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Countering terrorism via the security-development nexus: Lessons learned from the US provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan

Countering terrorism via the security-development nexus: Lessons learned from the US provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan


By Zdeněk Rod 


The Security-Development Nexus (SDX) is a crucial concept within the disciplines of post-conflict reconstruction and conflict resolution. The term SDX was coined during the post-Cold War era when the international system experienced a growing number of civil wars. Although international society eventually managed to solve many of the conflicts, the biggest challenges came later, when peacemakers attempted to reconstruct war-torn societies in order to prevent future conflicts as well as deliver social and economic prosperity. Therefore, the SDX has been one of the most widely adapted policy approaches, since it is based on the premise that security induces development and development induces security. Said otherwise, security cannot be achieved without a certain level of development and vice versa. The SDX, thus, combines particular security and development strategies that can foster a more stable post-conflict environment. Hence, the SDX can be seen as a suitable approach to combat terrorism, since it is believed that radicalization often lies in economic frustration (low development). If peacemakers focus on developing societies and on adequate security measures, the optimum balance between security and development can be achieved. As Briscoe points out, such a balance could be achieved if the security community concerned with counter-terrorism coordinates its actions with the development community.[i] Consequently, NATO implemented the SDX within its policies to rebuild Afghan society within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, which NATO commanded from 2003 to 2014. During the early stages of ISAF, ISAF’s mandate could solely operate in the Kabul area; however,[ii] in autumn 2003, the UN extended ISAF’s mandate to operate throughout the whole country. Nevertheless, due to the deteriorating security conditions, the ISAF command did not expand operations across the entire country until 2006.

The most common example of implementing SDX in the field is the role of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which combine civilian (who manage development activities) and military (who manage security activities) personnel.[iii] While the primary purpose for instituting PRTs was political, Robert M. Perito notes that “PRTs were also seen as a means for dealing with the causes of Afghanistan’s instability: terrorism, warlords, unemployment, and grinding poverty”.[iv] According to NATO policy-makers, it was time to move from counterterrorism (capturing and killing terrorists) to counterinsurgency (eliminating the local causes of instability and separating them from the Taliban and al-Qaeda).[v] Even though PRT activities fell under the joint NATO command, each of the coalition states implemented PRTs differently, as the PRT model fell under the national jurisdiction of each state pursuing common objectives in Afghanistan. Additionally, the nature of PRTs was mainly reflected within the context where the particular NATO state operated, meaning that dangerous areas required more security than development measures and otherwise. To illustrate, some PRTs in areas such as Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan experienced ambushes, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and suicide bomb attacks.[vi]

Although each member state pursued a different PRT model, it is possible to identify four main PRT models: 1) the US, 2) German, 3) Canadian, and 4) Dutch models. A completely different approach was taken by the United States, which placed more emphasis on the military component and civilian personnel fell under military command. In contrast, Germany’s PRT strictly separated the civilian and military command.[vii] Conversely, Canada applied the so-called ‘whole of government approach’, which linked the functioning of military, police, and civilian development forces at the PRT level and the level of domestic operations planning and funding. In contrast, the Netherlands applied a specific model characterized by significant decentralization across actors (military, governmental, and non-governmental organizations) who worked separately most of the time[viii] while following a unique 3D approach (development, diplomacy, and defence).[ix] Although states’ individual PRT goals varied, the overarching goal was to support local governments and community development by ensuring a safe environment.[x]

Additionally, as mentioned above, the role of PRT as the practical outcome of the SDX perspective is a rather broad topic. Consequently, this analysis will solely focus on the US perspective, since US involvement has had undoubtedly the most significant impact on Afghanistan’s development, mainly due to the massive presence of US military and civilian personnel. Further, based on US long-term involvement, it is necessary to explore and evaluate how the US, as the largest NATO Ally, used SDX in Afghanistan, which has experienced 20 years of peacebuilding initiatives and still is far from being stabilized. Terrorism has not been eliminated either. Last but not least, this paper also reacts to the need for further scholarly exploration of the practical implementation of SDX, since this topic has not been sufficiently researched yet.[xi] Finally, a broader analysis of this kind should elucidate whether SDX in NATO policies still seems to be a convenient policy approach and if we can trace some lessons learned to avoid future mistakes. Currently, particular NATO member states, mainly France, are embroiled in conflict in the Sahel; therefore, it is important to assess whether the US experience with PRTs can be helpful in managing the conflict in the Sahel or other conflict areas.


