spain in North Africa in the early 20th century, when it created Indigenous Regular units to combat the irregular troops which attacked Spanish units deployed there or when it set up Nomad Troops and the Sahara Territorial Police. The cost would not be very high and it would enable Spain not to increase the numbers of its contingent in Afghanistan. Currently, in the Spanish PRT’s catchment area there is a company-size ANA unit belonging to the 207 Army Corps, whose operating base is in Qala-e-Naw and, in September 2007, the Spanish government received parliamentary authorisation to support the deployment of OMLTs in Badghis and to start training two kandaks.
Day-to-day Tasks of the PRT
The PRT force focuses on escorting AECI workers in their reconstruction and development work, security of the contingent and, occasionally, escorting Staff Officers when they meet local authorities to perform their advisory and institutional tasks. The rest of functions consist of patrolling the area (“trekking”) on security missions which last three days on average but which, depending on weather conditions, can sometimes last four or five days due to the deplorable state of the roads. Part of the force remains at the permanent base performing command and maintenance tasks as well as ensuring the security of the contingent as with any military establishment, well supported by superimposed electronic media and at the same time with an outer ring of Afghan police on duty 24 hours a day.
It is always preferred that the PRT be accompanied by elements of the Afghan national police, since it should be the Afghans themselves who confront public order and security problems at first hand. Accordingly, they are provided with fuel and food if required. Escorts for civilian personnel are normally carried out by assigning protection to each job, using armoured vehicles and securing the work zone via a deployment that not only protects Spanish personnel but also the Afghan contractors who take part. “Trekking” is aimed mainly at showing the presence of the force in areas far from our base. These are probably the most dangerous missions since the areas where “trekking” is carried out are less well known, it takes several hours to reach them on difficult and dangerous roads and the patrols risk being ambushed. To reduce this risk, each “trekking” mission is based on an infantry section reinforced with CIMIC elements, medical aid, IED and UXO location and disposal, intelligence, logistics and signalling, and acquisition of targets for aircraft coverage. They are all transported using armoured High Mobility Tactical Vehicles with jammers and are in permanent radio contact with the contingent’s operations room.
The protection of the force is a fundamental principle at all times, and the means to complete the missions have been notably improved. Among the most notable improvements are the jammers, Personal Digital Assistants with SatNavs (PDAs), individual holographic sights, armouring in all vehicles including ambulances, satellite telephones, night-vision goggles for driving and firing individual firearms, protective shields, robots to defuse explosives, tracked transport vehicles for mountainous areas and obstacle-breaching systems. The team specialising in explosives normally remains at the base until the sappers detect the presence of explosives or ammunition and they then deploy to the scene with their robot to defuse or destroy. For security reasons, and to reduce fatigue for personnel and vehicles, nocturnal convoy movements were suppressed, except in the proximity of Qala-e-Naw, or using night-vision goggles to reach the advance bases that are subject to reconnaissance before nightfall to prevent the enemy from locating our camp. The lack of basic resources like spare parts, food and grease in the region make it indispensable to improvise logistics solutions. Accordingly, it was decided to rent triple-axis Russian KAMAC trucks to handle the transport of food rations, water, humanitarian aid, 200-litre fuel tanks and, furthermore, explosives disposal robots which can be loaded onto the KAMACs using the obstacle-breaching systems. Finally, all “trekking” missions have a specialist mechanic to deal with breakdowns and at least one Afghan police vehicle to facilitate links with police in the districts and with the local population.
To keep morale high in the forces, communication channels with families were set up from the outset using backup networks which are arranged at the organic source units. Any family problem, however small, must be resolved as quickly as possible so as to prevent concern for what is happening back home from distracting from the mission and its objectives. Worry works both ways, as families sometimes see alarming news through the media and their fears are only allayed when they can speak directly to their loved ones. Having met this vital need, the personnel are actively occupied for no less than 12 hours a day whatever their job and, except for Thursday and Friday nights (the equivalent to the weekend in Muslim countries) missions are continuous. Their time off during the period of more than four months is spent in an area the size of five soccer grounds and their only leisure opportunities are the gym, reading, the Internet and a bar where it should be pointed out that alcohol consumption is not allowed. Since they cannot travel to a town when their working day is over as they would at home, these living conditions make the mission even harder and show the capacity for self-sacrifice of the young men and women who belong to the PRT. Officers and troops are rewarded by fulfilling each mission, receiving support from each other and receiving recognition for a job well done by their superiors. This recognition is frequently replicated in the operations area, by both the authorities and the local population as well as the national authorities who visit them periodically, and is in contrast to the scant recognition they receive when they return from the mission if one considers the difficult job they perform in dangerous conditions and the prestige which they earn for Spain in the international community.
A Long-term Mission
Among the positive conclusions which should be further pursued for the success of the PRT is the need to take into account the customs and idiosyncrasies of the Afghan population and respect the Afghan institutions: Ulema Council, Provincial Council and Shura Council, among others. It is also necessary to foster permanent coordination with the provincial authorities to define and execute reconstruction tasks aimed at satisfying the basic needs of the population and securing the support of the Afghan police forces, sharing joint foot and vehicle patrols. The concern for not interfering in local customs and respect for international humanitarian law and human rights that is taught and practiced in the various missions explain why so far no complaints have been filed against Spanish armed forces personnel, despite some 80,000 soldiers having been involved in these missions.
Among the tasks pending, the priority would be to improve all road communications between the capital and the six district administrative centres in the province of Badghis, aside from the infrastructure requirements at the Qala-e-Naw base. This is indispensable for both the Afghan security forces and ISAF to be able to react swiftly to the destabilisation of a specific area, in which the Kabul government and the local authorities can make their presence felt and prevent insurgent groups from gaining control of the territory. The availability of navigation and refuelling aids would foster the use of the airfield and the creation of a permanent auxiliary base around Bala Murghab would facilitate operations in the northernmost districts.
The PRT’s mission may take some time, but it cannot indefinitely replace the Afghan authorities in their responsibilities in respect of reconstruction and security in order to stabilise the area. The rapid impact action implemented in the sphere of development by the civilian and CIMIC components of the PRT must be gradually handed over to Afghan civilian society and development organisations. Accordingly, police and military security cannot depend indefinitely on ISAF’s presence. It is up to the Afghan authorities to deploy and maintain security forces that are able to ensure public order and tackle insurgent and terrorist actions. The deployment of two OMLTs to train two battalions of the Afghan Army will offset some of the operating limitations which surfaced during the period studied, but the final outcome of ISAF’s aid depends on the Afghans themselves.
I cannot end this brief analysis without an emotional reference to all the Spanish soldiers who have given their lives in Afghanistan, and especially the 13 members of my Airborne Infantry Regiment (Infantería Aerotransportable Isabel la Católica nº 29) whose lives have been lost. If the PRT mission has been possible, it is thanks to the sacrifice of men and women like them; magnificent solders who sought only the satisfaction of doing their duty and whom it was a privilege to lead. May they rest now in the Peace for which they fought and gave their lives.
Rafael Roel Fernández
Infantry Colonel and former Commander of the Spanish PRT in Qala-e-Naw between October 2006 and March 2007
Theme: This ARI describes the activities of Spanish soldiers in the province of Badghis, in whose capital, Qala-e-Naw, the Spanish Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is deployed.