Anne Smedinghoff Didn’t Have to Die Part 2

Pete Turner

Break It Down Show Host, Professional Speaker and Cultural Consultant.–What’s your “Ground Truth?”

Mar 29, 2016

Last week I wrote about the tragedy of Anne Smedinghoff, who died on a patrol in Qalat Afghanistan.  This is part 2 of the story–

My intention here is to illustrate HOW? rather than “what” we (Dr. Rich Ledet and I) did regarding the proper means to improve education in rural Afghanistan.  I submit that our method is more reliable, predictable, measurable and can be replicated; yay scientific method.

Dr. Ledet and I leveraged an unusually strong partnership with a key Afghan political-religious leader.  More than simply believing that we had a great relationship, we’d taken steps to build and validate the strength of our partnership, leveraging tools I had personally developed over years of immersion in conflict environments.

To begin with, we avoided the common US “crutch” of dominance, never assuming that we were “in charge.”  Not only did we share many meals and tea with him, but we socialized with him and his family apart from any other American military elements. We also invited this leader to our dining facility to eat with us on numerous occasions.  We shared our relevant reports (normally made for US elements only, these reports dealt with our evaluation of his region) with him (unclassified or FOUO) so that he could better understand our role and how the US was attempting to support him–This post is long enough already. I’ll have to come back to this particular topic later.

As a side note, I thought I had a great relationship with this leader after working with him almost daily for months.  One day, he sat back, put his hand above his head and said, “I get what you are doing now.  I understand that you are truly helping me with the Americans.”  This breakthrough was surprising, as I thought we already had a good partnership.  But I had misjudged what was previously accomplished, and the lesson I learned was that not only is trust VERY hard to earn, but also that there are different forms of trust to be accounted for when attempting to partner with leaders in conflict environments.  Only after this point did I realize that I had earned an additional level of trust, and that he allowed me more latitude and access than he afforded any other American.  In fact, I could come to him for advice, as he knew that I was genuinely working to support the Afghans in a way that was within the bounds of their customs.

We brought our research problem regarding education to our partner, and asked him how to best work toward a solution.  He immediately identified the other elders with whom we needed to discuss and work, while providing us with the new Provincial Minister of Education’s (MoE) personal phone number (which we did not previously have on record) and advised us to mention his name when we talked.  He noted that he was also attempting to work with the MoE on education in his district, and although they hadn’t always agreed, he felt the MoE was an honest man.

This process of partnering, and acquiring information about other leaders and the MoE, demonstrated a measure of trust indicating that our partner indeed valued us and our efforts.  Further his validation through providing us with an introduction to other key decision-makers in the province which gave us unique access to a set of leaders that didn’t typically interact with US elements.  We had truly entered through a more culturally appropriate door, as our partner trusted that we would not expose him in a negative light to the other leaders.

Once we were able to make contact with the recommended leaders, we were careful to explain the agenda, set up appointments, and accommodate their schedules as best as possible.  We never showed up unannounced, or uninvited.  With the safety of all involved in mind, we took time to determine their preferred place of meeting, which was critical considering that we lived on an American forward operating base, and could move in heavily protected convoys.  We were remarkably “safer” than those leaders, as they lived in constant threat.  We displayed a respect for their safety when we considered their venue preference.  While these logistical steps seem obvious, we found this level of respect nonexistent in DoS, PRT and US forces attempting to work with local leaders, again relying on domination to achieve goals; US forces prefer to show up unannounced, unscheduled and take over the Afghan leader’s schedule as we set fit.

When we met, the recommended leaders were also accompanied by multiple religious elders.  We didn’t ask them to do this, by the way, but it was something that was required in their culture.  This was also an indicator to us that we approached the problem from the most culturally appropriate angle known to us (and recommended by our Afghan partner who originally set us up for success).  Afghan leaders, when not influenced by Americans, will have a religious leader (mullah) present as they make decisions.

Over the course of several meetings, and after deliberation between the MoE and other family and religious leaders, we were able to ascertain what was expected in terms of US assistance.  Keep in mind that what we were also doing was helping to link family, religious, and political leaders with a valid MoE backed plan to improve education throughout all of Zabul province; a critical element of creating stability wins.

