• On the Afghan Papers, Tequila, and Anne Smedinghoff

    January 3, 2020 // 27 Comments »


     

    It’s common this time of year to write review articles making sense of the events of the last 12 months. But what all of them will omit is one of the most important stories of the year. For the first time in some two decades America hasn’t started a new war.

    In 2019 34 American service members died in war. In 2009 it was 459, in 2003 it was 526. A total of 6857 since the post 9/11 wars commenced in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. Bush began that war, then invaded Iraq in 2003. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 then immediately expanded the war in Afghanistan. He went on to restart America’s war in Iraq after it was over the first time, launched a new war to turn Libya into a failed state and trigger the refugee flows still disrupting EU politics, engaged the U.S. in Yemen, abetted a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and set off yet another refugee flow into Europe through military intervention. So three full years without a new war is indeed news.

    This year also brought mainstream confirmation of the truth behind the Afghan War. The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a tiny step of penance in publishing the “Afghan Papers,” which show the American public was lied to every step of the way over the past 18 years about progress in Afghanistan and the possibility of some sort of success. Government officials from the president(s) to the grunt(s) issued positive statements they knew to be false and hid evidence the war was unwinnable. The so-called Afghan Papers are actually thousands of pages of notes created by the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog federal agency created to oversee the spending of close to one trillion dollars in reconstruction money.

    The SIGAR documents (all quotes are from the Post’s Afghan Papers reporting) are blunt. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking… If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction, 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added. “Who will say this was in vain?” There are plenty of similar sentiments expressed going back a decade, with hints of the same almost to the first months of the conflict. The record of lies is as stark, final, and unambiguous as the death toll itself.

     

    Underlying all these comments given to SIGAR confidentially (WaPo had to fight a hellish FOIA battle to get these Papers released and even then most names were redacted) is a subtheme of what happens when the public finds out they’ve been lied to? The lesson there is a clear one: the public will have it shoved under their noses and ignore it repeatedly. The “secrets” of what was going on in Afghanistan were available for any who cared to call bullsh*t. Everything that failed in Afghanistan was at some level a repeat of what had failed earlier or concurrently in Iraq. The Papers quote an Army brigade commander in eastern Afghanistan who told government interviewers that he often saw nation building proposals that referred to “sheikhs” literally cut-and-pasted from reconstruction projects in Iraq. (“Sheikh” is an Arabic title of respect regularly misused by the military in Iraq but inapplicable across most of Afghanistan.) Many reconstruction personnel on the civilian side were transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan, and senior military leaders followed enlisted sons and fathers in doing deployments in both nations.

    On paper the story was the same. Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks exposed the lies in Iraq, only to face jail time and personal destruction. Whistleblower Matt Hoh, who served in Iraq as a Marine and in Afghanistan with the State Department, resigned in protest and told all as far back as 2010. My own book on Iraq exposed reconstruction was a failure in 2011, as did Chris Coyne’s on reconstruction in Haiti in 2010, or Douglas Wissing or Anand Gopal on Afghanistan or more recently Scott Horton’s in 2017. The Army’s Lt. Col Danny Davis, or even SIGAR’s own reporting over the years told much of the same story if anyone had bothered to read it. If anyone had looked deeper, they would have seen the same errors in reconstruction made many times before, from Somalia to the massive CORDS program in the Vietnam War.

    The Papers also show during the peak of the fighting in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, U.S. politicians and military commanders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and other projects the faster things would improve. Aid workers told SIGAR from the ground “it was a colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive.” One staffer with the Agency for International Development claimed 90 percent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objectivity. We were given money, told to spend it and we did, without reason.” A contractor explained he was expected to dole out $3 million daily for projects in a single Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He once asked a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home, and “he said hell no. I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.”

    It was never a question of would it work, but more of a question of finding any example in the past where it did work. The one cited by so many NEOCON believers was the post-WWII Marshall Plan, as if loans to German and Japanese industrialists to rebuild factories and retool from tanks to cars had anything to do with the medieval economy of Afghanistan.

    But perhaps owing to their roots as the watchdog of the reconstruction program, SIGAR saves some of its most laser-like commentary for nation building.

