Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in #Afghanistan (Excerpt)

Posted: 2:24 am ET
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Douglas Wissing previously wrote a book entitled, Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.  He’s back with a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan. Kirkus Review calls it “a scathing dispatch” with “pungent, embittered, eye-opening observations of a conflict involving lessons still unlearned.”

As he gets into Kabul to embed with the military, the author notes “a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) billboard proclaiming women’s rights in English and Dari that few Afghan females can read, because almost 90 percent of them are still illiterate after more than a decade and $100 billion spent on grotesquely mismanaged US aid programs.”

That Ring Road?  Wissing writes, “During his frantic reelection push after the botched Iraq invasion, President George W. Bush decided that refurbishing the Ring Road on a yeehaw schedule in 2003 would show Afghans how things were done the American way. Well, it did. The highway is infamous for its poor construction and extravagant price.”

It’s that kind of book. It reminds us of Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well book on Iraq.

A couple of notes, Chapter 35 titled Embassy includes a nugget about Embassy Kabul refusing to allow the author to meet with SIGAR John Sopko who was also at post, without a minder. Sopko, according to Wissing was furious, demanding a private meeting without embassy handlers but “the diplomats won’t budge.”

Chapter 36 talks about Loss.  A cynical USAID financial officer earlier told the author that “given the amount of money the United States was pushing on the Afghan insiders who were “bankers,” he didn’t blame them for stealing it.” This is in relation to the Bank of Kabul scandal that involved an almost $900 million Ponzi scheme of fraudulent loans. The chapter also talks about Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter lost during a suicide attack in Qalat. The author previously meet Smedinghoff during a visit to the embassy compound in Kabul where the latter acted as his minder, assigned to escort him for an interview with a Justice Department official who was working the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC).

The author told us that he find audiences in the U.S. are often surprised to learn that Afghanistan remains our largest foreign military engagement–$44 billion requested for FY 2017 (vs $5 billion for Syria) “to add to the trillion dollars already wasted.” He also notes that around 10,000 US troops are still there, along with up to 26,000 defense contractors.

We’re posting an excerpt of the book courtesy of Amazon Kindle/Preview:

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@StateDept Marks Third Smedinghoff Death Anniversary, Internal Investigation Still Remains Classified

Posted: 9:35 pm PT
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Via state.gov/DPB:

In fact, today, April 6th, marks the third anniversary of the death of Anne Smedinghoff, a bright, rising star in the Foreign Service who was taken away from her family, her friends, and the department in an attack that took place three years ago in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. Anne was 25 years old and on her second tour as an FSO, Foreign Service officer, serving as a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In Secretary Kerry’s words at the time, Anne was a, quote, “vivacious, smart, and capable individual,” end quote. And as he wrote in a note that went out to all State Department employees at the time – well, shortly after that tragic event he wrote, “that no one anywhere should forget for a minute that the work of our diplomats is hard and hazardous or that as you serve” – you being the diplomats – “serve on the frontlines in the world’s most dangerous places, you put the interest of our country and those of our allies and partners ahead of your own safety,” end quote.

We would also pay tribute, obviously, to the memories of the three U.S. soldiers as well as an Afghan American translator and an Afghan doctor who were also lost on that tragic day, as well as to those who were injured in that incident. We honor their memories and their service to the United States and Afghanistan.

Last year, there was this:

Then a couple of weeks ago:

“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 childrenYet, Anne and the others died on a book delivery operation. WTF?…”

Read more:

Since the State Department is remembering publicly the death of Anne Smedinghoff, we’d like to — once more — call on the State Department to declassify its internal report of the Zabul attack.  The State Department spokesperson at that time said that no State rules were broken. If so, there should not be a problem with releasing that internal review.  It would be in the public interest to see how the agency’s internal review stack up against that scathing Army report.

There’s also nothing that precludes Secretary Kerry from declassifying the internal review and voluntarily releasing it considering that the U.S. Army had already released its own report.