These leaders never asked for money. They never asked us to build another school.  They recognized that we could help, and they also wanted us to help them determine if these programs were working.  They knew we had the capacity, which they knew they did not, to help them measure the success of the program.

What is most telling is that these leaders noted a lack of security, which is a common theme throughout my time in conflicted areas.  Security concerns are superior, and every other effort is subordinate.  This is where you need to pay attention DoS–The MoE asked that he never be seen engaging with the US at his office, as US patrols could only expose him to harm, he and other leaders wanted to reduce the amount of contact between US forces and their children for the same reason.  Moreover, leaders in the district wanted us in the background, as they wanted to see the Afghan government and the MoE doing their job.  They wanted the people living in Zabul Province to see the same–This is setting the stage for believable, culturally based stability win…and there is no photo op.

Our work established the beginnings of a clear plan that meets the requirements for creating stability. It satisfies a test we developed that indicates potential success when conducting non-lethal missions or operations…Is the operation Afghan inspired, Afghan led, Afghan provisioned, and sanctioned by a Mullah?

Is it possible that if DoS had bothered to teach Anne this test or heed our report, that she would still be alive?

With Nite Train Bombing the Green Zone

A post I wrote for LinkedIn
Pete Turner

Pete Turner

Break It Down Show Host, Professional Speaker and Cultural Consultant.–What’s your “Ground Truth?”

Everyone is working to create, “partner capacity.” If we are on our game, we are advising and assisting our partners with the intent of improving their condition. This means service members are constantly engaging with local nations through interpreters.

Given that interpreters are a critical node….and considering that we’ve been at “war” for 15 years…it seems that we’d have a professional level capacity for working with and through interpreters…we don’t.

We don’t get this right in the civilian world either.  I’ve trained dozens of professionals that work with and through interpreters.  These professionals say, they figured out how things worked on their own.  Further, they agree that their ability to achieve was compromised.  Finally, most of them note that they should have received better training before they ever began engaging foreign partners. These skills matter and directly impact your business…the same holds true for our military.

The training we receive in the military isn’t better, at best it’s outdated and pedestrian. If, and it’s not a certainty, if a service member receives training on using a translator, the class lacks any depth, nor is there a standard.  The main point of the training focuses on avoiding being tricked or deceived by your interpreter.  While detecting deception is an important consideration; it’s the wrong orientation-a nod to my J Boyd people.  Unfortunately, the training doesn’t discuss how to create a positive relationship or rapport with your interpreter.  Frankly, we treat interpreters like shit.

Why does this matter?

In modern combat, interpreters are massive force multipliers. Further, when they are not used to their fullest potential, units fail.  I can say with confidence that our level of “success” in both Iraq and Afghanistan correlates directly to our inability to leverage interpreters to their potential.

Interpreters are much more than mouthpieces. Their native level understanding of language, culture, religion and social norms are invaluable and something no service members can replicate on their own.  I like to say, “You can’t out Iraq an Iraqi.”  Whether in combat or in business, we can all learn a lot from Nite Train.

Head over to and check out our show with my man Nite Train…he gives us real insight into what it means to support a unit at the highest level…and how fleeting success and stability remain.


Problems In Helmand

Taliban Fighters Surrender In HeratBLUF: In modern conflict one only wins if they are able to achieve affects militarily, socially, culturally and politically.

The later three are mostly ignored in most modern conflict endeavors. Our training, both military and Department of State, has no capacity to teach/train our people how to win this fight.

As I write these blogs, I’m often asked to comment on stories that are published. I understand why, much of what you hear isn’t clear or told in a manner that truly conveys the whole story. This is normal…and to be expected. In this week’s blog I’ve been ask to comment on

First, the Taliban is likely losing battles. However, the interviewer is correct in doubting the long-term success. The enduring capability of the Afghan police and military are yet to be determined.

My experience tells me that long term growth for the military is possible; however, progress thus far is rather difficult to measure. Keep in mind we are well past 10 years into this endeavor. Ten years of teaching and training should net a pretty significant level of competence…should. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in most of Afghanistan. Why? That is another blog post…

Second, a critical point is raised in the interview. The local Taliban leaders are from the region. This leaves an indelible mark on the perception of the populace. We have to also realize that this makes the Taliban leaders local or family. Family means survival.

