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.

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?

Critical Path

We wonder why after 10 years, we don’t have more results in Afghanistan…the Critical Path is a big part. 

There are 20+ countries with 20+ agendas in Afghanistan.  Everything we do is communicated through translators (who can’t agree on how to translate anything)….which is at best an 80% solution…done at 1/2 speed.  Mix in some of the most rugged terrain in the world…and two totally different cultures…and it’s a multi-decade proposition. 

Let’s talk for a minute about Army culture.  Army folks are proud…they have a can do attitude.  They take the unthinkable and break it down into achieveable goals; then get to work.  Army guys say…”How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”  Success is a given.  This culture makes the Army a fantastic effort machine that accomplishes the impossible. 

Afghans on the other hand are a people with defined social roles that do not change. Women make the home. Men work their fields. Their past has denied them a future, so they live day to day.  Islam requires submission to God’s will….which means, Afghans doesn’t try to change the future. 

Afghanistan’s culture creates an incredibly tough problem for the Army.  Success isn’t hinged upon hard work.  The point is…it’s not the “path of least resistance;” it’s the critical path that matters.  The Army isn’t wired to take this path…One more thing…by the time a unit recognizes the critical path…it’s nearly time to go home. 

To take the critical path one has to know what to do given this….

Villagers are terrified that the Taliban are going to kill them if they accept our help…we can’t simply start helping and disregard this threat.  The Taliban are nearly invisible to us.  Yet, villagers interact daily with Taliban.  Afghans make decisions as a group.  They DO NOT make decisions without consulting their elders and the Taliban.  Trust is not easily given or earned.  They have no sense of planning like we do…when we say….

“We will build a school, but we have a number of proceedures that must be actioned before the commanders will approve any CERP funded projects.  Of course since we are here to serve you, your MOE must approve the project as well…These things are done for your benefit to reduce corruption and to promote a healthy reliance on your government.” 

Afghans think…Great, the Americans are going to build a school.  Just like the last unit said…and the one before that.  It doesn’t really matter because the Taliban killed the last teacher and burned down the school.  I’ll keep my kids safe in the mosque where the Taliban agree to let them study the Koran. 

The answer is, this isn’t a 10-year problem.  We’ve got to remember post civil war US reconstruction took decades (yes I know not officially)…maybe 100 years.  Germany,  Eastern Europe all places with huge advantages over Afghanistan took more than 10 years.  We’ve got a people who culturally aren’t meant to improve their lot….how do we change that?  Do we change that? 

Pakistan purposefully sends in operatives…NATIONAL operatives to undermine the effort to give the Afghan people a free country.  There are boundary disputes, a nation of illiterate people, few jobs…it’s a mess…

We can’t leave, we can’t stay….we can’t decide.  There has been significant progress…but this stuff isn’t easy.  It’s important, but not easy.

Somewhere out there is the critical path…and it’s not 10 years long.