Jun 18, 2015 | Academic Spotlight

headerThis article is the third contribution in our new blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes and builds on research originally published here:

Mitchell, D.F., (2015). Blurred Lines? Provincial Reconstruction Teams and NGO Insecurity in Afghanistan, 2010–2011. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 4(1), p.Art. 9. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.ev

In an effort to curtail the insurgency in Afghanistan, the US military and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) blended military and humanitarian operations, much to the dismay of many within the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community. One of the major debates surrounding this effort concerns the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) initiative, which several NGOs have faulted for causing “blurred lines” between military and aid activity. PRTs were small units that combined diplomatic, military, and development components in an effort to improve stability in Afghanistan through the enhancement of economic viability, rule of law, and public services. Because of this mixed approach, NGOs such as CARE International, MSF, Save the Children, Oxfam, and others accused the US military and ISAF of increasing risks to aid workers in the field.

However, although this claim has surfaced in multiple outlets over the years, there was a lack of empirical evidence to support it. To test this hypothesis, a quantitative analysis of aid worker insecurity was conducted covering all 34 Afghan provinces in 2010–2011 using data obtained from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO). The time period analyzed was due to ANSO provincial-level data availability at the time. The dependent variable was the number of NGO security incidents, while the independent variable was PRT presence within a province. The study built upon an earlier analysis of aid worker insecurity in Afghanistan conducted by Clinton Watts in 2004. Although Watts’s findings revealed no relationship between US military presence and NGO insecurity generally, PRTs were not included in his study.


Initial results indicated that if PRTs were operational in a province, NGOs were likely to experience a higher number of security incidents. However, results also showed that if the US military was present, NGOs were likely to experience fewer incidents. Given that the findings revealed a positive relationship between increased NGO incidents and PRT presence but a negative relationship with US military presence, a second model was run substituting PRTs with US- and coalition-led PRTs more specifically. Model 2 results indicated that US PRTs did not influence NGO security; however, NGOs operating in provinces with coalition PRTs experienced decreased security. Given these results, it would be difficult to conclude that PRTs in general are culpable for lax NGO security.

But what accounts for the difference in findings? Although any explanation is speculative without further research, it could be that NGOs are actually safer when operating in close proximity to US military forces. Given that the US military tended to be present in highly volatile regions of the country, this may at first seem counter-intuitive. However, many attacks against civilians in Afghanistan are carried out by common criminals, not necessarily political actors or insurgents. Therefore, aid workers may be more susceptible to attacks in areas perceived to be “less volatile”— i.e., where many coalition-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), rather than US-led teams, tended to operate.

Since the publication of this study, the author has conducted supplemental research using the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), which provides additional information on the type of attack not available in the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office report. This data has revealed that the vast majority of aid worker security incidents during 2010–2011 in Afghanistan were kidnappings. Given that criminals often abduct civilian aid workers for ransom payments, this supports the notion that NGOs may be less safe in areas without a strong military presence that may serve as a deterrent.

These findings do not support the most common anecdotal explanation for insecurity advanced by NGOs (i.e., military engagement in civil affairs). This highlights the importance of empirical testing when attempting to decipher why these attacks occur, an approach that has unfortunately been limited in this area of research. However, the study has its limitations, as it employed only quantitative analysis at the provincial level over a relatively short period of time. The author is currently conducting additional research in this area that will utilize both quantitative and qualitative methodologies for the duration of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Given the difference in model results, information is being collected on the types of projects each PRT conducted for a better understanding of how each approached its mandate. Additionally, data is being collected on the type of activity aid workers were engaged in when they experienced a security incident, along with public statements given by insurgents and/or criminals about why they targeted an individual or group. This information will enable future researchers to conduct more thorough analyses of NGO insecurity in Afghanistan, hopefully resulting in a more complete understanding of why these attacks occur.


David F. Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Security Studies at Kansas State University. Prior to pursuing his doctoral studies, he worked as a researcher and consultant in Washington, DC specializing in civil-military relations. He is currently researching aid worker insecurity in high-risk conflict zones for his dissertation. David can be reached via his website.