PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

This is part 1 of a post I wrote for

Guest Post: PRT and State Department Ignorance Fails Us All

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]








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.

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