Of course not every project of the Panjshir PRT was a success. The PRT relied on contacts in the provincial and national governments to recommend Afghan contractors, and some of the latter did a better job than others. On the other hand, the PRT worked hard to ensure that it was not, pace President Karzai’s complaints about PRTs, building a kind of parallel administration that would, by being more efficient, better funded, and less corrupt, undermine local-government structures. It partnered as much as it could with the provincial and local governments while trying to hold itself to Western standards of performance.
I have included these photographs because the idea that “we have achieved nothing” in Afghanistan has become so dominant on both sides of the Atlantic. But if you are actually in Afghanistan, it is hard to ignore the abundant visual evidence of the Western reconstruction effort and the enormous economic progress made by so many Afghan communities.
One reason why that bleak notion of total failure is so prevalent is President Karzai’s eccentric and unpleasant habit of attacking the NATO coalition and claiming that the countries that subsidize his government and armed forces to the tune of billions of dollars per year have contributed nothing but trouble to Afghanistan. (More recently and even more absurdly, he claimed in November that the International Security Assistance Force is deliberately prolonging the war and secretly sending arms to the Taliban to that end!)
As offensive and deluded as Karzai’s vocal ingratitude may sound, it makes sense for him politically. After all, with the U.S. on its way out of Afghanistan and American influence rapidly declining, Islamabad rather than Washington is the foreign capital Afghan leaders will have to look to for patronage.
The PRTs, like every other part of the civilian and military aid efforts in Afghanistan, were not magic; they have not fixed the vast problems that afflict this country. It might take decades of development under conditions of peace and better governance to do that. But they have helped close some of the great developmental gaps between Afghanistan and its neighbors, and they have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Along with the millions of children educated thanks to the U.S.-led coalition, the millions who now have access to mobile telephony and even the Internet (more than a third of the population), as well as the roads that connect Afghanistan’s cities, their achievements are something that America and the West should know about and be proud of.
— Jonathan Foreman is a writer, researcher, and editor based in London and New Delhi.