Also, the Taliban were the government before our arrival. If they are still there and exerting power, what has changed for the populace? In Helmand after 10 plus years of fighting, if the Taliban leaders are still there, still wielding power, are they not the local government? Haven’t they proven, to the locals that they will always remain in power?

Even if the Taliban have fled certain areas, the long term security is doubted by locals. Why? We have to go back to capacity. The ability of the police to arrest, try and convict is not sufficient to warrant any confidence from Afghans. When we get to the “ground truth” we see a police force that doesn’t itself believe it can put people in jail. One of things I hope we’ve learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that simply arresting people in hopes of gaining some sort of stability is folly.

Actually this practice of knocking in doors and arresting “criminals” only to release them creates anger with the populace. This anger begets more bombs. We’ll cover more on this topic in another blog.

Forget the capacity of the police and Afghan army. The Taliban, while not desirable, is the leading force in the region and in many others of Afghanistan. Now what do we do to change that?

Let’s look at this from another angle. What does the government effectively do for the population? If the governor is able to provide services, it’s possible they will eventually accept Afghan governmental (known as GIRoA) rule as dominant. If the local government is failing, then it’s highly unlikely that they are seen as anything more than puppets.

In most cases, the government does little if anything at all for the people. I’ve talked to farmers and villagers; they do not see GIRoA as an effective government. Also, many families (again Family = survival) are self governing. They ensure they have water, food and work. There isn’t a rural family in Afghanistan that has survived without family/tribal support. Now…go find me a rural family that survives because of GIRoA support.


It takes years to eventually make a government “legitimate” with its people. Our training does little (and that’s kind) to promote the social movement of the population towards the government. By not focusing early on this factor, we’ve done little to help our partners establish a government of, for and by the people. We are great at putting the pieces together, building a fledgling government. Our ability to see this strategic vision is tremendous. However, it’s a government with no foundation.

Finally, if the government is in active talks with the Taliban, isn’t it safe for locals to assume that Taliban influence is going to remain in their region? If family = survival. If family = Taliban. If the government is fighting the Taliban…what is our expected outcome?

Still waiting…

A Review of “Code Name: Johnny Walker”

code name Johnny walker
I just finished reading my advanced copy of “Code Name: Johnny Walker.” Before I write more, I’d like to include two caveats. 1. I know Johnny Walker personally. This fact is important because, I have firsthand knowledge of many of the events. Also during my decade long friendship with Johnny, I have heard many of his tails from him or other friends of his. 2. I served for years in Iraq. This exposure to Iraq’s conflict zone warps my perception. I will try to write from an outsider’s point of view, but I am confident, I am going to fail at that. Since I am not sure how to be unbiased, I am not going to worry about it.
The book, “Code Name: Johnny Walker” for me is an essential book for anyone that desires to better understand Iraq. “Hurt Locker” was fiction…this book is real. You as the reader will have no option but to be gripped by Johnny’s tales. The book has so much weight; I was reluctant to flash it in a few hours. Yet, I read it in two short readings.
Jim DeFelice’s work deserves more attention in my review. He will not receive enough credit for what he has done. If you know Jim’s work, you already know his gift as an author is a gift to us all. If you know Johnny, you’ll be amazed at Jim’s work in helping write a coherent story out of the mosaic that is Johnny’s life; while not overwriting. It is an incredible skill to co-author a story with a native English speaking partner. I cannot imagine the challenges Jim worked through to help Johnny write such an incredible book. I should spend more time on Jim’s work. I’ll ask that you, dear reader, will appreciate that I’ll simply say, “Thank you Jim.”
Johnny’s story is of a native and proud Iraqi man. How he grew up, how he learned, loved and survived. His reflections are something we rarely if ever get to see. Immediately after reading it, I wanted to go back through, chapter by chapter and re-read the entire book. I want to sit down with my friend and have 1000 conversations with him about everything.
In one book, he lets the reader better understand pre-war Iraq and its challenges. He has illustrated what we put our “partners” through and what they experience when we go abroad, “to help.” He provides insights into what was, yet wasn’t, sectarian violence in Iraq. He captures what is like for US service members who go “outside the wire.” He tells his love story in such a way that I constantly felt his family’s touch and pain. He reveals the side of Iraq’s recent history that no US news network was able/willing to reveal. In all honestly, Johnny’s story is too graphic to be told on the news. This story needs time and distance and the safety of paper to be digestible. To highlight this, take a look at the pictures they include in the book. This book is so dangerous, he’s the only person who’s not redacted. Incredible.
I have worked in Iraq for years. I’ve been on 100’s of missions. I’ve spoken with 1000’s of Iraqis. Like Johnny, I’ve been in places where I was out 2 and 3 times in one day. He has served in Iraq more than anyone else I know. Our experience allows me to say that he has captured more comprehensively than anyone else the total picture of modern war.
One aspect that I think is well illustrated is the total confusion of doing this type of work. He notes the guess work, the innuendo, the unknowable and the mistakes. Combat is not a linear thing. The more we apply Western methods and analysis the more we confuse things. Johnny gets this, he knows and it’s a giant part of what he went through. I cannot express how valuable he was to US service members. How many lives he’s saved?
His savagery, will likely net him some negative criticism. To these critics I say, “Walk in his shoes.” We have the luxury of stability and safety. None of us has been hunted, or had to hunt other humans. His tale is real. It’s unbelievable. His sacrifice his family’s costs are unbearable. Yet, here he is, writing what will surely be the best book I’ll read in 2014. There is another book in Johnny, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