Mapping the US provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan

The first US PRTs were likely formed during the 2002 ISAF mission,[xii] since the US was the largest unit in this operation. Consequently, other PRTs, which evolved later on, were US-funded and directed. The US also emphasized the role of PRTs in providing security via development to extend to the Coalition Forces and the Afghan Government. This mainly included monitoring of the security situation and civilian-military efforts to facilitate political and economic development.[xiii] As more Coalition Forces were deployed, the expansion of PRTs was inevitable in order to manage the organization of PRT activities in Afghan provinces. Hence, the Coalition leadership concluded that US PRTs would operate in Regional Command West and East, while South and North will be covered by other states.

The US PRTs employed between 50–100 military and civilian personnel, mainly coming from the US army, USAID, Department of State, or USDA. Those PRTs had two main tasks. First, they conducted tasks concerning force protection and small, quick impact reconstruction and assistance operations.[xiv] Practical outcomes were seen including digging wells, building schools and clinics, paving roads, or injecting money into the local economy. All of this was done to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people over radical leaders. Second, PRTs assisted the provincial authorities to fulfil and coordinate development goals. Like in Nangarhar Province, some US PRT bases were also designated for active-duty Air Force and Army.[xv] Additionally, the US PRTs considerably contributed to security by pursuing DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) and the disarmament of illegal armed groups’ initiatives.[xvi]

Although it might seem that PRTs were primarily successful and effective, there were several pitfalls in their monitoring analysis. PRTs lacked the capacity to effectively carry out their operational tasks due to the lack of experienced and skilled personnel, which resulted in broader cooperation with international NGOs that lacked relevant experience. PRTs were not able to cover wide-ranging geographical areas, leaving room for Taliban activities. Many development projects were decided upon by military personnel who lacked adequate expertise in this field and were often driven by military objectives that did not always comply with development objectives.[xvii] On the other side, due to the military presence, development workers struggled to keep their neutral outlook and had low credibility among the locals.[xviii]  Mutual coordination slightly improved after 2010 when the US decided to foster PRTs training to meet operational tasks. Further issues resulted from an inappropriate understanding of local Pashtun culture and tribal life. In opposition, the Taliban was heavily disseminating anti-US narratives in tribal areas. Other issues resulted from poor communication and cooperation between the Afghani representatives in Kabul, where considerable corruption evolved, and the PRTs in tribal areas.[xix] The suspicion of local residents was illustrated through their reluctance to cooperate with PRTs. The majority of residents in Nuristan, for instance, had an unfavourable opinion of US forces. In 2009, locals in Wardak province tended to be highly anti-government, with just 7% holding a positive view of US forces.[xx]

As mentioned above, PRTs suffered from many shortcomings. Only a few PRTs merged military and civilian elements to create a close-knit and mutually supportive team. Many teams lacked considerable expertise and were thus forced to improvise. Since the US PRTs consisted of mainly military units, they lacked the potential to carry out development tasks.[xxi] PRTs primarily focused on short-term goals. This proved problematic as “development cooperation for short-term gains in security ultimately undermines both development and stabilization”.[xxii] Not many PRTs recognized Afghani needs and focused instead on Western-developed goals.[xxiii] The misinterpretation of Afghani societal and cultural needs often resulted in counterproductive strategies. Regional differences were often overlooked, which led to ineffective outcomes. For instance, the power of regional dynamics, tribal autonomy, and long history of Pashtuns’ decentralised autonomy were underestimated. Nevertheless, further development of PRTs’ tasks could not be achieved since the US terminated PRTs’ activities due to the US withdrawal in 2014. Generally speaking, the US PRT model ultimately proved inefficient, without any visible successes left behind.[xxiv] In 2015, the Resolute Support Mission replaced ISAF, which mainly focused on training Afghani security forces and implementing rule of law. Recently, both the US and NATO have determined that the conflict in Afghanistan does not have any military solution. Therefore, the US and other NATO members decided to completely withdrawal troops by 11 September 2021.[xxv]


Lessons learned?

