Afghanistan: The Other War

INTERVIEW Col. Donald Koehler and Maj. Donald Johnson

Col. Donald Koehler

Col. Donald Koehler

Maj. Donald Johnson

Maj. Donald Johnson

“So coming slow to the realization that there is another way and that these guys toting the guns around and the bombs and the rockets, they're not the way anymore.”
-- Col. Koehler

Col. Donald Koehler and Maj. Donald Johnson are stationed at the U.S. military base at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. Both headed the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bagram for one year. At the time of the interview, which took place March 30, 2007, they were preparing to hand over responsibilities to a new 65-member PRT team that had just arrived from the United States.

Q: Roya Aziz: What is a PRT?

A: Col. Koehler: PRT stands for Provincial Reconstruction Team. A Provincial Reconstruction Team has the mandate to assist in the legitimizing of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government. We do this through mentoring government employees, reconstruction projects and assessment and mentoring of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Q: Who decides what projects a PRT should do?

A: Col. Koehler: There is a long answer and there is a short answer and the short answer is that these days, the government does. There was a time when there was a mandate to go out there and do some good. That time is passed in the sense that we no longer go around and sprinkle whatever we think people need wherever we think they need it.

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What we do now is we've assisted our provincial leaders in putting together their provincial development plans, reconstruction plans, that are in accordance with the London Compact, the Afghan National Development Strategy and when those plans are put together they are prioritized by different ministry division health, education, reconstruction, et cetera, and they are also put in an overall plan priority. And basically then you just go and pick from the list. So for example if you're an non-governmental organization that just focuses on schools, you can go to the education sector and you can see that there is 37 schools up there. OK, I have enough funding to do three of them. "Governor, which three would you like me to do? " And it just goes on form there, and we now do the same thing.

In the PRT we execute the plan that the government has made and with a lot of input from the government and from the provincial councils to make sure that we're hitting all the right spots basically. And the plans are constantly updated because as you take things off the plan you can put new things on the plan. So that's the long answer of who decides. The bottom line is it's now the Afghans that decide what we do.

Q: It sounds like you work closely with the local governors.

A: Col. Koehler: Oh, absolutely. This whole thing is about developing the ability of the Afghans to govern. This democracy thing is new in a lot of places around the world so we have to equip them for success. They're smart people and they're very capable people but in a lot of cases they're outside their skill sets so what we try to do is fill their tool box. We don't come in and say this is what you should do or this is how you should think. That's not it at all because often times their priorities are going to be different from our priorities and that's fine -- that's actually to be encouraged because that's what democracy is all about. So what we do is come in and say, "This is the process that will allow you to make an informed decision. This is how you empower your staff. For example, to be able to make a decision that frankly you governors don't need to make ... " It's a very patriarchal society so it's a natural tendency for the governor to decide everything, so showing the governor how to empower his staff, who also are very capable, to make lower level decisions that don't require his attention -- that's a big step and once they get a taste of that. They just take off because they realize it works much better and also it develops a level of trust between the governor and the appointed administrator and the civil service and that lead toward the eventual professionalization of the civil service, which is an absolute requirement in a civilized country.

Q: How consistent is your presence in the two provinces where you go - Parwan and Kapisa?

A: Maj. Johnson: We go out regularly. We meet with the governor and provincial leaders at least once a week if not twice. But we always go out during the week to meet with our contractors and to check up on our projects that are ongoing.

Col. Koehler: In addition while we're out in the villages checking on the projects, there will be several phases to the same mission. We are out there to make sure the contractors are doing their jobs correctly and the projects are progressing in a timely and appropriate manner. But in addition, we will speak with the village leaders. If we're out in a district capital, we'll speak with the district leader or the deputy district leader. We'll send out Air Force Security Forces, that's military police to most folks. We'll send one of our SFs out and have them do an assessment of the Afghan National Police. We try to cover a broad a spectrum within our mandate as we can on every single mission that we do.

Q: When you're out there, do you run into these non-military humanitarian organizations, and what is your relationship with them?

A: Maj. Johnson: We do occasionally. Either nongovernmental organizations, occasionally the U.N.-type personnel we'll run into, but our real relationship with those guys is through the United Nations -- UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan). UNAMA is our conduit to the NGOs. Without having UNAMA there, we would have no coordination on the type of projects we do as well as the types of projects they do. We don't want to build a school in the same village that a NGO is also planning to build a school so we have to have that coordination to take place so that there is a broad spectrum of projects through the community throughout all the provinces that's well coordinated and well-established and meets the developmental plan.

Col. Koehler: The sad fact of the matter is that there are a lot of nongovernmental organizations out there that simply won't talk to the military. In their minds, for good reason, they want to maintain a public persona of neutrality, and working with the military they think will undermine that, but everyone will talk to the United Nations. So they have stepped into the sort of clearing house role. All the NGOs will tell them what they're doing and they come back and tell us and that way we can avoid duplication of work because there is always more need than there is funds and capabilities available to meet that need.

Q: How big is the PRT Bagram team?

A: Right now, to lay the groundwork, we are a joint effort between the Americans, the Republic of Korea as well as separating the branches of the American military to include U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force as well as federal agencies. Right now, we have a USAID representative here. Occasionally, we did have a United State Department of Agriculture rep here. Our total numbers right now is 65 and the new unit coming in is just like us -- so they'll be 65 personnel. But all PRTs are different. Depending on the security situation and the requirement of the province that they support, they are built differently, but ours is 65.

Q: Specifically in Afghanistan, do you think this is working, the military delivering aid?

A: One of the strongest points of anyone's military -- I don't care what country you come from -- is that people are trained to have a purpose and execute tasks. And we most definitely have a purpose and we go out and we achieve that purpose by executing a series of tasks, which would be the reconstruction mission and the mentoring, governance and et cetera. The military is, well this sounds a little cliché, but we are organized, trained and equipped to go out and make these things happen -- whether it's go take that hill or build that school is immaterial. You give us a task and we are going to execute it and we are going to do it in the most efficient way possible. We are going to conserve taxpayer funds and basically we're going to do it right and we're going to do it right the first time. That's the baseline that any military organization has. Do it, do it right and do it once.

Q: The north is a relatively security area anyway. Why not just bring that security and let others do the well building and the school building?

A: Maj. Johnson: Ultimately, that is the goal of any PRT. We are to work ourselves out of a job. Right now the way the situation is, at least in our region, the military is needed. We are task-organized, prepared, trained and equipped to go out do these missions safely and securely, but also with the idea that we are there as a non-kinetic force. We are not the bullet pushers, we don't pull triggers. That's not our job. Our job is to provide humanitarian assistance and we are task-organized that way. Right now that is the best way to do it. And if you look, people recognize that - especially in the U.S. government. They're using the Afghan PRT model as the basis for what they are doing in Iraq right now. They're building PRTs in Iraq knowing that PRTs in Afghanistan are a complete success.

Q: There was a recent bombing of a house in Kapisa province in which a lot of civilians died. Has that specific event been a setback to your humanitarian mission?

A: Maj. Johnson: I regret that that incident happened. Any kind of deaths -- even when it's Americans, Canadians or even Taliban -- is regrettable. There should be no deaths. And when it comes to innocent civilians it makes it that much worse. That kind of incident is very regrettable. I believe that the Afghan government and the provincial government understand what happened; they understand the situation. They're willing to move on, but it just emphasizes the real requirement to get rid of any kind of anti-coalition any anti-Afghani government forces. We get rid of those guys and the Afghan government is really prepared to take control of what's going on here, which makes our job easier and let's us move on to other places around the world that need our assistance.

Col. Koehler: And the way to get rid of those anti-coalition militias, Taliban, what you will, the way to get rid of them is not necessarily to engage them in the battlefield and defeat them in a stand-up fight. We have unfortunately a long and recent history that if your enemy is motivated and the countryside supports them, that it's not really possible to defeat them on the battlefield. You'll win every fight, but you'll lose the war and I'm talking about Vietnam.

On the other hand, if you can convince the population that you really aren't the bad guys, you really are the good guys and you're not here because you want to take away from them but you want to give to them and your motivation truly really is that no more towers drop in Manhattan then we will raise you up to a level you have never seen before. When you get that point through the skull of the villager who has for the last thousand years, whose relatives have never left that village, when you get that point all the way down to that level, you win. Because these folks will see somebody come in from the outside and they will recognize say Taliban for example, they'll recognize them for the threat that they are. They will realize that. "OK, as long as these people have sanctuary in my village, they are going to launch from there, they are going to conduct operations that are going to come to the notice of the coalition and the coalition is going to go after them. We can't and we don't ignore them, so they're going to bring a lot of pain down on my head just because they're here." It's not going to be fun, and they have plenty of experience of having pain rained down on them from the Soviet occupation. Unlike the Soviet occupation, they know that there's a clear alternative and the alternative is that we kick these guys out of the village and make sure they understand that if they ever come back, they'll never be found again and that way we can continue to get a new school and we'll get a new well these days and we'll have access to medical care because they're building a clinic in the next village. If they let these guys operate and burn down the school and blow up the clinic and all those kinds of things ... you know, the point is slow in coming, but that's OK because I don't want it happening fast. If it happens fast it goes away just as quickly.

So coming slow to the realization that there is another way and that these guys toting the guns around and the bombs and the rockets, they're not the way anymore. That was the right thing to do under Soviets. That's not the right thing to do now. That's not what's best for the people.

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