• On the Death of Anne Smedinghoff, Three U.S. Soldiers and an Interpreter

    April 25, 2014 // 8 Comments »

    The Chicago Tribune gained access to the U.S. Army’s report on the death of State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan.

    She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians, three soldiers and a local interpreter killed in what was once the deadliest day of last year for Americans in Afghanistan. There’s always a new record set.

    Because karma demands balance, the same day that Anne was killed “NATO” forces accidentally killed ten Afghan children in an air strike. The children’s crime was being in a house of a suspected Taliban man. Neither the U.S. Army report, nor any of Anne’s official mourners at State, mentioned the ten dead kids. Nothing about them in the Tribune story this week either.

    The mission in which the four on the American side gave their lives was to allow a visiting State Department VIP participate in a book give-away to local Afghan kids, surrounded by media. These events were common in Iraq, and are common in Afghanistan, and are designed to generate “positive visuals.”

    Failed at All Levels

    The Army report cited by the Tribune (the State Department report on the incident remains forever classified) lays out in black and white what most people with knowledge of what really happened already knew: poor planning that “failed at all levels” led to the deaths. Specifics:

    “The [security for Anne] platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school.”

    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 book event at the school was characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books also desired “more media reporting.”


    The people who created the mission that killed Anne have blood on their hands. However, in a statement in response to the new report, the State Department spokesperson only said “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission.”

    Dying for a Mistake

    A current Foreign Service Officer (FSO) meme is that if only they were not bound by overly-strict security rules, they would have been more successful in Afghanistan (Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan…) Diplomats, many say, perhaps in an attempt to seem less flaccid next to the military, should be allowed to assess their own risk. After all, they volunteered to be in harm’s way no less than the soldiers who die every day around them. Such a theme is present in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

    Without disparaging Anne, though she too was perhaps naive, there is that question about risk. The issue is that almost no FSOs in the field are in a clear position to assess risk. Having done my own time in wartime Iraq, I rarely had access to the full intel picture, never knew who the Embassy had or had not told about my movement outside the wire and never knew what military action might have taken place before I got there. And what specific knowledge or training did I, or most any FSO, have on military tactics and risk assessment? I was in a very, very poor position to assess risk.

    Instead, I trusted the State Department and others, as did Anne. What seems to have happened to her in part is that the desire to hold yet another pointless media event overshadowed a proper risk assessment by professionals and the taking of proper steps to mitigate that risk. To me, the “hero” tag applies when one knowingly acts, consciously setting aside personal safety (like running into a burning building to save a child), not when someone is gullible enough to stumble into something.

    Everyone a Victim

    As for the “helping others” part, well, I wrote a whole book about how little help we gave to Iraqis. In Anne’s case, her mission that day seemed highly skewed toward a VIP photo-op, what the Army called “Happy Snaps” and offered little to the Afghans except the chance to again serve as props for our attempts to dis-portray reality. How did the Afghan kids who were to receive books from Anne and the Afghan kids who were blown up by NATO that same day differ? Just an accident of location. Everyone was a victim.

    In Iraq during my own service I came to realize I was putting my life, and those of the soldiers around me, at jeopardy so someone in Washington could have fresh photos for another Powerpoint proving we were winning. It would have been a poor exchange of my life if I had been killed doing that, and, with respect to the dead, it was a poor exchange for Anne, the three soldiers, and the interpreter.

    For this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for.



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    Diplomacy Lost: State Does Not Come Clean on Afghan Death

    April 11, 2013 // 17 Comments »

    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?

    Procedures

    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”)

    Reporting

    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?

    State reported the death (in vehicle) on April 6. State amended the story to mention the deceased was on foot on April 10 only after news reports were making the claim.

    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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    The Real Tragedy in Afghanistan

    April 8, 2013 // 16 Comments »

    Blog The People’s Republic of Snarkistan cuts right to the heart of the tragedy in Afghanistan surrounding the death of State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff this weekend:

    While Smedinghoff’s death is tragic, what’s more tragic is why she was in Qalat at all. She died on a mission meant to prop up the American people in the eyes of a country that doesn’t want us here anymore. Or at least prove to the American people that we are still doing G. W.’s good work, since the Afghan people aren’t buying it. From Karzai down to the “average” Afghan (who, not being as rich as a Karzai, only has the one name), the Afghan people have grown disillusioned as the early years of hope gave way to the understanding that the Americans were here to back a rogue’s gallery of war criminals and thugs, because, well, freedom. We were supposed to be different. To be better. But instead, we’ve replaced the old meritocracy with a new one, one that’s full of a lot of bad men.

    Smedinghoff was yet another casualty in the perception war, part of the “messaging” process, her role to ensure that the Afghans got the story that U.S. Embassy Public Affairs needed them to get. That’s not cynicism, but a gross acknowledgment of the pragmatism that drives these kinds of photo ops.

    Rather than ensuring that education officials in Zabul had the tools they needed to succeed, what happened instead was boilerplate Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy: get the press to the event, get the right pictures of the right kids and maybe get them saying the right things, then get the message out. In this case, the message is that the American people care deeply about the future of education for the Afghan people. It’s 2013: if we’re still having to hand out books for the photo op, we’re doing it wrong.

    It’s 2013: America’s legacy here post-2001 has already been written. There’s nothing a book drop can do to change that. Nothing we can do to rewrite the painful story the American involvement in Afghanistan. And now, there’s nothing we can do to bring Anne Smedinghoff back.


    If a more succinct version of America’s failure in nation building has been written, please send me a link.

    Anne Smedinghoff was also involved in the propaganda show that brought several young Afghan musicians to the U.S. this year to ensure Americans that the nation was well-loved.

    And on the same day Anne died, a NATO air strike in Afghanistan killed ten children.

    I mourn Anne’s death along with you, but mourn it doubly; not just for Anne’s own life so early taken, but for what she represented. I too do not doubt her good intentions and desire to do well in Afghanistan, but am angry that such a person ended up having her life taken from her for such an ignoble cause– U.S. failure in Afghanistan.

    By her death, she is thrust into the role of symbolism, and our job is to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that. I in no way suggest disengagement or isolationism, just the contrary. But America must do so with true intentions, not just as a series of photo ops and wasted lives.

    Diplomacy, yes, always. Propaganda at such a price no more.


    So now, in 2013, as the American Empire rolls over the top of the hill and begins its descent, this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for. It has reached the point for our nation where killing off young people in the cause of photo ops that are hollow and false makes some wicked sense. In that calculus, we are forever lost.

    Mark this day, historians.




    FYI, Here’s the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s Twitter response to the death. No word on the killing of ten Afghan children the same day.






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    Copyright © 2020. 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, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military