     

    But Afghanistan was always supposed to be more than a “kinetic” war. The real battles were for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, with money as the weapon. Democracyfreedompluralisticsociety would be created from the primeval mud, with roads and bridges and factories as its Adam, and schools for boys and girls as its Eve. One of the core lies told to the public, and to each other on the ground in Afghanistan, was that a large portion of reconstruction money should be spent on education, even though Afghanistan had few jobs for graduates. “We were building schools next to empty schools, and it just didn’t make sense,” a Special Forces officer explained. “The local Afghans made clear they didn’t really want schools. They said they wanted their kids out herding goats.”

    “There was not a willingness to answer questions such as, what is the meaning of this number of schools that you have built? How has that progressed you towards your goal?” said John Garofano, who supported the First Marine Expeditionary Force in its reconstruction spending in Helmand Province. “How do you show this as evidence of success and not just evidence of effort or evidence of just doing a good thing?”

    And it is on that specific bruised prayer of a lie that Anne Smedinghoff, the only State Department Foreign Service officer to lose a life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, died.

    This is what all those lies detailed in the Afghan Papers translate into on the ground. Anne was a diplomat, just 25 years old, assigned by the State Department to create good press in Afghanistan so the people at home could see we were winning. It was a hard fight, her work was supposed to show, but the sacrifices were worth it because we are accomplishing this. This in the very specific case which destroyed Anne was handing out unneeded books to Afghans who lacked clean water and childhood vaccines twelve years into America’s longest war so she and (important) more senior people could be photographed doing so. Inside the beltway this was called a “happy snap,” photos of Americans doing good with, albeit always in the background, smiling Afghans lapping it up. Through a series of grossly preventable micro-errors in security nested like Russian dolls inside the macro-error of what Anne or any American was doing in rural Zabul, Afghanistan anyway, Anne’s body was blown into pink mush by jagged fragments of steel from an IED.

    The school where Anne was killed was “built” by the U.S. in October 2009, only to enjoy a $135,000 “renovation” a few months later that included “foundation work, installation of new windows and doors, interior and exterior paint, electricity and a garden.” The original contractor did miserable work but got away with it in the we’ll check later Potemkin world where the appearance of success trumped actual results. The Army noted as the school opened “The many smiles on the faces of both men and women showed all were filled with joy and excitement during this special occasion.” That the Afghans in the area likely needed sewage processing to lower infant mortality levels from water borne disease was irrelevant, they got a freaking school.

    The limited official reporting on what happened to Anne bungled most of the details, and State clung (as they later did with Benghazi, some lessons are learned) to a weak tea that the “cause” of Anne’s death were the actions of the bad guys, anything we did up to our very presence on the ground treated as a kind of background. The desire to not look too deep was underscored by then Secretary of State John Kerry, who said “she tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future” and smoothed the media into blending Anne’s death into what the entire world now knows is the fake narrative Anne herself died trying to create.

    Kerry is an easy target because of his Vietnam-era protests, including his famous question to Congress in 1971 “Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    To the State Department, what mattered in the life and then death of Anne Smedinghoff was damage control to what the Afghan Paper show they secretly knew was an already-failed story.

     

    Anne was only one of thousands of Americans, and, literally-only-God-knows how many Afghans, who died for the lies in the Afghan Papers. Same in the other countries America made war against, Syria and Libya for example, whose “papers” exposing those lies we await. So that’s why the biggest story of 2019 is the one no one seems to want to talk about, that for the first time in decades we seem to be slowing this all down.

    When someone writes now, in light of the reveals of the Afghan Papers, Anne died in vain, someone else will dismiss that as playing politics with a young woman’s death. But if you will read one more sentence, read this: Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, and her death delivering books for a photo op was a political act in support of lies. Her death thrusts her into the role of symbolism whether anyone likes that or not, and our job is simply to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that.

    For me, I learned on the same day Anne died an airstrike elsewhere in Afghanistan inadvertently killed ten children. I learned on the nights I think too much about things like that it usually takes a fair amount of tequila to abort my thoughts. And I take no pride in admitting I usually just drink from the bottle. But tonight I’ll use a glass, so I can raise it to Anne. I know she won’t be the last, there’ll be another set of “papers,” but there’s always hope at the bottom of a glass, isn’t there?

