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?

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…

US perceptions vs. reality

A game of chicken – US and Afghan troops take back road held by Taliban
What makes organizations miss so badly on the things they try to do?
Over the last few blogs I have hammered away at Glevum Associates. I’d like this blog to be the 3rd part of that discussion. Instead of critiquing the accuracy of Glevum Associates and DoS, I’d like to help you see the “ground truth.” Revealing how our American culture causes us to make poor decisions and negatively impacts our operations.
It’s easy to look at one’s own work and feel confident that you have gotten things right. You’ve prepared, you’ve worked hard and then poured your heart and soul into the work. You’ve applied the academic/doctrinal answers you’ve spent your career learning. You might even have not one but several degrees from prominent schools. Why wouldn’t you be successful?
However, when an outsider looks critically at operations as a whole, it’s often clear that success hasn’t been won. If anything, the desired effect has not only gone missing, but what is left behind is actually the opposite, and the operations have created less stability (This is the “Dynamic of Stability Operations)
Here is an example. At one of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) offices in southern Afghanistan is a picture of an operation. It captures a moment when the PRT worked to help open the main route to a district (the alternate route was a more mountainous road that slowed travel). Both routes were controlled by the Taliban. By closing the main route they better denied access to governmental assistance, prevented military access and allowed the Taliban to monitor/harass the residents.
The route opening was a major area of concern for the people in the district. The PRT went out, opened the route and claimed the “win.” Days later the operation failed. The route had been closed for 10 years. After the PRT’s operations it remained open for less than a month. Yet for the PRT that was considered a win. Let me put this a different way…the PRT introduced “New Coke,” and thought so highly of the product that they kept the branding images up on the walls at headquarters as a measure of their success.
This example and many others have taught me that at the tactical level, any task requires a significant amount of effort to get right. It’s never as simple as, “build it and they will come.”
This type of trap ensnares all of us, not just those of us that work in Afghanistan or Iraq. I’m just as guilty as the rest. What makes me and those like me different from others is that we have learned to see these problems. We do our work not wondering what “to do,” but rather asking “how” we accomplish our goals both strategically and tactically within the accepted norms of our partners. We also seek to understand our partners’ goals and barriers. Then and only then can we slow down enough to not dominate and work from assumptions.
Americans are a force. We can come in and we provide help. Our impulse is to desperately want everyone to like us and be better off because “we were there.” We’re also highly educated and feel as though we have answers before we ever understand the nature of the problems.
This combination helps make us insufferable to those who have to endure our “help.” They’ll tolerate us, and might even like us individually, but as a group we are often times exhausting. Many Americans will deny their involvement in this…that begs the question, why are you different from anyone else? Why are you ideas original? How have you managed to come up with a solution so obvious yet your predecessors (who received the same training) failed to see it? This last question in particular haunts me every time I feel like I’ve found an answer. If I have truly found a nugget, then surely my idea is resilient enough to withstand some tough questions. If not, then the idea fails the test and back to work we go to find solutions.
We must accept these realities before we can become more collaborative. My views expressed here, my lens, were formed from actual conversations with US workers and locals and their leaders, and from my experience. We Americans are consistently out of synch with the views and needs of the very people we want to help. We don’t understand their culture, and we certainly don’t understand how to constructively influence their “infrastructure of the mind.” Yet, we so confidently think we know what to do next, and then we mark of another “win” on the wall. We have such a passion to help; we’re compelled to work before we think. Again, before we decide to “do” anything, we must understand what we are up against. There are no simple solutions without a lot of painstaking work to interact with the locals.
So what are my tests allow me to detect when we are over estimating our contribution?
When I listen to my counterparts (and again, I’m just as guilty) I listen for the errors in logic that are common. I test for collaboration vs. contempt. I listen for their verbs when they discuss partnership. Are the verbs they chose dominating? or collaborative verbs. Do my peers speak with ease about their relationship with elders—do they even have relationships with elders outside of their scope of work? Are they full of contempt for these people or ignorance? Or are they respectful and knowledgeable of the load they bear on a daily basis.
We must always remember that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq have endured tremendous hardship. Their trust is hard won and easily lost. Our peers preceding us have likely cost us the ability to do our jobs as quickly as we expect. This isn’t because they are bad people, it’s because settling conflict zones and standing up a government is not easy work.
If we don’t adapt to their relationship based means of decisions making, they WILL NOT adapt to or comprehend ours.