But we know as we write this that the State Department is not going to release this report or it would have done so already following the Army report.

So the State Department will continue marking death anniversaries, and saying solemn words of remembrance for the dead.  And all the while, keeping under wraps its purported review of the incident that no one gets to see but for a few officials with “need to know.”

The question is — why?

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US Embassy Attacks: Year in Review — 2013

— Domani Spero
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In early May, Diplomatic Security released its annual Year in Review publication detailing attacks on diplomatic personnel/facilities for the past year. In 2013, attacks against American posts and staff occurred in the Philippines, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Pakistan, Brazil, Ethiopia,  and the Congo.  While majority of the attacks were against USG properties, there were casualties, killed and/or wounded in Ankara, Zabul, Kabul, Herat and  Taji.  It is important to note that those killed or wounded in these attacks include not only American personnel/contractors but also local employees, local contract guards, local policemen, and civilians.

The following details extracted from State/DS publication Confronting Danger, Year in Review 2013:

January 25 – Manila, Philippines:  Some 15 to 20 protesters gathered across the street from the main gate of the U.S. Embassy to rally against the Visiting Forces Agreement. Police prevented them from approaching any closer, but they managed to throw red paint on the U.S. seal, journalists, and police officers.

January 28 – Manila, Philippines: Approximately 50 protesters gathered across from the consular section of the U.S. Embassy. They were carrying placards that read, “Stop U.S. Intervention” and “U.S.-Aquino Regime Terrorists.” The group departed after throwing plastic bags filled with paint, which struck and defaced the Embassy seal at the Consulate entrance.

February 1 – Ankara, Turkey: At 1:14 p.m., an individual entered the U.S. Embassy access pavilion. When questioned by a member of the Embassy’s Local Guard Force, he detonated a bomb concealed in his clothing. The explosion killed the bomber and the guard, a 22-year veteran of the Embassy’s Local Guard Force.

(See our blog posts on Mustafa Akarsu here.)

March 11 – Kabul, Afghanistan: Two Embassy helicopters received small-arms fire. Both aircraft returned safely to their airbases with no one injured and minimal damage.

March 21 – Baghdad, Iraq: Three rockets were fired at the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center, producing no injuries and minimal property damage. The alarm systems activated, warning personnel of the attack and allowing them to take cover.

April 6 – Qalat City, Zabul Province, Afghanistan: Two bombs exploded near a Provincial Reconstruction Team delivering children’s books to a  school. A U.S. Embassy officer, a U.S.-contracted interpreter, and three U.S. military personnel were killed. Four State Department personnel, eight members of the U.S. military, and four Afghan civilians were wounded.

(See our blog posts on the Qalat, Zabul attack here).

April 10 – Baghdad, Iraq: Five rockets impacted outside the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center. Damage was minimal and an American worker was slightly injured while attempting to seek cover. The alarm systems activated, warning personnel of the attack and allowing them to take cover.

June 10 – Kabul, AfghanistanAt 4:45 a.m., Taliban insurgents equipped with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades attacked the Coalition Forces compound located at Kabul Airport. Multiple rocket-propelled grenades impacted on Camp Alvarado, a U.S. Embassy facility.

June 25 – Kabul, Afghanistan: At 6:35 a.m., eight insurgents launched an attack on the U.S. Embassy Annex. Afghan security forces and Local Guard Force personnel engaged the militants in a firefight. All eight insurgents were killed along with seven members of the Afghan security forces. Seven other Afghan security personnel were injured.

June 27 – Pristina, Kosovo: The U.S. Ambassador, an Embassy political officer and the DS Regional Security Officer went to the Kosovo Assembly to observe ratification of the April 19 Dialogue agreement to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. As they proceeded to the building, protesters pushed the Ambassador into a wall and struck the Regional Security Officer.

July 3 – Basrah, Iraq: Two bombs detonated at the Mnawi Hotel, causing extensive damage to a USAID office located in the building.