Rule of Law, The Afghan Springer Show

First, apologies for dropping off the blog for the past 2 months. I went on vacation and it’s taken a minute to get going again. Rest assured, there are plenty of things to discuss.

Rule of Law is one of the key aspects to “fixing” Afghanistan. When the Taliban dominated the country, they controlled the “courts.” As Taliban influence waned, the US and partner nations have sought to create a more traditional court system. I can’t speak intelligently on why “WE” decided to create a more western form of law in Afghanistan, but I can say, it’s not the correct approach.

I work in a remote district. It’s over an hour to the main provincial (think state) government center. The difference between the two places is about as extreme as possible. The villages, even the district center (think country govt) lack ANY essential services. There are no plumbing systems, no electricity, no garbage service…nothing. Yet, the people here survive; and dare I say? Thrive.

Like most farming folks, the people here like to be left alone. The people appreciate the Govt–Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan aka “GIRoA”–but they only want so much help. Rule of Law doesn’t fit into their needs.

So, how do rural locals settle disputes?

I just recently worked with a local governor as he negotiated the resolution of a 25 year dispute. Dispute doesn’t really describe what happened…feud is more appropriate. Each side had multiple murders, one family had 1300 fig trees destroyed. Decades of money in dispute. The feud was complicated enough that the Taliban failed to resolve the issue in nearly seven years of negotiations. Negotiations require buy-in from many parties…I could go on about this, but I doubt I can make it any clearer…

I’ll try…Group your family whackos…I’ll get mine…let’s mix in another family’s crazies..add guns and grudges…NOW get them all to agree on who they all trust to lead them through a binding negotiation. Did that help?

Finally, our district (county govt) governor is called upon to start the process of reconciliation. This BTW is MAJOR progress for the legitimacy of GIRoA. It means the people trust this man to handle this dispute. It might become national news (for Afghanistan) though you will never hear this story on any US network or .com site (except After weeks of massaging each side, pulling out their story, commitments (commitment to settle is vital in these things) and “evidence.”

An aside about evidence…in a society that is mostly verbal and illiterate, nearly anything written can become something that it is not…WTF are you talking about Pietro? What I mean is, give someone who can’t read a document. That paper is written in a foreign language, with foreign letters. Tell him its a deed to a piece of land…wait 35 years. Now, tell that man’s grandson that the land he’s been farming for 10 years; that his family has worked for generations, isn’t actually his.

Now he has nothing; he can’t provide for his family. Tell him, his paper is a receipt for a Persian rug, not a deed…explain that he owes the real land owner for the use of that property and revenues generated. Let me know how that goes…if you smell cordite it probably didn’t go to well.

Back to our story…The governor calls in Sharia/Islamic law experts and elders from both tribes and other community elders. Mix that group into a bunch of small rooms and start shifting groups from room to room…hours of discussions (which looks like arguing to me). Don’t forget, this thing hasn’t been settled before, it’s serious business, and here serious business is settled with an AK. At anytime the whole ordeal can melt into violence.

Success is fleeting. I have a gun, no fooling…I’m armed….