Based on the US experience with PRTs in Afghanistan, it is conceivable to ask whether any possible future deployment of civilian-military units such as PRT makes sense for NATO or its member states. It is crucial to critically assess this question since other NATO member states are currently embroiled in the conflict in the Sahel, which is beset by humanitarian issues and various militant groups. Undoubtedly, the Sahel area has to be stabilized: a stable Sahel means more stability for European NATO members. Therefore, it is suitable to offer potential lessons learned from Afghanistan to pursue effective post-conflict reconstruction and deal with the conflict’s causes.

The previous section highlights several limitations of PRTs that obstructed their practical implementation in Afghanistan. It can be argued that if the below-mentioned indicators had been reflected, Afghanistan would have been more stable. Below, I seek to grasp the most significant challenges that should be addressed if a similar model is deployed:

1)    PRTs have to contain skilled and experienced personnel who focus on their comparative advantages. In other words, military personnel should stick with implementing security tasks and should not try to enmesh with development agents. The cooperation between security and development agents should be coordinated and adhere to clearly defined policy objectives.

2)    PRT should work in smaller geographical areas to maintain their efficiency and create deeper bonds with the local inhabitants. PRTs’ experiences in Afghanistan clearly show that they lacked the capabilities to operate in large geographical areas.

3)    Development and security initiatives should reflect the needs of the locals. Western concepts and assumptions are not universal. It is also wise to integrate locals into development projects.

4)    Development activities should also emphasize the role of education, mainly in the era of hybrid threats. It is assumed that improving education can result in fostering resilience towards hybrid threats such as disinformation. Education activities should enhance critical thinking, which is a crucial tool to dismantle disinformation narratives that can circulate among the local population to hinder PRTs’ development and security activities. Fighting disinformation practices is especially important nowadays, especially due to the rapid speed of information exchange.

5)    Decentralization of the command structure is needed. Each PRT should reflect local and regional dynamics; thus, PRT-operated regions should have sufficient executive power to conduct tasks without the central command’s involvement. Such decentralization would facilitate more effective decision-making.

6)    PRT should be aware of the historical and cultural roots of each specific area of operation. The habits and experiences of the local population vary from region to region. Therefore, it is necessary to understand regional dynamics to win hearts and minds. This includes knowledge of local languages and habits.

7)    Cooperation with international NGOs should be synchronized to avoid the duplication of development projects.

8)    PRTs from different areas should conduct regular networking to exchange information and to get to know others’ experiences.

9)    PRT should monitor aid allocation as the risk of corruption on both sides is possible.

10) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is imperative to avoid civilian casualties. This applies not only to PRT security operations but also to security operations beyond PRTs’ scope. Said otherwise, it is not possible to conduct development activities while inflicting civilian casualties. Robust security measures can prove to be counterproductive if they do not solely target militant groups. An adequate example is US lethal drone strikes, which have caused a considerable number of civilian casualties. The survivors can then seek revenge for their relatives’ deaths and tend to get recruited or radicalized. Moving from the US, it is estimated that French Operation Barkhane, Chadian contingents of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, and other national and international forces have caused more civilian fatalities in the Sahel than those of violent extremist groups. This increases the chances that civilians will stop supporting counter-terrorism operations and turn their attention towards militant groups.[xxvi]


Final remarks

The nexus between security and development is highly contested in practice. Based on the US experience in Afghanistan, security and development measures were not adequately merged. The most probable reason for the shortcomings is that PRTs did not provide for residents’ needs and instead emphasised the economic side of development. However, it appears that the causes of a conflict do not solely lie in economic frustration but cultural-ideological reasons. Hence, the injection of money accompanied by an increased security presence does not have to always address the roots of the conflict. Development is not only about fostering the economic dimension but the societal, too. Structural changes are then inevitable.

In the previous section, I sought to draw up some potential improvements that could foster current or future civilian-military missions. In my opinion, NATO members cannot avoid civilian-military cooperation. Although some scholars, such as Duffield, argue that the security dimension of conflict resolution is overestimated and that development itself has become militarized, I argue that excluding the military from conflict resolution is not feasible. The military and development agents should follow clearly delineated borders so as not to become entangled or counterproductive. Additionally, counterterrorism operations should consider their impact on civilians: civilian losses can deepen locals’ frustration, potentially resulting in more profound radicalization. The security-development nexus (civilian-military missions) has to be implemented effectively and must avoid past mistakes. Security operations have to target militant groups, while development agents work with the local population to avoid fuelling militant cells. Nevertheless, the security and development dimensions have to be balanced and work in precisely defined areas of interest to avoid counterproductive measures. If implemented adequately, the nexus can be applied as a convenient counterterrorism instrument.