July 14 – Istanbul, Turkey: At approximately 7:15 p.m., while driving to an official event, the motorcade of the U.S. Consul General encountered a crowd of 30 people wearing masks and armed with sticks and heavy paving stones. While escaping, the vehicle sustained damage from several rock-throwing protesters.

July 21 – Lahore, Pakistan: At 3:05 p.m., 400 individuals claiming to be members from Imamia Students Organization and Majlis Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen marched to the entrance of the U.S. Consulate General’s primary access road. A number of individuals used spray paint to write anti-American slogans on the Consulate’s wall.

September 6 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Approximately 15 to 20 protesters chanted anti-American rhetoric in front of the U.S. Consulate. At the end of the protest, they threw red paint on the street and bollards of the Consulate.

September 13 – Herat, Afghanistan:   The September 13, 2013, attack began when a truck driver eased up to a barrier at the Consulate’s primary vehicle entry point and without warning, detonated a massive improvised explosive charge.  It was 5:32 a.m. and not quite sunrise at the U.S. Consulate in Herat when a terrorist murder squad appeared suddenly and attempted to blast and shoot its way inside. All but one would die within the next 30 minutes, and the fight would mark the first time in memory that DS defeated a complex assault without help from the host country or other forces.  [E]ight contracted guards who were standing regular duty outside the U.S. Consulate were killed. They were: Jawid Sarwary, Mohammad Ramin Rastin, Ahmad Firooz Azizy, Ghazy Zade Mohammed Zaman, Sayed Sadt, Mohammad Ali Askari, Aref Mohammad Sadiqi, and Ezmari Haidary.  The attack also injured four other guards and several Afghan police officers who were on duty outside the Consulate.

(See  US Consulate Herat Casualties: One Afghan Police, Eight Local Guards Killed)

Photo via State/DS

Photo via State/DS

October 1 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: At approximately 7:40 p.m., members of the Black Bloc anarchist group infiltrated a teachers’ demonstration in the downtown area of Rio de Janeiro, one block from the U.S. Consulate General. Vandals lit a fire near the Consulate waiting area and threw cobblestones at Consulate windows.

October 7 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Protests ended in vandalism after members of the Black Bloc anarchist group again infiltrated a demonstration organized by striking Rio teachers. When the striking teachers dispersed, some 400 masked anarchists confronted the police and then threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Consulate General.

October 13 – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: At approximately 3:30 p.m., two explosions killed two individuals at a residential compound adjacent to the residence of a U.S. Embassy employee. The blast destroyed windows and some of the perimeter wall, but no Americans were injured. The deceased are believed to have been planning attacks against Western targets in Addis Ababa.

October 15 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: The teachers’ protests saw anarchist groups again engage in widespread vandalism in the city center. Vandals damaged banks and businesses. The exterior of the U.S. Consulate General building was damaged, including broken windows, when passing protesters threw rocks and coconuts at the building.

October 18 – Porto Alegre, Brazil: At approximately 12:30 p.m., a group of university students calling themselves “Marighella” vandalized the U.S. Consular Agency. The vandals/protesters said they wanted the U.S. out of the country and claimed the U.S. President was a “spy” who wanted Brazil’s oil. They also said they were there to “take over.”

December 16 – Brazzaville, Congo: Heavy gunfire rocked the capital as government forces tried to arrest an official at his residence located within one mile of the U.S. Embassy, but his bodyguards resisted. During the firefight a stray bullet shattered a second-floor window of the U.S. Embassy.

December 25 – Kabul, Afghanistan: At 6:42 a.m., unidentified insurgents fired one 107-mm rocket at the U.S. Embassy. The rocket landed on the east side of the Embassy compound, but failed to detonate. An additional rocket was later found at the launch site. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

December 27 – Taji, Iraq: At approximately 9:20 a.m., a U.S. motorcade en route from Balad to Baghdad came under small-arms fire while stopped at a checkpoint on Highway One. The security team leader — a U.S. citizen — was slightly wounded.

