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Afghan War History Lost?

Andrew Birtle leaned back in his office chair at the Center of Military History at Fort McNair, in Washington D.C., and broached the subject of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs): "Is there any mechanism for collecting the data from PRTs when the commanders end their deployment? I'm worried about this because they're ad hoc organizations, unlike Army divisions."

Until he mentioned this, I'd never even thought of this issue—and unfortunately, I'm not the only one.

I’d asked to meet with Birtle because he’s probably the most knowledgeable historian of the Vietnam War in the world, and my work on COIN theory had inescapably brought me to studying Vietnam. But Vietnam aside, Birtle had asked an important question.

When the history of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is written, will information be available to historians? The PRTs provide an invaluable window into areas where development intersects with politics in Afghanistan and Iraq. All sorts of hypotheses can be tested, eventually, about what works to reduce violence and increase quality of life in a conflict area.

I’m in touch with two former Afghan PRT commanders, one Navy and one Air Force, and I asked them what happened after their deployments ended. No one had asked to collect their information, hard drive, e-mails, or documents. Both wrote up “lessons learned,” and turned information over to the commander who replaced them, and that was it—though one commander had been interviewed at Fort Riley, Kansas afterward.

The situation in Afghanistan appears confused. One official at our embassy there said that it did not seem as though there was a systematic effort to collect PRT data from commanders, though there is a collection of “lessons learned” from civilians working at PRTs. The Center for Complex Operations, a civilian-military organization that serves as a clearinghouse for lessons-learned from other organizations, seems to be designated to receive these PRT lessons-learned records. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP)—a government-created and government-funded, independent and non-partisan organization to end conflicts and increase stability—has apparently also studied some of this material. I have been told by several sources who do not want to be named that PRT commanders’ records are uploaded to servers, rather than being stored on hard drives, so collecting commanders’ hard drives is unnecessary.

The situation in Iraq is clearer and likely better. Greta C. Holtz, Director of the Office of Provincial Affairs, wrote me:

“I run the PRT program in Iraq, and have a team here now from State and the Center for Complex Operations collecting data from all the Iraq PRTs (hard drives and oral interviews).
Our intent is to capture all the data the PRTs have and put it in one place. Right now that place is a Web site for cleared USG personnel called ‘Intellepedia.’”

Without data and intelligent analysis of it, there’s no way to tell whether our massively costly activities in Iraq and Afghanistan produce measurable results. Even those who are not moved by the needs of the historians of the 22nd century should be concerned that we may not only be flying by the seats of our pants, but forcing the next generation of counterinsurgents to do so, too.

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