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.

On Representative Duncan Hunter’s Questions About HTS

This is a copy of a Guest Post I wrote from ZenPundit.com

Guest Post: Duncan Hunter and Human Terrain System by Turner

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).

ON REPRESENTATIVE DUNCAN HUNTER’S QUESTIONS ABOUT HTS

by Pete Turner

Today I was sent this USA Today article about Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) and Human Terrain System with a request for comments. An excerpt:

….A critic of the program, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded answers about the program from Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy in a letter sent Monday. Hunter noted “striking similarities between the two programs” and called on the Army to explain how the Global Cultural Knowledge Network differed from Human Terrain System. He also asked for an accounting of its cost and the number of people it employs.

“Unless the Army can show real differences between programs, then there should be no doubt that this constitutes a blatant attempt to rebrand and reboot a failed program under another name and a launch it with a reworded mission statement,” Hunter told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “What’s obviously lost on the Army is that it wasn’t just the implementation of HTS that was the problem, it was the whole thing, to include the program’s intent and objective.”

I have no faith in TRADOC’s ability to get Human Terrain System or HTS 2.0 any more right than last time.  The program was full of prima donnas, liars and academics who lacked the ability to relate to the military and commanders.  Also, commanders aren’t trained in how to best use HTS assets either – and that matters. For example:

COL: “Pete, I want you to tell me who the most influential person in our region is….can you do that?”  

Pete: “Yes Sir, I have the answer already…it’s you…until the people recognize their own governmental leaders, police and military, our focus has to be in ramping your influence down while we enable them to ramp up, Sir.”   

That statement is the essence of what an HTS does – we identify and translate the intersection of the ramps.  There is no book on how to do it well. The ground truth is where the best work is done.  It’s a shame that Rep Duncan Hunter and DoD cannot see that.

For those who aren’t familiar with my work, I have 70+ months of time working in combat zones.  I’ve worked most of this time at the lowest level interacting with locals on well over a 1000 patrols.  A great deal of this time I worked in the HTS program mentioned in the article.

Rep D. Hunter questioned the need and was critical of the original HTS program.  Like any program we absolutely had our share of fraud, waste and abuse.  Here’s the thing…the HTS program even when legitimately run is expensive.  Units work hard, long hours and a relentless schedule.  On numerous occasion, I’d work a 20 hour day followed by an 18 hour day followed by a string of 16 hour days.  An 84 hour week is the minimum I’d work.  Working at the minimum pace of 12 hours a day 7 days a week, a person will “max out” on their federal pay for the year and accumulate “comp time” or paid days off.

Since there are always things to do, lives at stake, command directives to pursue…missions to go on, planning to complete, analysis to run, reports to write, meetings to attend…it’s not hard to work 90+ hours a week and be seen as not doing enough.  How about this – some units will practice for a meeting for hours prior to the actual meeting?  If a unit is going to spend 6 hours prepping for and executing a meeting, that’s just ½ of a day…yes, legitimate work will result in paid leave.

If my patrol leaves at 3AM because there is a full moon and we move up and over a mountain arriving at a village before dawn…then spend the rest of the morning patrolling more and finally return to base at 2 in the afternoon…I still have to report on what I saw, a report may take 3-4 hours to write….and then prep for the next day’s patrol…unless your unit is doing 2 patrols a day.

I recall one specific time when a brigade from the 82nd that I was attached to was going to rotate home.  The brigade commander wanted to provide the new unit with the best possible handoff in terms of data, relationships etc.  To facilitate this handoff, my team was tasked to improve a “smart book” of dossiers on prominent Iraqis.  At one point I sat in the same chair for 24 hours writing, rewriting and then updating the book…simply because we HAD to work – the books weren’t getting better, just being constantly reworked.

Why do I bring this up?  Two reasons: First, the 82nd works HARD and if one is attached to them, that person works hard too, or suffers from irrelevance.  The 82nd spent a lot of taxpayer money on HTS people writing those books with the best intentions.  Secondly, the next unit came in and literally, never used the books.  When I asked why,  the new unit said, “we really don’t do that.”

When Rep Hunter originally questioned, the need for the program, I reached out to him to illustrate how when done properly, HTS work saves money and creates the kind of wins that unit’s cannot do without a HTS capability.  I also sent several notices to the my district’s congressional rep Mr. Mike Thompson.  Both he and Mr Duncan are veterans; I thought, surely they’d value my unique “ground truth” based knowledge.  I was wrong, both representatives ignored my offer to provide feedback.

The answer to Rep Duncan’s question about the need for this program is this:

Commanders need an outside element to translate what the US is doing for locals; in this case Afghans.  Meanwhile the HTS person also translates back to the US military what the locals are experiencing.  What an HTS person really does is works as a cultural translator allowing the different sides to understand the reality of their “partner.”

I worked in a valley that had a steep narrow canyon.  The local US Army agricultural development team (ADT) a truly myopic, xenophobic program that commonly created instability more than anything else, decided to build a check dam.  The dam was supposed to elevate the water in the river high enough to charge the irrigation ditches that ran the length of the river valley.  Over the course of 18 or more months the ADT fought with locals to improve the dam, while the locals rejected it and attempted to destroy it on several occasions.