How Do They Do It?

Last week I took aim at Glevum and associates for their questionable collection methodology and subsequent claims of accuracy.
I wanted to take some time to expand on that topic and reveal some of the hazards of collecting data in a combat zone.
Let me start with access, people, and access to people. In the US, it’s completely normal to have several TVs and phones in a household. These things work well for spreading information, enhancing connectivity to a greater social network within the US and ultimately to a much larger global community.
In the context of high information availability and high connectivity to broader social networks, regarding the ability to formulate opinions about relevant political and social issues, and communicate those preferences to survey researchers, citizens of the industrialized world are in a much different position than citizens of developing nations. Not only do citizens of different nations across the planet live in different contexts, many Afghans live in what more closely resembles the Stone Age, but research conducted in different nations occurs in different contexts as well.
Here in the US, we have the ability to use sophisticated methodologies to collect data on individuals that can be analyzed with a high level of statistical certainty, and used to make fairly accurate projections about political matters. This simply is not the case in Afghanistan, which as a “research environment,” poses a few more data collection problems than conducting opinion research in the US. Proper collection is important because improperly collected data adds more error to predictive models of human outcomes that, because they try to predict what humans will do, are likely already full of error.
To help illustrate my point, let’s consider a district (think county government) called Kaki-Afghan also known as Karkar district in Zabul Province (think state government). On a military map this district is “grayed out”…, kinda like on a computer when you don’t have access to something. It’s basically an entire district that is not accessible, and a district about which little is known to the US Military and ISAF. It is both geographically and politically isolated.
It would be nice if someone could answer for me a question, “If the US military will not, or cannot, go somewhere in southern Afghanistan, how does anyone from a survey research organization go there and conduct legitimate public opinion research?” Perhaps there are government contractors doing “socio-cultural” research in contingency environments that have better access than the Department of Defense, but this seems rather unreasonable to me. When it comes to assessing the progress made in a country, realize that entire districts are left out of that equation.

Let’s travel a little to the south and west of that district, to a place called Arghandab district (there are more than one of these in Afghanistan. In this case I am referring to Argendab, Zabul). In this district there are essentially no service members. When there was a small unit there, they had maybe a 1kilometer bubble of movement around their camp. That’s it…beyond that it became too costly, dangerous and problematic to move freely. This risk also applies to the residents of the district. It is far too hazardous for many district residents to travel to the government offices. My question, “How does a civilian research collector go to places an entire US military unit can’t?” In this case what? Most of the populace remains out of reach of the Afghan government/police…and firmly within the range and influence of Taliban fighters.
Let’s discuss those civilian researchers. One of the problems that the “International Partners” face is filling jobs in remote, dangerous areas with qualified applicants. This is due partly to the lack of qualified workers. The outlying regions (i.e. most places outside of Khandahar and Kabul) simply do not contain people with the level of education that are unemployed, underemployed, or basically just willing and able to qualify, apply, interview, and obtain a job. What further complicates the problem of a shortage of good workers is the perceived and actual threat involved with working for the Afghan government (GIRoA).
The Taliban is firmly entrenched into the “infrastructure of the mind” of rural Afghans, so siding with the current government, and making a public statement by taking a public job, is not a decision one takes lightly. A person must have a high level of protection to accept a government job. Protection can take many different forms, but the point is that Afghans must be accept a level of risk when accepting these positions.
Adding to this complex mix of problems, there are educated and qualified Afghans from Kabul and Kandahar….but due to perceptions (both real and unfounded), the more “urban” Afghans are reluctant to “venture to the hills” for the purpose of working for the current government in the back country and distant districts of their country. Just like rural “Afghans” have their own perceptions about the power of their country’s more extreme political elements embedded into the infrastructure of their minds, we should not assume that qualified “urban” Afghans do not factor the threat of political violence into their decisions to seek or not seek out a government job. We must always remember that instability (read “fear of death”) is closer to the norm there than stability (read “certainty of life”). As it is, instability causes villages and tribes to bond tightly, and avoid extending trust to outsiders. I need to take a time for an aside to add some context to this conversation.
Villagers in districts are constantly encountering Taliban fighters. Not necessarily in a combative nature, but in daily life. What this means is that extremist elements act with impunity in most of the rural districts, especially in the Southern region. In reality, these Taliban fights are the government. The police rarely, if ever, arrest these individuals, cases of kidnapping are never solved or even reported, etc., etc.,.
Given the level of perceived and real threat, how does a company that contracts with the US government to conduct polls in combat environments send out researchers into the field? What compels their researcher to take on this task? Is it money? Since they are going alone, how do we actually know if we can trust their collection protocol? Is data being fabricated? What steps do Glevum Associates take to protect their collectors? More importantly, what steps were taken to protect the well-being of the subject interviewed in their polls? In distant villages, strangers are obvious to residents, thus hindering the ability of survey researchers to properly sample a given population, employ a survey instrument, and accurately assess public opinion with techniques identical to what is commonly used in the US.
My question to Glevum Associates, how do you overcome these obstacles? How do you ensure the data is accurate? How do you protect your researchers and your subjects?
Finally, the geography and environmental conditions in Afghanistan are such that travelling takes an enormous amount of time. Assuming a permissive environment, the act of walking village to village, (with no maps or GPS) for a stranger (read foreign or domestic, not local) to conduct a survey is a relatively resource intensive endeavor, one so drastic that the military finds it to be too challenging, and therefore hires a company like Glevum to do it for them, and somehow, Glevum appears to get information from places that even the US military will not go.
Let’s remember the organizations that do field research for the US are driving decisions and compiling data that is used to make decisions. I submit that a large portion of the data is suspect. We can do better than this. If we are going to be involved in conflict zones, our partners expect more from us.