 

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Zabul Attack: Spox Says State Dept Did Its Own Review, It’s Classified, and There’s Now a Checklist! 

— Domani Spero

 

As can be expected, the Chicago Tribune report citing an army investigation into the death of FSO Anne Smedinghoff and four others in Zabul, Afghanistan in April 2013 made it to the Daily Press Briefing.

State Spokesperson Jennifer Psaki says that “No State Department officials, civilian personnel were interviewed for the military report.” Since State had concluded its “classified internal review,” how many military personnel did it interview for its report on that Zabul attack?

One, two, ten, the entire unit …how many?

We don’t know since the internal review is classified.

According to the Tribune, the army report says that the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day; that the soldiers did not know how many people they were going to escort, making their job harder; also that the civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.  

What does State’s internal review say about this? We don’t know since the review is classified.

The initial blast was cause by detonation from “a remote-controlled bomb hidden under a pallet that was leaned up against the base’s southern wall.” On PRT Zabul base’s wall. The report also slams the “failure of the State Department team to properly coordinate this trip with military leadership.”

What does State’s internal review say about this? We don’t know since the review is classified.

The report says that the State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”

Um….we don’t know since the internal review is classified.

An embassy email referenced to in the report said that Qalat was picked because “we think the visuals would be nice” and it is a “the perfect place for a media tour.”

Months or years from now when the media and the public have forgotten about this — are we going to find out that the U.S. Army conducted its investigation without talking to State Department personnel, and that the State Department, as well, came up with an internal review without interviewing any of the military personnel in Zabul?

The spox brought up two items that made us — whisley-tango-foxtrot!

“Afghanistan is a war zone.”

Because we all need a reminder!

“[P]eople responsible for this tragedy were the extremists.”

Holy moly guacamole! Is that the best response we’ve got every time a sapling falls in a forest?

We have excerpted the exchange below.

QUESTION: So quickly on that Chicago paper report citing the army military unit investigation of the death of Anne Smedinghoff and other injuries there linked to State Department. The report makes a lot of accusations that point back to the State Department. “State says that there was coordination with DOD in advance of the mission.”

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The Pentagon says Ambassador Addleton was a last-minute addition to the group, that this was a scramble, that while there had been planning in advance, there was a change to the established plan, a late add, and new requirements that required them to bring in additional military resources.

So when State says there was coordination in advance, was there additional coordination after the addition of this higher-level diplomat, Ambassador Addleton?

MS. PSAKI: Well, at every stage in the process, as you know, the decisions about whether movement takes place rests with the military commander at the base. I don’t have the level of detail about the specifics here, but we were closely coordinated at every point in the process. The State Department did our own review of the events that happened, and we have instituted since then a checklist in order to be as coordinated as possible at every step in the process. But from our own looking at the events and our team that was on the ground, we – every step taken, no rules or regulations were broken. Every step that was needed to be taken in that regard was taken.

And let me say first of all too, of course, that regardless of that piece, the attack on – that took the life of Anne Smedinghoff, an Afghan American translator, and three members of the U.S. military and severely injured several others was a terrible tragedy, and one that, as you all know, people across this building and across the world who work at the State Department remember every day. The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the many brave Afghans and Americans who have sacrificed so much to help build a stronger, more stable Afghanistan. And what they were doing that day was participating in an outreach event that was part of a nationwide public diplomacy initiative highlighting cooperation between the United States and Afghans in a number of areas. And that’s a program that we’ve been proud of and was underway for weeks there.