The Dam Project

I was able to talk to locals who reasonably explained why the dam was an issue.  Simply put, they didn’t want it – and it was predicted to fail as soon as the first rain came.  Further, the region had an Afghan leader chosen to handle water issues for the families.  He agreed that the dam was a bad idea; and also predicted it would fail with the first rain.  We never effectively engaged the water elder–instead the ADT insulted this person and ignored his position and influence with the farmers.  A commander can’t know these things without an HTS person on the ground studying the human terrain.

I spoke with the ADT engineer responsible for the final “upgrade” to the dam.  I mentioned the concerns of the people and the water elder about the long term viability of the dam, which was visibly failing – the ADT hydrologist said, the elder may be right. Exacerbating this further, the dam project was done, updated and repaired all without any planning with the local Afghan governor.  All in all, the dam cost well in excess of $100k

Then the first rain came…

If one was to look at the ADT reporting, the dam was a hit.  It was accomplishing great things for the valley’s farmers.  Without an human terrain operator like myself, the ADT and the local US commander likely would never have found out how miserably they’d failed.  Rep Duncan, you want to fix things? Give me a call and I’ll show you where the money is really being wasted.

It gets worse…not only did the dam fail; when locals began to engage the governor about his plan to deal with the dam (this BTW is a small win, as most farmers a month prior saw no benefit from the government) the governor had no capacity to change anything.  This in effect confirmed for many locals that the governor had no ability to help them and therefore,  the Taliban would remain the dominant force in the region.  Ultimately, the ADT had closed the books on the region and meanwhile security further eroded.  Our efforts to create capacity resulted in us undermining the fledgling power of the governor.  Within a few months of my leaving the region, a district once considered to be a model of stability, had three service members assassinated by their Afghan partners.

Without an HTS asset, we never learn these lessons.  This is one of dozens of tales I was able to illustrate as an HTS operator.  Of course, since Reps Duncan and Thompson can’t be bothered with the ground truth – its all fraud waste and abuse, isn’t it?

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.

Running To Contact

 

Lots of email traffic about last week’s blog. Please post your thoughts in the comments. We love what you have to say.

I thought we’d cover danger in Afghanistan again by examining, “When Insurgents attack.”

A quick aside…over the years one develops a sense for explosions. Some are “ours”…outgoing mortars, rounds from a gun or controlled detonations. We learn the sounds of different weapon systems. A helicopter followed by a high pitched drone and several whooshes is an Apache firing it’s main gun and rockets. Whomp Whomp Whomp

 

 is an M60/M240. Ma duece says Bum Bum Bum. Artillery is LOUD and has a pointy sound when outgoing. Incoming is more spherical.

We also develop a sense of distance and direction for the booms…it’s all part of our survival mechanism. Another aspect is awareness of our surroundings. We constantly scan and consider what to do if we are attacked …where is the nearest bunker or where is the closest safest place?

This sounds frightening, but we all do this. Motorcycle riding is a good analog. When riding

 

 we have to be aware of spacing. Scanning for threats and escape routes saves a rider’s life.

The sound that puts me face first on the ground are mortars wobbling towards me. They make a unique sound that I can’t quite describe. Sort of of a frantic flutter…the closest sound I can come up with is the rattle of a door stop when accidentally brushed. Rockets and their vibrating engine sound are also unnerving. If you can hear them flying, they are too damned close…

 

~~The following tale is fictional for security reasons…however, it’s based on real events~~

Just the other day an interpreter, an associate and I were interviewing a local. As we discussed a variety of topics BOOM shatters our interview. My brain, a brain with years of combat time, comes up with “That’s too loud to be them…but doesn’t sound like us.” This brilliant statement was followed by a closer explosion, much closer, 50′ from our location. This burst launches a splash of pebbles on the window near us.
“We need to move to the middle of the building.”

 

Other than a lucky shot through a window, we’re safe from their rockets here.

The first explosion alerted soldiers…they drop whatever they are doing, scramble to grab gear, rack rounds and set up defense. The post is a safe haven in seconds.

I’m not on post.

Safe as Houses on Post

We’re squarely in “Indian Country” several hundred meters from the post and it’s safety. We call in our report, we’re safe…after the second explosion, several more ring out over the next 60 seconds. The air fills with gun fire from multiple directions. However, none of it is near us at the moment.

The commander, a good looking tall blond dude stands on top of his command center, hands on hips, not a drop of fear…leading by simply standing there.

As the firefight escalates, Afghan forces probe with bullets for Taliban fighters. Their shooting is reckless and ineffective.

Decision time, do we stay in our “bunker” or make a run across open ground to improve our security on post? While shots ring out, “Let’s get back to post.” No discussion, no hesitation, once one of us makes the call, we all move together. BTW—my dumb ass is wearing flip flops (its culturally appropriate) as we jog back toward post.

One big worry remains, I say “call it in…I don’t want to get shot by one of us.” (a Pat Tillman jersey hangs by my bed.)

Then we see something you can’t understand. It’s “Dave,” he’s sprinting out of the gate we’re headed towards;OFF post!!! Sprinting past us…no, he’s not there to help us…he’s doing what warriors do, “running to contact.”