[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]
ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi Freedom (2004-6, 2008-10), New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11) and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2011-12).
PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All
by Pete Turner
Anne Smedinghoff and 5 others died when a Taliban car bomb, a.k.a. VBIED, attacked her patrol almost 3 years ago on April 6, 2013 in Qalat city Afghanistan, Zabul province. The mission’s purpose was to get a photo opportunity while the US patrol handed out books to Afghan kids. Their deaths were completely preventable.
Ignorance, arrogance and incompetence by the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), Anne and her Department of State (DoS) peers surely contributed to her death, and the death of multiple soldiers. I know that statement is pretty inflammatory…and it’s part of the reason why I waited 3 years to tell the tale. Please read the attached article for the required context. Also, read Peter Van Buren’s (former DoS boss) HuffPo blog in which he also criticizes DoS competence in this tragedy.
I worked in the same area as Anne, but I’d left about a year prior to her arrival. It’s unfortunate that my research partner and I didn’t get a chance to meet her. If we had, she would have been armed with some information that could have saved her life. It is also unfortunate that the knowledge we gained while working in Qalat left apparently left with us.
Before going any further, my partner, Dr. Ledet and I conducted research into improving education in the province. Specifically, we were tasked with learning how the US should distribute learning materials to Afghans, and we did so by working with tribal, religious, and political leaders in the area. Our report was distributed to the PRT, US military and the DoS working in the areas, and briefed to higher authorities. The senior Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) representative for the province, and multiple leaders we consulted, provided us with the solution regarding how the US could help improve education.
Our Afghan partners clearly and forcefully stated, US elements were not, under any circumstances, to provide books directly to Afghan children.
Yet, Anne and the others died on a book delivery operation. WTF?
It’s critical to understand how bad this is, as not only did the DoS and PRT undermine the MoE directive, which was given with the consent of religious leaders and family elders; effectively the patrol’s objective undermined their authority as well, and created violence and more instability.
How does this happen? Simply, our foreign policy theory doesn’t match our tactics. We hire highly intelligent people to do complex work, but their personal intelligence and accomplishments often mean little in this environment. Often, the people I encounter with fantastic resumes are not trained to listen and learn. Our failings aren’t about individual brain power and desire. Where we fail is in our overriding compulsion to help, coupled with our inability to make sure that “ground truth” knowledge is accurately passed on to our replacements when we redeploy.
When we as a nation, bring “help” it often harms locals but sounds great in our briefings or in a eulogy...These are John Kerry’s words the day following Anne’s death, “…Yesterday in Afghanistan, we had a different stealing of a young life. And I think there are no words for anybody to describe the extraordinary harsh contradiction of a young 25-year-old woman with all of the future ahead of her, believing in the possibilities of diplomacy, of changing people’s lives, of making a difference, having an impact, who was taking knowledge in books to deliver them to a school. “
I have words to describe this, Mr. Kerry….and they are harsh. THAT PATROL SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED! Anne was not properly prepared, and it’s a failure of the existing DoS and PRT staff that should have known better. It’s the failure of whoever disregarded that day’s threat assessment to send out a patrol on a photo safari. Those photos only validate our ignorance, and do nothing to repair the damage of that day.
Mr. Kerry and Anne simply wanted to help the Afghans become educated, but in reality that patrol was indicative of the continued separation between the Afghans and US partners. That patrol also created another opportunity for the Taliban to show locals where their future interests lie. Because we don’t learn, and continue to act as though our culture is superior to the Afghans, we fail to make the kind of progress necessary to create stability.
It’s one thing for me to criticize John Kerry and Anne…hang in there, when I post part 2, I’ll illustrate how Dr. Ledet and I were able to use culture to our advantage, and gain uncommon access to the Afghans while we learned the appropriate way to support the MoE.