      

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan

    April 5, 2017 // 82 Comments »

    Here’s an excerpt from a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, by Douglas Wissing. The passage deals with the unnecessary death of State Department diplomat Anne Smedinghoff at age 25. Anne gave her life for a needless PR stunt as part of America’s failed reconstruction project in Afghanistan. It could have been any of us.

    ANNE SMEDINGHOFF IS A RISING 25-year-old diplomat, an assistant information officer in the Kabul embassy. She’s my minder, assigned to escort me to an interview with a Justice Department official who is heading up the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) that is charged with finding and disrupting sources of Taliban funding.

    In many ways, Smedinghoff is representative of many young American women working in Afghanistan, where they can combine adventure with a career-enhancing posting and hefty paychecks plumped with danger pay. As we walk to the meeting room, Smedinghoff quizzes me about life outside the embassy compound, as the staff is trapped inside.

    When I mention some of the Kabul restaurants, she tells me the State Department banned dining at most places outside the embassy. She longs for a good pizza. I ask about her path from her home in the Chicago suburbs to this Kabul powder keg. Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins international studies, then the State Department. An interesting post in Venezuela. Then on to Afghanistan. Anne Smedinghoff is lively, bright, educated and funny; poised and gracious in a natural way. Brimming with youthful vitality, accomplishments and promise, she is the daughter any parent would be proud to have.

    We talk about my embeds in Zabul and Helmand, and she tells me in Venezuela she could explore the hinterlands when not working. But here in Afghanistan, she’s penned up like most foreign service officers. She tells me she wants to “break the wire” in the worst way. “On a good day, this is a like a small liberal arts college,” she laughs. “On a bad day it’s like a maximum security prison.”

    Smedinghoff’s career continued to go well after I left Kabul. She was a comer. Her colleagues started calling her Ambassador Anne. When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul in late March for an official visit, the embassy assigned Smedinghoff the plum job of escorting him. She was his control officer. As with other people, she made an impression on her big boss.

    Anne Smedinghoff did eventually get to break the wire — and in the worst way.

    A few weeks after the successful Kerry visit, she escorted a group of Afghan journalists on a media day down to Qalat City, the capital of Zabul, the Taliban-controlled province that so interested her when we met. It was one of those winning-hearts-and-minds missions, in this case to distribute school books that the US corporation, Scholastic, Inc., had donated to My Afghan Library, an aid program jointly run by the State Department and the Afghan Ministry of Education. Scholastic, Inc. wanted some good press for their donation.

    An email from the embassy public relations office stated, “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.” So the mission was a WHAM photo op to get some press for an American corporation, while pretending Zabul was secure and still receiving U.S. aid. “A media extravaganza,” a military briefing called it. “Happy snaps,” the security grunts derisively termed these PR events that they hated to guard.

    In my experience there, Qalat City was a wild and wooly ambush-prone place, where the military units took extraordinary security precautions before venturing from the tightly guarded US compounds. To travel two miles across Qalat City, we had to drive in a convoy of five armored MRAPs accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon.

    So I was stunned to later learn that Anne Smedinghoff and a group of journalists were walking around Qalat City—lost. That seemed insane. Taliban suicide bombers detonated their explosives near them, killing her and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter. Other Americans were grievously wounded. It was an egregious breakdown in operational security. An Army report stated the mission “was plagued by poor planning that failed at all levels.” And it was a great loss.

    I exchanged emails of condolences with the embassy public relations officer, who was a great friend of hers. I saw heart-wrenching tributes to Anne Smedinghoff posted on-line. Secretary Kerry eulogized Anne Smedinghoff, praising her idealistic commitment to “changing people’s lives.” He noted the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of her being killed while carrying books to a school. He described the Zabul media event was “a confrontation with modernity,” and said Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.” It did little to salve my dismay that yet another promising American had been lost for such a dubious, failed cause. I thought of the remarks Kerry made on Capitol Hill in 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet.

    The then 27-year-old John Kerry poignantly asked America, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    ——————————

    Here’s Anne:

    The State Department tried to cover-up Anne’s death. Read more, and more.




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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen