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?

Better Than a Stipend, It’s About Family

Pete Turner

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

Better Than a Stipend, It’s About Family

Jon and I posted a 2-part episode this week on, “The Break It Down Show.”  Our guest is DeVone Boggan who heads the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) in Richmond Ca.  The show links are and

I first discovered the ONS program, on an episode of This American Life.  They used DeVone’s program to tell a larger story….and they did a great job…but I wanted to dive deeper.  Once I booked DeVone, I remember bugging Jon quite a bit about how excited I was have DeVone as a guest…DeVone blew past my high expectations.  Even better, DeVone gives the credit to his staff…but more importantly to the brave young men (fellows) who dared to do the impossible.

Why are we paying criminals?

While doing show prep, I read over a dozen articles…what troubled me were the headlines that painted the program as a simple payment to criminals to stop committing crime.

In particular, articles such as The Fiscal Time‘s  Edward Morrissey and American Thinker‘s Rick Moran focused on the stipend aspect of the program…looking at comments after the article, this tact retards productive conversation and ignores the sophistication and success of the program.  We can do better.

More than a stipend, 7 elements

A critical indicator of success for DeVone and his staff is being seen as family by the fellows.  This approach mirrors my experiences in conflict zones….and let’s be honest, young African American or Hispanic males in Richmond are living far from a stable place….what DeVone has developed, works.

Here are the 7 elements of the fellowship:

  1. Meeting, face-to-face with fellows daily, mentoring etc.–in essence becoming part of their life
  2. Having the fellows create a life map–Their plan is coupled with all the appropriate social services available to support “THEIR!” plan, not one designed for them.
  3. More than a plan, a partner to walk it with you, hold you accountable, be there when you want to fail. –Like family would
  4. However well they perform on their plan and fellowship requirements.– BTW, most fellows don’t get paid the full amount–Accountability!!!
  5. Travel, this elements puts rival next to rival on a trip as far as S. Africa.–Traveling as family, makes rivals brothers.
  6. Mentors from outside their sphere, but within their city.–Established elders who provide the long view
  7. The fellows are put into an internship suited to their plan.–Just like an emerging young adult.

Again, we can do better, but we need guys like DeVone to ignore the machine, get on the street and start talking to the people with the problems.


The program has a fabulous record of success. and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation thinks so too.  They are funding a national level program called advanced peace.

Give the show a listen, let DeVone show you his passion…and let’s make a difference where it’s so desperately needed.

Collection Center Collects Instability

A post I wrote for LinkedIn

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

Collection Center Collects Instability

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Our need to force the construction of the collection centers denied the fledgling Afghan governmental leaders the opportunity to make decisions that might improve the lives of the civil populace. I need to point out that we would not only force the center upon the governor, but also pick where it would be built. Let me say this again and in another way. We never discussed the centers with Afghans during planning. We simply picked a place and assembled the center…leaving the Ministry of Agriculture representative to explain it to the hand full of farmers he might encounter—when he was forced to go out to distant farming districts.

The result of our combined actions reduced stability for farmers…and eroded the minimal, if any, support locals had for the governmental leaders.

These stories, these lessons are one of the reasons why Jon and I do this show. We can do better…whether abroad or sitting at the Solano County Transportation Authority meeting…data matters…help shouldn’t be forced as a default.

Listen to Rich, Jon and I Break It Down.

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…

Get Ready Hawai’i

Get ReadyI write often about my time in conflict zones and comment on some of the lessons I’ve learned from those experiences. I don’t want to give the impression that my experiences only relate to combat situations. Actually, most of what I’ve learned has direct application to outside of the military and military operations. In this blog I thought I would illustrate that point with an example of a problem from the Emergency Management community that I recently encountered.
In the Emergency Management industry, the preparedness level of the population matters greatly. A large part of the government’s efforts in this industry are devoted to reducing the number of individuals that aren’t properly prepared, thereby reducing the harm and damage caused by natural or human-caused disasters. While this type of task is very tough to do, it is even tougher without some culturally acuity.
I have a friend who grew up in a coastal parish in Louisiana, where the cultural norm is individual, family, and also the readiness of the greater community, particularly during hurricane season. In this context, many citizens don’t necessarily need (or want) a plan administered to them by higher levels of government, as they are likely already living one out in their day to day lives. Additionally, the indigenous “plan” incorporates lessons that have been learned over years of individual, family, and community activity geared toward readiness and being pro-active. In situations such as this, it is exceptionally tough for a government entity, especially one that isn’t closely connected to the local populace, to affect change without a great amount of effort. This is the “ground truth.”
Several questions arise: “How does the government recognize an individual’s, a community’s, a state’s, or a region’s extant disaster readiness plan? And, if a government entity actually takes the time to identify existing mechanisms and processes that help local populations cope with disaster even before disaster strikes, do they actually incorporate local knowledge into the new and official government sponsored plan?” If government (or any other “outside” organization) wishes to affect people’s behaviors toward disaster preparedness, then knowing the local cultural norms and practices is the proper starting point. By implementing local knowledge into our Emergency Management formulas, then we are at least attempting to account for culture when devising a way to approach the problems associated with natural and human-caused disaster. Essentially, by “controlling” for culture, we only enhance the probability that our endeavors will achieve greater short and longer term success.
What happens when organizations don’t control for culture? First, we should all understand that without accounting for cultural aspects, success is still possible, as a system of readiness and post-disaster assistance may be accepted and utilized by the local population. However, if those who design such systems are ignorant of local culture, then any system they design will have less chance for success, and may actually be implemented in a way that run counter to culturally acceptable norms of behavior. (I have to pause again here and note that while it is also possible to counter culture and achieve a desired goal, such attempts should be done by design, not inadvertently, and also should be attempted only with a deep understanding of local customs mixed in with a healthy dose of proper forethought.)
When an organization or a business doesn’t leverage cultural knowledge, they are losing control of the outcome. Assumptions creep into our planning, and things that are surmountable, can easily become game-ending or deal-ending problems.
Most organizations face what we (@CULTRASEC) refer to as, “culture as you design it vs. culture as you experience it.” The proper alignment of this arrangement should be “experience” then “design.” When “design” precedes “experience” operations/organizational planning is more likely based on assumptions. The organization or business then misses opportunities to recognize existing systems, or cultural norms that are well within the parameters of success.
Being ignorant of culture in planning also causes organizations to duplicate work unnecessarily. When a business or organization creates a new system designed to influence human behaviors, that system is based upon assumptions about the past and present, as well as ideas about the intended outcomes. The new system is attempting to gain acceptance without considering a system that already exists. This creates a “clash of cultures.” Unintended clashes of culture are dangerous, and often unnecessary, risks to an organization’s/operation’s long term success.
It’s better for a company attempting to design a new system to first study the local culture in order to determine the “proper” way to act in that specific cultural setting. It’s also better if that study is conducted from someone outside the company who possesses a high level of analytical clarity that is not biased by the company’s pre-existing ideas about what is and is not culturally appropriate.
At CULTRASEC, we aim to help you gain a better appreciation of local culture before you attempt to affect human behavior in different cultural contexts. In fact, this is the type of work that I personally have done for the military and in support of military operations for years. From my experience, if you first study the scenario and learn how the local culture works, therefore striving to achieve the vantage point of “culture as you experience it,” then you can begin to map the smooth “cultural paths” that are already there. From these cultural paths, you can design your activities in a way that accounts for culture, giving you and your organization more control over outcomes.
Now let’s examine the earlier mentioned problem from the Emergency Management community that I recently encountered. (In fairness to the government entity involved, I should say I picked this issue at random. There are numerous examples of organizations not getting culture right. This I feel is more the norm for business organizations, rather than being culturally savvy.)
The example is as follows:
In the interests of homeland security, the Federal government allocates money to state and local governments in order to promote preparedness. These funds give the smaller governments the ability to try to enhance readiness as a way to plan for disasters. The assumption is that the more a community is generally prepared, there will be less chaos, disorder, and overall harm to life and property once the inevitable happens.
In the state of Hawaii, a primary concern of Emergency Management officials is preparing for tsunamis and hurricanes (among other things). The state government wants to encourage families to pre-plan and prepare for these events. To that end, they work to create initiatives, and they track their successes at promoting a preparedness system that changes people’s behavior from a less to a more heightened state of readiness.
However, this type of work is always difficult. This problem of moving the populace towards any government’s desired goals is always an enormous challenge. It’s the same problem that we find in conflict zones. Well intentioned people can build a system that is completely benevolent and attempts to create less dangerous living conditions, but without validation of the system by the local populace, we question whether or not we have experienced real success.
In the Hawaii case, the government has spent $500k on a project. The work they did is top notch, as they hired individuals with PhDs and other professionals with decades of experience who were brought in to consult. In terms of the design, nothing is lacking, and actually, the product helps to set the industry standard. But no endeavor tolerates being ignored. The site that was built to create awareness, and with the help of a great deal of expertise, is about to die. Why?
One way to evaluate this or any other website’s performance is to look at the traffic directed to the site. As a hobby, I am a member of a race car team, and I have noticed that our team’s Facebook page has more “likes” than the state of Hawaii’s Emergency Management page. If my semi-pro race car team, the Cannonball Bandits, can attract more social media attention than an entire state’s purpose-built site, then something other than professional Emergency management consulting work is the problem.
I submit that problem with Hawaii’s website and disaster preparedness system stems from a lack of accounting for culture. There are without a doubt, cultural paths that exist already and could be leveraged by the governmental planners if they were able to see them. A community that lives in Hawaii likely has a level of awareness about how to withstand these types of events. That knowledge coupled with leveraging community leaders will aid the planners in creating a workable system that is cultural savvy and creates more opportunities for success.
I’ve been told that there may be regulations against, as well as a tendency to avoid actively using social media to advance the interests of the local government. The problem here is that social media helps create social movement. When something like a tsunami or hurricane is imminent, social media is a way to direct people to the resources they need, both pre- and post-disaster. The reluctance to embrace social media in a time when it’s one of the biggest social movers again reveals the challenges that culture presents when it’s not adequately accounted for. It’s perfectly fine to let local law keep government workers off of social media, but realize that such a policy has a cultural cost.
It’s also OK to not account for culture in your planning. However, don’t complaint when your system fails, your project flops, or you merely get unexpected negative results. Ladies and gentlemen, control for culture. Seek the clarity of outsiders when attempting to study culture. Cultural savvy is a problem that confounds our military efforts, business endeavors, and even impacts the folks in Emergency Management that try to keep us alive in the most trying of times.