Delve into the tool kit of any Canadian soldier and you’ll find a multidimensional skill set – part warrior, part diplomat, part humanitarian.

But for all the preparation soldiers receive on how to use those talents – the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre has changed dramatically over the past decade – working in a provincial reconstruction team “is a different beast,” acknowledges Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Chamberlain. “You can never prepare enough for what awaits you in Afghanistan.”

Not only does the PRT challenge soldiers to be all of those things, often simultaneously, it demands it in a new, collaborative environment with equal partners from other federal departments. Preparing soldiers for such an un-military-like structure requires new thinking.

An artillery officer by training, Chamberlain admits he’s more comfortable blowing up things than putting them together. But from January 2007 to February 2008, he commanded the Kandahar PRT, working with a team of diplomats, development officers, corrections officials, police officers, soldiers and Afghans to reconstruct, where possible, one of the world’s more fractured regions.

While there are no formal “PRT commander” courses, the adjustment was not as difficult as one might think. “The Canadian Forces have been evolving over time, so to be seen as part-time soldiers, diplomats and humanitarians is not really that new,” he explained over a coffee in Ottawa last month. “As a junior officer, I served in a more benign theatre in Cyprus where, as the unit humanitarian officer, I was all of those things: a soldier, the diplomatic face with both governments, and responsible for humanitarian requirements.“

Afghanistan, he believes, is simply reflecting the breadth of experience of the average Canadian soldier. “Our soldiers are very adaptable and very mature. That PRT is the face of Canada dealing with very complex issues at a district or village level daily, and they have to interpret strategic intent. The dynamic of a PRT is that we bring those professional soldiers together with our civilian partners as one team, in the midst of an insurgency and with an evolving Afghan governance structure. I know our allies are blown away by the skill sets that our teams bring to issues.”

Command by consensus
Military culture may be distinct from that of departments such as the Canadian International Development Agency or Foreign Affairs. But rather than ask diplomats and development officers to jump into its world, the military entered theirs. “Culturally I don’t think there is a big divide anymore. The military has a pretty good understanding of the need for collegial and collaborative work. It was more about making sure we were extra vigilant that all partners had a voice, that it wasn’t the military’s way or the highway.

“The military is used to operating in austere environments for very long hours at great personal risk. For the civilian members, it’s not necessarily what they signed up for. So we needed to make sure that our counterparts felt comfortable doing what they needed to do in that environment.”

Rather than answering to a hierarchical command structure, Chamberlain worked with a “board of directors” – representatives from each department who identified projects, set priorities and determined the best approach. What, how and when the team acted were determined by consensus, and the advice of “outsiders,” he soon learned, was golden, often outside-the-box thinking.

“In a perfect world, smart people could sit down and solve an education issue – point A to point B and in between you need to build schools, train teachers, get students into desks. But in the midst of an insurgency it is never that easy. So you need to ask, what of those objectives can we achieve?

“Each of those issues is like building a house. We know that eventually that house will be to Afghan standards, but in the interim, we want to make sure it is properly framed and the stairs are put in place. Every accomplishment is a direct result of the blood, sweat and tears of Canadians and Afghans – the number of Afghans who are killed or wounded doing this rarely gets the press coverage that would underscore the courage they exhibit.”

For all the challenges, Chamberlain was impressed by how quickly they adapted, especially those stepping into such an environment for the first time. “I watched Correctional Services experts operate as if they’d been doing this for years, conducting a needs analysis of the prison, what infrastructure improvements needed to be done, what training needed to be done for guards – things that military planners get trained years to do.”

Un-military preparation
Though it may be physically demanding, preparing a military unit follows a relatively straightforward, and repeatable, process. PRTs, however, require a more cerebral approach, Chamberlain believes. “We’ve found that you don’t have to go through long, drawn out training sessions – it’s more about making sure the individuals have the right skill sets, and then bonding as a team, and bonding around the mission and the commander’s intent.”