Afghan Polling and What It Actually Means

A recent article from the NYtimes suggests that Karzai’s power to influence the next elections is limited.
When I read this article, a number of things strike me.
First, why is the US Department of State engaged in political polling for another country? Is it at all possible that this is inappropriate? I would love to go ask folks in Afghanistan what they think about the western practice of political polling. Maybe, they don’t care; of course, that leads to the question of, “why spend the money to do polls in the first place…but we will let that go for the moment. The main question here is, “Is it (culturally?) appropriate for the US DoS to hire a company to conduct a poll, and publish the results of a survey that has the potential to influence elections in a foreign country?”
Let’s test this issue against my “How would we respond if something similar happened to us?” lens. I find this to be a useful way to determine whether or not an activity is culturally offensive, and hence, counterproductive.
Imagine if a foreign nation’s ministry or department of state polled people in New York City regarding our next presidential election, would we see this as benign, benevolent or helpful? Let’s add some detail and say it’s an Islamic country. Further, let’s say this country is occupying our nation. Hmm, I suppose we’d have a problem with that.
Would the people using the information, drawn from a sample of New York City residents, even have the knowledge that the rest of the country might not respond to the same poll in the same manner?
One last thing about the DoS and it’s polling. My personal experience working near the DoS folks is they lack the ability to know what the “people” think. They usually make decisions in a vacuum and tend to disregard the people they are seeking to serve.
This is a critical statement, but I’ve seen on any number of occasions large scale decisions, assessments and plans being worked without the presence of an Afghan. The “Accountability Ladder” of DoS is culturally ignorant and often times offensive, even dangerous, to the people the DoS seeks to help.
Second, Glevum Associates. How do I say this succinctly? I don’t trust anything they produce. My direct experience with Glevum has shown a serious lack of credible information being collected by this organization. One example should suffice…We requested a survey for the district I was researching. Keep in mind, I had previous experiences with Glevum in Iraq that made me reluctant to use their data. This time, when we received our data, I laughed. Glevum Associates had managed to survey more people than the reported population of the district. Again, they found more people than actually exist in this district.
I understand through direct experience that working in conflict zones is basically impossible to do well. I’ve learned to never trust my internal assessments. I constantly challenge what I think, always seeking to eliminate assumptions that I have made along the way. This critical view has allowed me to slow my pace and triple check my work, which might seem tedious, but it has invariably served me well. In this line of work we will make mistakes. I can forgive Glevum for succumbing to the challenges of Afghanistan. What I do not forgive is their arrogance.
When my partner and I brought our concerns to the folks at Glevum, we were dismissed. When fair critical questions regarding research methods were raised, no answers were found. I witnessed an exchange between to PhD level researchers and the doctor presenting Glevum’s research lost badly. Their guy had no real answers for their methods and results.
In a place as challenging as Afghanistan, where data is at best unreliable, one can never assume to have the right answers. There are too many factors that can influence results. This environment demands greater rigor than one would apply to US based research.
Glevum Associates claim a 2% margin of error. That exceeds the level of accuracy of nearly all of our polling data from our last election. Glevum wants you and the DoS to believe their numbers are actually better than numbers we generate here in the US…ugh.
From the article,
“Among the 2,148 likely voters surveyed by Glevum, 85 percent said they would not be swayed if Mr. Karzai decided to endorse a candidate or that it would not matter. The poll, conducted through face-to-face interviews and obtained ahead of its release on Sunday, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus about two percentage points.”
Let’s apply my critical lens again…if a research company sampled 2200 people in NYC, would any research firm dare to say they were able to report accurately within a 2% margin? No, they wouldn’t.
I think my observations raise some serious questions for our folks at DoS. Who is responsible for requesting this data? Who is holding Glevum accountable for their work? Who is going to have Glevum open the books, for starters, on their collection methodology? Who can truly test the reliability of the information they are providing? A closer look might reveal that their data shouldn’t be used for anything other than an undergraduate statistics assignment on generating descriptive statistics from a convenience sample.
Now with the challenge proposed, will Glevum accept? Will DoS? To be continued…

