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?

PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

This is part 1 of a post I wrote for ZenPundit.com

Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

AnnSmed

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Smedinghoff

ZP is pleased to bring you a guest post by Pete Turner, co-host of The Break it Down Show and is an advocate of better, smarter, transition operations. Turner has extensive overseas experience in hazardous conditions in a variety of positions including operations: Joint Endeavor (Bosnia), Iraqi Freedom (2004-6, 2008-10), New Dawn (Iraq 2010-11) and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2011-12).

PRT and State  Department Ignorance Fails Us All

by Pete Turner

Anne Smedinghoff and 5 others died when a Taliban car bomb, a.k.a. VBIED, attacked her patrol almost 3 years ago on April 6, 2013 in Qalat city Afghanistan, Zabul province.  The mission’s purpose was to get a photo opportunity while the US patrol handed out books to Afghan kids.  Their deaths were completely preventable.

Ignorance, arrogance and incompetence by the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), Anne and her Department of State (DoS) peers surely contributed to her death, and the death of multiple soldiers.  I know that statement is pretty inflammatory…and it’s part of the reason why I waited 3 years to tell the tale.  Please read the attached article for the required context.  Also, read Peter Van Buren’s (former DoS boss) HuffPo blog in which he also criticizes DoS competence in this tragedy.

I worked in the same area as Anne, but I’d left about a year prior to her arrival.  It’s unfortunate that my research partner and I didn’t get a chance to meet her.  If we had, she would have been armed with some information that could have saved her life.  It is also unfortunate that the knowledge we gained while working in Qalat left apparently left with us.

Before going any further, my partner, Dr. Ledet and I conducted research into improving education in the province.  Specifically, we were tasked with learning how the US should distribute learning materials to Afghans, and we did so by working with tribal, religious, and political leaders in the area.  Our report was distributed to the PRT, US military and the DoS working in the areas, and briefed to higher authorities. The senior Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) representative for the province, and multiple leaders we consulted, provided us with the solution regarding how the US could help improve education.

Our Afghan partners clearly and forcefully stated, US elements were not, under any circumstances, to provide books directly to Afghan children.

Yet, Anne and the others died on a book delivery operation. WTF?

It’s critical to understand how bad this is, as not only did the DoS and PRT undermine the MoE directive, which was given with the consent of religious leaders and family elders; effectively the patrol’s objective undermined their authority as well, and created violence and more instability.

How does this happen?  Simply, our foreign policy theory doesn’t match our tactics.  We hire highly intelligent people to do complex work, but their personal intelligence and accomplishments often mean little in this environment.  Often, the people I encounter with fantastic resumes are not trained to listen and learn.  Our failings aren’t about individual brain power and desire.  Where we fail is in our overriding compulsion to help, coupled with our inability to make sure that “ground truth” knowledge is accurately passed on to our replacements when we redeploy.

When we as a nation, bring “help” it often harms locals but sounds great in our briefings or in a eulogy...These are John Kerry’s words the day following Anne’s death, “…Yesterday in Afghanistan, we had a different stealing of a young life. And I think there are no words for anybody to describe the extraordinary harsh contradiction of a young 25-year-old woman with all of the future ahead of her, believing in the possibilities of diplomacy, of changing people’s lives, of making a difference, having an impact, who was taking knowledge in books to deliver them to a school. “  

I have words to describe this, Mr. Kerry….and they are harsh.  THAT PATROL SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED!  Anne was not properly prepared, and it’s a failure of the existing DoS and PRT staff that should have known better.  It’s the failure of whoever disregarded that day’s threat assessment to send out a patrol on a photo safari.  Those photos only validate our ignorance, and do nothing to repair the damage of that day.

Mr. Kerry and Anne simply wanted to help the Afghans become educated, but in reality that patrol was indicative of the continued separation between the Afghans and US partners. That patrol also created another opportunity for the Taliban to show locals where their future interests lie.  Because we don’t learn, and continue to act as though our culture is superior to the Afghans, we fail to make the kind of progress necessary to create stability.

It’s one thing for me to criticize John Kerry and Anne…hang in there, when I post part 2, I’ll illustrate how Dr. Ledet and I were able to use culture to our advantage, and gain uncommon access to the Afghans while we learned the appropriate way to support the MoE.

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 quesopaper.com). 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?