And some of that has to happen in theatre, he says. “The strength of the PRT is that everyone brings something to bear. And sometimes you don’t know what that is until you deploy and you find out that one of your CIMIC (civil-military cooperation) officers is from Saskatchewan and has a farming background, or one of your development workers, while in university, took courses in water management. You try and leverage everyone’s skills.” One of the strengths of the PRT, he adds, is its reach-back to the whole-of-government. “If you need a veterinarian or a border expert, he doesn’t need to be on the ground to provide advice. However, if you start asking too many vet questions, it’s time to get a vet over there.”

To ensure that corporate knowledge is maintained from rotation to rotation, military team members serve two back-to-back, sixth-month tours, and the commander and deputy commander overlap by six months. Additionally, most senior civilian team members also overlap with the military commanding officers by six months. “Each commander has a seasoned group of diplomats and development workers to ensure that the strengths of the team don’t reside in one individual.”

Militaries, more so than civilian organizations, have a well-honed practice of capturing and internalizing lessons learned and ensuring they are incorporated into preparation for the next rotation. Much of that is done in Wainwright at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre, where each department has members deployed, some recently returned and others preparing to go over. Though Chamberlain believes that collective training has improved significantly, the PRT does not come with a manual. While a playbook is helpful, there are too many “audibles” in a place like Afghanistan to make it reliable. “We’ve come a long way in capturing the detail required from each team member. They can see the reports and analysis of what’s happened previously. In my experience, written observations are a good starting point, but we really underscore the need for verbal discussions.”

All pre-deployment training, however, is much like the best-laid plans – only relevant until you’re in theatre. “The lead up is good but Afghanistan has a way of focusing your attention very quickly to what is important and what needs to happen. There wasn’t a formalized system to say, on day one of deployment we’re going to do this. It was a collegial approach. We had to work together to implement the whole-of-government priorities. You want to do everything but there are going to be constraints. We put a lot of thought into how to make that work and I think it is functioning tremendously well right now.”

In part because of the emphasis on Afghan-led operations, Canadian successes are not as visible. But Chamberlain points to operations such as one in Arghandab in which the PRT, working closely with other units of Joint Task Force Afghanistan and Afghans, was able to ensure that as an OMLT-mentored ANA force cleared an area, right behind it a series of prioritized projects were identified and delivered by Afghans.

And in districts where security has improved and the international community and NGOs feel comfortable operating, more and more local initiatives are underway. “Building roads, bridges, cleaning culverts – they’re not sexy from a Canadian perspective. But to those Afghans, those villagers, that’s their life blood, that’s really what they need, a source of income so they can put food on the table, income they can get from honest, legal employment rather than from drugs or the insurgency.”

Model PRT
Most countries operating in Afghanistan have adopted a PRT model, and countries meet monthly to share best practices. The Canadian model, however, has become widely recognized as one that works, despite the challenging conditions. “We clearly do have interdepartmental coordination, the ability to deploy and the ability to execute in a way that has resulted in Afghan ministries like the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development wanting to deliver more programs, more projects in Kandahar because they know that the government structure in place, mentored and supported by us, is solid,” Chamberlain explains. “You can achieve certain things.”

Despite its success, he’s cautious about the PRT’s role in future operations. “I wouldn’t want to generalize and say the PRT needs to be captured as a standing organization like the DART, ready to roll out when there is an emergency. But we need to make sure we have intellectually gone through the observations, the lessons, the planning considerations, and have given some thought to the various ‘what if’ scenarios. Internationally, we need to determine the role of PRTs in future conflicts.”

Canada’s success, he says, is its willingness to learn, adapt and evolve, a process that could eventually remove the military from the team. “I think the natural progression, as security improves, is more civilians and less and less military. There is a tipping point where you go from a PRT-type unit to the normal business of a consulate, an embassy, and government engagement through the normal mechanisms of diplomacy.”