• Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // Comments Off on Afghanistan Mon Amour

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.


    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.


    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.


    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.


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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    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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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    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?


    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?

    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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    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    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.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump