Zabul Attack: Were They Walking in a Red Zone?

In the early morning this past Sunday, a day after Anne Smedinghoff and four others were killed in Zabul, Afghanistan, I received an untraceable anonymous note that she was walking, and was not in a vehicle when she was killed.  The four-sentence tip alleged that she was with Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, the American Senior Civilian Representative (RC-South) in Kandahar and asked a rhetorical question, “Will anyone be held accountable?  doubtful.”

Ambassador Addelton was formerly the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia.  The Senior Civilian Representative, in the embassy’s view is  “the co-equal of the military commander of that region rather than a member of his staff” (for more of that, see this).

So, what do you do with something like that? Do you ignore it or chase it down the rabbit hole? Does it really matter whether they were walking in a red zone or were inside a vehicle?  They’re still dead.

But it’s been bugging me quite a bit.

So I sent out emails asking questions. On Sunday, I sent an email to the top accountable civilian official in Afghanistan, Ambassador James Cunningham, and another to the embassy press office for comment. I never heard anything back.

But one email did come back.  One source in Kabul would not confirm or deny the circumstances surrounding Ms. Smedinghoff’s death.  The individual declined to provide details of the the attack (which may or may not mean anything, of course).  There was a concern that this could become political given what happened in Benghazi.  But more telling perhaps was what my source pointed out — that Ms. Smedinghoff  would not have had the authority to make the decision about her movements.  No one gets to make those decisions unilaterally at US Mission Afghanistan.

While I could not confirmed that she was walking in a red zone when the attacked occurred, she was a second tour junior officer with three years under her belt. I can’t imagine a JO telling the MRAP team to let her out because she’s going to walk, can you?


What we know from news report:

  • The attack occurred on Saturday, April 6 at around 11:00 in the morning in Qalat, in the Zabul province of Afghanistan.
  • The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and one bomber with a suicide vest.
  • Three U.S. service members killed:  Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, of Juncos, Puerto Rico, and Spc. Deflin M. Santos Jr., 24, of San Jose, Calif.
  • Two U.S civilians killed: Anne Smedinghoff, FSO, a still unidentified DOD civilian
  • Four State Department staff wounded, one critically: Kelly Hunt, FSO (assigned in Kandahar) three still unidentified staffer.
  • Smedinghoff and Ward’s remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Monday afternoon.


The official story:

Via The Guardian: The attacker detonated a vehicle full of explosives in the centre of Qalat just as a US military convoy passed the provincial governor and his entourage. The blast killed and seriously injured several people from both groups.

Via WSJ: A senior provincial official in Zabul said insurgents targeted a convoy carrying Gov. Ashraf Nasari, who was on his way to the ceremony at the local school. Zabul provincial police chief Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Liwanai said a bomb-laden Suzuki automobile was parked outside the provincial hospital to target the governor’s convoy. Around the same time the car bomb went off, the police chief said, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest.

Via USAToday:  Officials said the explosion Saturday came just as a coalition convoy drove past a caravan of vehicles carrying the governor of Zabul province to the event at the school.

Via WaPo: There is no greater contradiction, Kerry said, between Smedinghoff’s zeal to “change the world” and help others and a bomber who he said drove a car into their vehicle.

Via State Department – Secretary Kerry:

“And someone somehow persuaded that taking her – his life was a wiser course and somehow constructive, drives into their vehicle and we lose five lives – two Foreign Service, three military, large number wounded, one Foreign Service officer still in critical condition in the Kandahar hospital because they’re trying to provide people with a future and with opportunity.”

A retired FSO quoted in WaPo says:

“She was well-protected, so the lesson here is there is no ‘zero risk,’ ” said Daniel P. Serwer, a retired Foreign Service officer in Bosnia and Kosovo and now a professor of conflict management at SAIS.

But what if she wasn’t well-protected? Now, I understand this is a war zone and they must make calculated risks. But …


What we don’t know:

Was she walking with others when they were hit? No one in an official capacity is willing to answer that question (I missed this one – but, knoxnews.com reported that ” Family members have said [Kelly] Hunt was walking with Smedinghoff when the bomb went off.” – thanks TSB!)

Why is the State Department saying that they were killed when their vehicle was hit if they were not inside the vehicle?

If true that they were walking, who gave the order that they should walked in a red zone?

What is considered acceptable risk in a red zone if you’re conducting public diplomacy work?

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What happened to the Afghan journalists who were reportedly being escorted to Qalat?

If they were inside an MRAP when they were attacked — does that mean an MRAP and a suicide vest together can kill  a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) which apparently is the vehicle of choice in Qalat? I’m sure somebody who knows more than I do about the types of MRAPs used in the south will pipe in.  Here is one type, not sure this is the kind used in Qalat on April 6.

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Were there debris of the convoy in the immediate aftermath of the attack?  The AP had a brief video online, and pics — how many disabled MRAPs can you see there?

Wired Magazine once had this piece about the MRAP talking about its virtues:

One of the main virtues of the MRAP lies in its hull. Shaped like the letter V, it disperses the blast from homemade bombs that other trucks absorb — and which kill and wound the troops inside. Soldiers and Marines who rode in them in Iraq and Afghanistan reported that sometimes they didn’t even realize they had rolled over one of the bombs.

And do you remember General Frank Helmick?

According to Military Times, on August 24, 2008 Helmick survived a suicide bombing of the MRAP vehicle he was riding in near Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul. The suicide car bomb attack killed the attacker and damaged the International MaxxPro Plus vehicle, but Helmick, Brigadier General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, an Iraqi general and others inside the vehicle were not seriously injured.

Something doesn’t add up, see?

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So, is there a story here somewhere or should we ignore it because anonymous sources don’t count,  and because people die in the war zone all the time?

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6 responses

  1. Letting a civilian walk through a “red zone” constitutes negligence on the part of DOS. But if they are attacked in a convoy, no one is at fault. It comes down to money. DOS does not want to pay for their negligence.

  2. This was publicly reported on the evening of Apr 9 –

    New York Times: “They were attacked as they walked from a small air base to a school in Qalat, the provincial capital — a walk that would normally have taken just a few minutes, but was still conducted wearing helmets and protective gear, and with a military escort, officials in Kabul said.”

  3. They could have been moving from the MRAP to the venue. With the provincial governor present, sounds like a trifecta situation. That said, delivering books to Afghan kids is not worth dying. State fails to critically a analyze the reason for the mission.