Beers with Barack

I thought I’d write an advice blog to our President.

Barack, G.W. Bush writes about the negative things said about him in his book “Decision Points.” He notes how it’s basically impossible to get a quality guy to run anymore because of the evil things people say about the man in office. The grind of the decisions, the constant criticism…Oh and solve the world’s problems while we yell at you “hurry up!”

Does you really want to do this again?

2nd terms have not been wonderful. Bush’s legacy wasn’t helped by a second term? His “mandate” disappeared and he couldn’t fix social security. Meanwhile, his ratings plummeted.

Clinton was essentially shut down 18mos into his second term. Reagan started napping and Iran-Contra tarnished him. Nixon? gosh? Who’d want that legacy?

Johnson said he wouldn’t run for a 2nd term (in his own right) and his party kicked him in the ass and said, “Great thanks!” Quite the send off…

Though Truman has a better reputation…he wasn’t considered a good president until well after he left office.

Eisenhower? There’s the standard…he had the best 2nd term.

The point is, the things the Presidents do, they do early SOMETIMES. This makes sense. They have all the energy, they have their pick of their party’s best and brightest. By year 5 the magic is gone. There is no honeymoon, and DC holds grudges. It becomes impossible to do anything. This isn’t roll up your sleeves and get to work type stuff…this is stranded in the ocean wondering where the fuck your friends went type fucked…

The more you do, the more others sell their products by destroying you. It’s like you and Bush fueled the hate every time you did anything. I don’t want that for anyone. Think about the staff?

These guys serve under you. They don’t get the titles and speaking gigs. The best and brightest leave and do other things beside get hammered by the media. When you’ve got to pick the 3rd or 4th guy for a job, you don’t get your “man” but someone else ‘s guy.

Look, Barack, do what you want to do, but don’t just run. History doesn’t favor 2nd terms. You’re a smart guy, maybe you can do what those guys couldn’t, but be honest…that’s a mighty big challenge…and your challenge shouldn’t be fighting the system, it needs to be leading.

There isn’t going to be another super majority favoring your platform. There’s a decent chance Democrats lose both houses. Every initiative is going to be a fight and that means concessions…that’s just not your style.

The economy isn’t getting better. Shoot even your peers in the party aren’t happy with the results…Matt Damon is disappointed…this isn’t good.

Why do it? Why subject your family to the hate? Have you looked in the mirror and seen how four years hangs on you? Go raise those girls…give them a Dad full time.

Don’t quit….You’re adored by a huge hunk of America. You don’t need a congress to get things done. You can make a fantastic living/impact being Mr. President outside of the White House. Get all Obi Wan on ’em and become more powerful than ever.

Bill Clinton is your model here. He NEVER misses, he’s taken a failed 2nd term and turned it around…it took him about 12 years to get there, but he’s done it…now pass me a Coors Light