About the author

Zdeněk Rod completed his master's studies in International Relations at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen. Simultaneously, he is pursuing a PhD degree in International Relations at the same university, and he is also a research fellow at the Centre for Security Analysis and Prevention in Prague.



[i] Ivan Briscoe and Bibi van Ginkel, The Nexus between Development and Security: Searching for Common Ground in Countering Terrorism (Hague: ICCT, 2013), 3.

[ii] NATO, “ISAF's mission in Afghanistan (2001-2014) (Archived),” 1 September 2015, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_69366.htm.

[iii] Jaroslav Petřík, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan: Securitizing Aid through Developmentalizing the Military,” in The Securitization of Foreign Aid. Rethinking International Development Series, ed. S. Brown and J. Grävingholt, 163–187 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016);

Hans Merket, The EU and the Security-Development Nexus: Bridging the Legal Divide (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2016), 303–307; Horký-Hlucháň and Szent-Iváyi, “Neither security nor development? Czech and Hungarian identities and interests in the provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan,” East European Politics 31, no. 4 (2015): 1–19.

[iv] Robert Perito, The U.S. experience with Provincial Reconstruction teams in Afghanistan (Washington: USIP, 2005).

[v] Arthur Gibb, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan: A Case Study of Military-Led Development,”

Res Militaris 6, no. 2 (2016): 1–26.

[vii] ISW, PROVINCIAL RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS (PRTS), 2002, http://www.understandingwar.org/provincial-reconstruction-teams-prts.

[viii] Sebastiaan J. H. Rietjens, “Managing Civil-Military Cooperation: Experiences from the Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan,” Armed Forces & Society 34, no. 2 (2008): 173–207.

[ix] Erik de Feijter, “Netherlands,” in Europe's Coherence Gap in External Crisis and Conflict Management: Political, ed. Stefani Weiss and Josh Ward (Gutersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2020): 255–266.

[x] Robert M. Perito, Provincial Reconstruction teams in Iraq (Washington D.C.: United State Institute For Peace, 2006).

[xi] Öjendal Stern, “Mapping the Security–Development Nexus: Conflict, Complexity, Cacophony, Convergence?” Security Dialogue 41, no. 1 (2010), 5–30; Merket, The EU and the Security-Development Nexus, 303–307; Eamonn McConnon, “Risk and the Security - Development Nexus,” in The Policies of the US, the UK and Canada (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Neclâ Tschirgi, Michel S. Lund, and Francesco Mancini, Security and Development: Searching for Critical Connections (Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 2010).

[xii] PRTs also evolved later on in Iraq.

[xiii] Gibb, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”




[xvii] Carter Malkasian and Gerald Meyerle, PROVINCIAL RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS: HOW DO WE KNOW THEY WORK? (Strategic Studies Institute, 2009); Gibb, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”

[xviii] Petřík, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”

[xix] Gibb, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan”; USAID, PROVINCIAL RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS IN AFGHANISTAN; Petřík, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”


[xxi] USIP, “The U.S. Experience with Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan,” 18 October 2007, https://www.usip.org/publications/2007/10/us-experience-provincial-recon....

[xxii] Petřík, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”

[xxiii] William Maley, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan - how they arrived and where they are going,” NATO, 1 July 2007, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2007/07/01/provincial-reconstr... NATO, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan – how they arrived and where they are going,” Autumn 2007, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2007/issue3/english/art2.html.

[xxiv] Gibb, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.”

[xxv] NATO, “Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan,” 15 April 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_113694.htm.

[xxvi] Daily Maverick, “Sahel counter-terrorism takes a heavy toll on civilians,” Institute for Security Studies, 2021, https://issafrica.org/amp/iss-today/sahel-counter-terrorism-takes-a-heav....

Image: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_69366.htm


This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.     

Saturday, 1 May, 2021 - 18:45