Have you noticed that I’ve not mentioned the county courthouse or lawyers and judges? Ya, no thanks, the proper way to handle this dispute is in a 10×12 mud walled room, no power, no running water, no cell phones…just a bunch of old men sitting on the floor.
Yes there are advocates and yes there are legal experts, but there’s no bench, or government intimidation…no confusing legal mumbo jumbo…it’s a law they all understand.

Then before I even comprehend what’s happened…it’s settled. I’ll have to explain the settlement when I better understand it…but the agreement is binding. It happened in front of my eyes and I never even saw it.

Dozens of finger prints (a man signs with a print instead of writing his name; remember these folks are mostly illiterate) the deal is done. The feud is done. The biggest thing to do now is feed the crowd, 60 plus people were involved. The elders hash out who owes what for the costs of the negotiation, nobody earns personal profit from working the settlement (lawyers you may shudder now).

It’s not how we define Rule of Law, but it works. If we as a coalition of forces can learn to accept this, Rule of Law might actually be a success in Afghanistan.

I need to post a picture…but it won’t make this any clearer…just a cool visual.

Did that make any sense?

Running To Contact


Lots of email traffic about last week’s blog. Please post your thoughts in the comments. We love what you have to say.

I thought we’d cover danger in Afghanistan again by examining, “When Insurgents attack.”

A quick aside…over the years one develops a sense for explosions. Some are “ours”…outgoing mortars, rounds from a gun or controlled detonations. We learn the sounds of different weapon systems. A helicopter followed by a high pitched drone and several whooshes is an Apache firing it’s main gun and rockets. Whomp Whomp Whomp


 is an M60/M240. Ma duece says Bum Bum Bum. Artillery is LOUD and has a pointy sound when outgoing. Incoming is more spherical.

We also develop a sense of distance and direction for the booms…it’s all part of our survival mechanism. Another aspect is awareness of our surroundings. We constantly scan and consider what to do if we are attacked …where is the nearest bunker or where is the closest safest place?

This sounds frightening, but we all do this. Motorcycle riding is a good analog. When riding


 we have to be aware of spacing. Scanning for threats and escape routes saves a rider’s life.

The sound that puts me face first on the ground are mortars wobbling towards me. They make a unique sound that I can’t quite describe. Sort of of a frantic flutter…the closest sound I can come up with is the rattle of a door stop when accidentally brushed. Rockets and their vibrating engine sound are also unnerving. If you can hear them flying, they are too damned close…


~~The following tale is fictional for security reasons…however, it’s based on real events~~

Just the other day an interpreter, an associate and I were interviewing a local. As we discussed a variety of topics BOOM shatters our interview. My brain, a brain with years of combat time, comes up with “That’s too loud to be them…but doesn’t sound like us.” This brilliant statement was followed by a closer explosion, much closer, 50′ from our location. This burst launches a splash of pebbles on the window near us.
“We need to move to the middle of the building.”


Other than a lucky shot through a window, we’re safe from their rockets here.

The first explosion alerted soldiers…they drop whatever they are doing, scramble to grab gear, rack rounds and set up defense. The post is a safe haven in seconds.

I’m not on post.

Safe as Houses on Post

We’re squarely in “Indian Country” several hundred meters from the post and it’s safety. We call in our report, we’re safe…after the second explosion, several more ring out over the next 60 seconds. The air fills with gun fire from multiple directions. However, none of it is near us at the moment.

The commander, a good looking tall blond dude stands on top of his command center, hands on hips, not a drop of fear…leading by simply standing there.

As the firefight escalates, Afghan forces probe with bullets for Taliban fighters. Their shooting is reckless and ineffective.

Decision time, do we stay in our “bunker” or make a run across open ground to improve our security on post? While shots ring out, “Let’s get back to post.” No discussion, no hesitation, once one of us makes the call, we all move together. BTW—my dumb ass is wearing flip flops (its culturally appropriate) as we jog back toward post.

One big worry remains, I say “call it in…I don’t want to get shot by one of us.” (a Pat Tillman jersey hangs by my bed.)

Then we see something you can’t understand. It’s “Dave,” he’s sprinting out of the gate we’re headed towards;OFF post!!! Sprinting past us…no, he’s not there to help us…he’s doing what warriors do, “running to contact.”