QUESTION: The Pentagon says that the senior military commander – they agree with you that they were in charge, but say that they did call in additional resources. So when you’re saying that it’s really up to the military to make the call – go or don’t go – what you’re saying is while the commander was choosing to bring in more resources, he shouldn’t have chosen to go ahead with this at all? That’s where the fault lies?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, Margaret, I think where we are – we’re not about placing fault here. We’re about looking at this, as we have, and determining, with any event that happens around the world, what we should do moving forward. We work closely with the Department of Defense, with military commanders on the ground, whether it’s ISAF or otherwise, to make sure we take every step to keep our people safe. That doesn’t mean that tragic events don’t happen. Afghanistan is a war zone and we, of course, can honor the memory of Anne and the others who died that day by not only learning from it and what we do moving forward, but by continuing to do many of the programs that they were undertaking that day.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, now that the military unit on the ground has finished its review, will the State Department reconsider its initial review? Because per the State Department, the investigation of the incident happened immediately afterwards, before the military unit submitted its review and its account of what they saw happen on the ground. So —

MS. PSAKI: Well, just to be clear, Margaret —

QUESTION: And that’s why it didn’t go to an ARB.

MS. PSAKI: — this was an army field after action report that happened on the ground. And typically, what happens with these is that these reports are done by an investigating officer in the field. We understand that under DOD procedures, this field report would be transmitted through the military chain-of-command to be ratified and modified and further distributed. I’m not aware of that happening at this point. No State Department officials, civilian personnel were interviewed for the military report. We have done – the Department as well, through Embassy Kabul – has done our own review to determine what occurred and whether security procedures required adjustment. That review is classified. But there have been multiple investigations in this case, and we undertook our own review here.

QUESTION: But given that the Army’s review now is done and that they have pointed to fault in this building —

MS. PSAKI: Well, to be clear, again, this is important —

QUESTION: — is it worth reconsidering?

MS. PSAKI: This is important because this is – again, this was a report done by an Army unit, an Army unit field report. It has to work its way through the chain of command. I’m not aware of that happening yet. I would, of course, point to the Department of Defense, and they can all take a look at that when that happens. But we’ve done our own review.

QUESTION: Yeah. They’ve said they’re not probing it further at this point, at the Pentagon level because (inaudible) —

MS. PSAKI: Well, but there’s still a process that it goes through regardless.

QUESTION: And – but at this point, is it fair to say the State Department is not moving ahead since, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are exempted from going to the ARB level of investigation? And there was a decision not to go to that level because they didn’t have —

MS. PSAKI: Well, but we did our own review regardless —

QUESTION: — when they had the meeting, they decided not to there —

MS. PSAKI: Regardless of that, we did our own review. Yes, Afghanistan is a war zone, so it falls under different requirements, but we still did our own review regardless of that.

QUESTION: But at this point, it is a closed matter? Is that correct?

MS. PSAKI: It’s never a closed matter in the sense that you’re still remembering the memory of the people who lost their lives.

QUESTION: Of course.

MS. PSAKI: And you’re still learning from the experience, and I mentioned a checklist we’ve put in place. And we’ll continue to evaluate on that basis. But again, our efforts now are focused on continuing to coordinate with the military at the operational and tactical level in these situations, and if for some reason the military unit is unable to meet the provisions of our checklist, our personnel will not participate. So you do take what you’ve learned, you adapt it moving forward, and you do everything you can to honor the memory of the lives that have been lost.

But there’s more.

On April 10, 2013, McClatchy  filed a lengthy report: Witness: Anne Smedinghoff, other Americans killed in Afghan bombing were on foot, lost.  Five days later, then State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell denied that Smedinghoff’s party was lost:

“Media reports suggesting that the group was lost are simply incorrect. They were going to a compound across the street from the PRT,” he said in written responses to emailed questions.
[…]

Ventrell said the purpose of what he called the “mission” that led to Smedinghoff’s death was a news conference featuring the senior U.S. official in southern Afghanistan and the Zabul governor to promote a book donation project and the “growth of literacy.”

Ventrell called “highlighting Afghanistan’s ongoing progress for both national and international media” an “integral part of our work.”

“This is what we do, and we believe in it,” he said. “Our diplomats believe in getting out beyond the wire to reach people. In this case we were engaging with the people of Afghanistan AND the local government.”

According to the State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, reports suggesting that the group was lost are “simply incorrect.”

The Army report now confirmed that the party “had the wrong location for the school.” 

That official word from the State Department was never retracted.

So the Smedinghoff party was not/not lost, but they had the wrong location for the school? What kind of story is this?  Is there another meaning for the word “lost” that we have yet to learn?  We know about “get lost!” so no need to email us.  Mr. Ventrell is now the Director of Communications for the National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
On April 24, 2014, McClatchy’s Mark Seibel writes:

“It’s unclear whether there’s been much soul searching at the State Department. In the Tribune story, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sounds unrepentant. “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission,” the Tribune quotes her as saying, then adds that “a classified internal review of the day was conducted, . . . and the department determined no State rules were broken.”

We have folks who complained to us — either that the State Department or Embassy Kabul was thrown under the bus in this army report. Well, we only have the army report to go on.

Army report excepted, we know three things from the State Department: 1) they named a courtyard after Ms. Smedinghoff at Embassy Kabul; 2) there is a new checklist in place; and 3) the internal review of the Zabul incident is still classified.

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Army Report: Poor planning led to FSO Anne Smedinghoff and troops’ death in Afghanistan

— Domani Spero

On April 7, 2014, LAT reported that one year after a 25-year-old diplomat from the Chicago area was killed in a car bombing in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul remembered Anne Smedinghoff  by reading poetry and releasing balloons in a courtyard that was named for her.

“She was a truly remarkable young woman and friend,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said in a solemn ceremony on a sun-splashed afternoon in Kabul.

We’ve previously blogged about this here:

On April 23, 2014, Chicago Tribune’s Geoff Ziezulewicz has an exclusive on a scathing Army report concerning Ms. Smedinghoff’s death, the three U.S. soldiers, Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, Spc. Deflin M. Santos Jr., 24, and an unidentified interpreter in Afghanistan on April 6, 2013.  The report says that the mission deliver books …. was plagued by poor planning that “failed at all levels.”  It also confirmed a tip we received a year ago that a top State Department official, Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, was at the book dropoff with Smedinghoff. The report says the senior official  “may have been the main target, although insurgents were perhaps targeting anyone partaking in the mission. The report also notes that the planning and security that should be afforded such a VIP was not provided in this instance. Addleton’s presence at the event that day had not been previously disclosed.”

The Army report, obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act also says that the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day; that the soldiers did not know how many people they were going to escort, making their job harder; also that the civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.   The book event at the school was reportedly characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier reportedly wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books reportedly desired “more media reporting.”  Scholastic and State Department representatives told the Tribune that the company did not mandate any kind of publicity event.

Ms. Smedinghoff’s father,  Tom Smedinghoff, said that he had not seen the Army investigation before Wednesday, according to the Tribune.  Meanwhile, the State Department spox told the Tribune that a classified internal review of the day was conducted, and that the department determined no State rules were broken.

The Tribune citing the Army report says that planning for the book giveaway began with a U.S. Embassy email on March 18, 2013, to a State Department civilian at the base. It was to take place at a boys’ school just outside the south wall of the base in the city of Qalat and would be covered by Afghan media.

We think that this is the school where the book event was to take place. If this is wrong, please email us with corrections.

Spc. Jonathan Smith pulls security outside the Sheik Mati Boys School in Qalat, Afghanistan, while members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul assess the school's dining hall and kitchen for future renovations, April 16. Smith is part of PRT Zabul's security force. Photo via DVIDS: Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson 4.16.2011

Spc. Jonathan Smith pulls security outside the Sheik Mati Boys School in Qalat, Afghanistan, while members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul assess the school’s dining hall and kitchen for future renovations, April 16. Smith is part of PRT Zabul’s security force.
Photo via DVIDS: Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson
4.16.2011

Below is a quick excerpt from the Tribune’s report: Poor planning led to River Forest diplomat’s death in Afghanistan:

A U.S. mission to deliver books to a school in Afghanistan that ended in the death of a young foreign service officer from River Forest was plagued by poor planning that “failed at all levels,” according to a scathing Army report obtained by the Tribune.

