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Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]








Anne Smedinghoff

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.

6 Responses to “Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All”

  1. TheFinder Says:

    Thank you for this input…our military has suffered greatly for lack of knowledge “in the field” knowledge, not the book learning protocol, but “boots on the ground” knowledge…….we have fallen short…

    I hope that John Kerry and others will heed your advice…thank you for this article…..


  2. morgan Says:

    TheFinder, given Kerry’s, and others in the top level of the State Departments, arrogant “we know best” attitude,” I doubt they will even consider following the author’s advice.

  3. Grurray Says:

    “— The State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”
    — The Army unit at the base didn’t want to provide security because it didn’t understand why it should be carrying out such a mission and the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day. What’s more, civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.”
    Here’s some additional information you might have passed along to her:
    that the superiors she worked for and trusted were criminally incompetent. The soldiers she would rely on for protection didn’t care if she lived or died. That the nation she thought was great enough to serve in a war zone is really a sad joke fighting bombers with photo ops.

  4. jejeb stuart Says:

    It would have been helpful to spell out some of the specifics if permissible that define arrogance?
    Is that a problem predating Kerry?
    I have to ask because of Benghazi and it sounds like the same sort of arrogance. At the top.
    I know there are some great people at state but it seems to me state is become more and more detached from reality, as if peace was a club and diplomacy and doing good things always has teeth.
    Not in some zip codes.
    I am remembering the numerous numbers of Christian missionaries who died in Vietnam, like the Thompsons, who worked at a lepersorium, and ministered to Hill people killed murdered by the NVA. I remember the arguments about were they martyrs or arrogant, why should they have been in Vietnam helping people no one else would?
    In a war zone “s” happens, when I read words like arrogance it describes people who refuse to learn from their mistakes, compassion is never a mistake we make mistakes trying to make it work and some times martyrdom is real, this situation doesn’t sound like martyrdom but I think the author needs to hit home some points because its war and people die and less caring people just shrug.

  5. Pete Says:

    JeJeb Stuart, Hang in there…as I wrote in the post, there is a part 2 coming. Shit does happen in war zones. Arrogance and DoS are hand in hand it’s an institutional thing…not everyone of course, but their measure and influence are all internal. I won’t have time to get into this in part 2, but there are other posts of mine that cover this in more detail. Take any DoS success and measure it…on the ground with the people You’ll struggle to find that same success…it’s represented on the walls of the DoS headquarters PHOTOOPS!! But ask the locals…and you’ll find a dramatically different story…when this story is presented to DoS they scoff…that is not only a reflection of their arrogance, but also ignorance. In this specific case the Afghan leader had intentions and plans on how to improve education in the region…instead of getting behind his plan..we defied him and the family elders…and that will get you not only targeted…but killed

  6. Steve Fondacaro Says:

    Concur completely with your conclusions. While I understand there are probably many unseen details surrounding this incident, nothing I see here indicates any thoughtful engagement or cultural understanding objectives were set for the mission. The mission was getting the photos of the PRT school supply distro, which anyone with a basic level cultural sensitivity should have seen as highlighting the Afghan Government’s inability to supply their schools. This may have been why the government instructions were so clear. Luring children and anxious parents into a single location to receive free supplies only creates the perfect target. The PRT and the US Forces in general take both the casualties and the blame, and it further alienates them from the population.

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