The initial reports about FSO Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan stated she was in an armored vehicle, which was hit by either an IED and/or a suicide bomber. She was enroute to a book give away at a local school. Smedinghoff’s father told journalists in the United States that he’d been told she was in a vehicle and the bomber either rammed it or detonated his explosives nearby.
New reports suggest a different picture. According to McClatchy News, Smedinghoff was accompanying a group of perhaps a dozen Afghan journalists, perhaps in the company of a minor U.S. Ambassador, and that the group was walking, not in vehicles. The report stated that:
…on the 200-yard walk from the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to what they thought was the school. A man at the gate said they had the wrong place, though, that this was the provincial agriculture institute.
The group retraced its steps to the American base to figure out what to do next, Abed said. The entrance to the base is just a few feet from the street, he said, and just as they reached it, walking more or less in single file, something slammed into his back and he staggered forward. Disoriented, he saw a car wheel roll past him.
“At first I thought that a car had left the road and struck me,” he said. “But then I turned around and saw it had been a bomb.”
That narrative differs significantly from the initial State Department version. Instead of a gallant young do-gooder snatched by fate, we see a group of diplomats who did not know what they were doing, physically lost, circling back to their camp to try again. If that is true, how did it happen? If that is true, why did State report a different version of events?
My own Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) service was embedded with a U.S. Army unit and in Iraq, so procedures may vary, but we did our share of media events and book donations. Here is how things went and why it is hard to accept that the new discrepancies about Afghanistan are merely fog of war.
Any movement outside the wire was planned meticulously. Excellent photographic maps were consulted, and a numerical grid location of our destination was established accurate down to (deleted) meters. Routes in and out were noted, with secondary routes established. Using maps and photos, we would decide where we would disembark our vehicles and how security would be kept. Medevac procedures would be reviewed, available air assets identified and so forth. Movement inside a war zone was a clear military operation. It was not free-lanced or improvised. Records were kept.
If we did get off track, the unit went into defensive posture and nobody left the vehicles until we sorted that out. Lots of radio calls were made, and the Army’s electronic mapping and reporting system Blue Force Tracker was used. Our own headquarters always knew where we were and what we were doing. Log entries were made and records exist (some of what Bradley Manning leaked to Wikileaks consisted of such sitreps and Blue Force Tracker updates).
If Smedinghoff and her compatriots got lost, it suggests they were not moving as just described. This calls up serious questions of competence and leadership. How did they get lost? What happened and who is responsible, because people died here.
(Another opinion disclaims the idea that the group was “lost”)
State’s mistakes in reporting what actually happened on the ground all seem to be mistakes in favor of State’s narrative– gallant young life taken even as she worked to help local Afghans– instead of incompetently lead public affairs hack engaged in another failed feel-good media event where they did not even know the location of the school being helped. How could this have happened? Fog of war?
My former job with State for 20 some years was as a Consular Officer and entailed, in part, dealing with the deaths of American Citizens abroad. I know how hard it can be to figure out what happened. Many of the deaths I assisted in sorting out happened in combat-like confusion following earthquakes, plane crashes and the like. There is chaos, but you are trained to work past that. Our training was very simple: you’re speaking officially on behalf of the USG to grieving next of kin. Tell them what you know and how you know it. Be very clear when things are unsure, uncertain or subject to change. Don’t fill in gaps, don’t make things up, be respectful but don’t try and “help” by covering up tough things (died autoerotically, was found with a weapon, was in a hotel room with a prostitute, etc.). If you don’t know something, say you do not know. Credibility is key and trust is earned and most of the real story will come out somehow.
It is hard to imagine that the death of an FSO with multiple witnesses was not reported fully back to Foggy Bottom. This was the first “real” FSO killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan and post-Benghazi everyone knew it would be major news. Yes, others sadly were also killed but the death of a young woman with social media presence was obviously a greedy media’s lead. Nobody at State was going to just jot down a few notes on what may have happened and flash out a press release. There were multiple witnesses, and indeed the death occurred literally at the PRT’s doorstep. It would be very, very surprising if that front door was not covered by video surveillance. The source cited by McClatchy was treated by U.S. personnel and flown back to Kabul by the U.S., so was not hard to find.
Conspiracy theorists, have at it. Or maybe it was all just journalistic fudges and fog of war.
Instead, I will propose something baser and cruder: to the State Department, especially post-Benghazi, what mattered in the death of Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan was literal damage control of the already-failed narrative that the Department was accomplishing great things in Afghanistan under a policy of competent, calculated risk. The lives were lost of course no matter what the point or purpose, but it is typically owed to the dead the respect of not exploiting them even into the grave.
Update: Diplopundit reports an email recieved from a Foreign Service Officer which reads “I knew Anne well. I am sending you this as the Department has been actively recruiting her friends and coworkers to talk to the press or to write about her even while no Department memorial service will be held.” Stay classy State.
The People’s Republic of Snarkistan has a thorough write-up on what may have happened to Smedinghoff and her group well-worth reading. He also informs us that the school in question was built by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “rennovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” Yeah, looks like the original contractor ripped off the PRT. The U.S. Army noted at the time that “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.”
In my own Iraq PRT experience, the record for the U.S. (re)building the same school was three times in four years.
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