The Army report for the first time criticizes civilian and military leaders for not following security protocols in the lead-up to the mission.
[…]
The email, sent from the special projects coordinator of the embassy’s public affairs section, requested “an event to publicize the distribution of books provided by Scholastic, Inc.,” the report said.

“Scholastic donated quite a lot of books for use in the schools in Afghanistan and it took a very long time for those books to get here,” a copy of the email enclosed in the Army report states. “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.”

Qalat was chosen because a local official had requested such a visit and “partly because we would like Scholastic to feel as though we are doing something,” the email states. “Because we think the visuals would be nice, we thought that Qalat would be the perfect place for a media tour.”

Apparently,  the State Department’s presence at the base in Zabul ended 12 days after the attack. The Tribune also reported that the Army administratively disciplined two officers after the attack. Do you know what happened internally at State following the Zabul attack?

Read the full report here and weep.

We sent emails asking questions about this incident last year, nothing except one came back. One source in Kabul would not confirm or deny the circumstances surrounding Ms. Smedinghoff’s death.  The individual also declined to provide details of the the attack.  There was a concern then 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.

We’d like to see the State Department declassify its internal report on the Zabul attack.  We think the Smedinghoff family should have access to it if it so desire.  The State Department spokesperson said that no State rules were broken. If so, there should not be a problem with releasing that internal review.  It would be in the public interest to see how the agency’s internal review stack up against the Army report.

That said, we do not/not think that State will disclose its internal review unless compelled to do so by court or the Congress. 

Of course, nothing precludes Secretary Kerry from declassifying the internal review and voluntarily releasing it now in light of the Army report. 

* * *

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Friends of Kelly Hunt Start Online YouCaring.com Fundraiser for Hunt Family

State Department Public Diplomacy Officer Kelly Hunt was wounded on the April 6, 2013 suicide attack in Qalat, Afghanistan. About a week after the incident that killed five Americans and seriously wounded Ms. Hunt as well as three others, and as she was moved to a hospital in Germany, her friends back home, Brian DeNicola, Regan Hildebrand, Becky Reindel, Jen Vinci, Beth Doyle-Hudson & Valerie Cizl decided to organize a fundraiser to support Ms. Hunt’s family.

“Becky met Kelly at work.  Brian and Regan met her through rowing.  Jen, Beth and Valerie knew her from elementary school.  She touched our lives in many ways and the last few days have been difficult for everyone.” 

On June 8, Regan will be climbing Mt. Rainier in Seattle, Washington.  He was originally going to climb the mountain for fun.  In light of Kellly’s accident, he’s now climbing Mt. Rainier for her and will stand on the summit on June 12 for Kelly. 

The fundraiser located at you caring.com – http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/climbing-for-kelly/52529 – had $1,000 for its original funding goal. As of this writing, the fund has raised $7093 from 114 supporters across the Foreign Service, EPA, colleagues in Afghanistan, folks from the University of Tennessee and the News Sentinel newsroom, and from friends and friends of friends.

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Over in FB,  the Kelly Hunt’s Road to Recovery page also put together by friends provided a link to the fundraiser with the following note:

We have been contacted by so many wonderful people across the world who are interested in donating to Kelly’s family in order to help ease the costs associated with traveling to see her when she arrives at Walter Reed, and other costs that arise during this time. Please visit the page below if you would like to contribute financially. All proceeds will go directly to the family. Thank you!  

Ms. Hunt’s mother, Dinah told us that the help organized by friends “will allow us to be with our daughter.”  If you are want to help, check out the youcaring page here.  If you want to send messages of support to the Hunt family and/or follow her recovery, you can check the Kelly Hunt’s Road to Recovery in Facebook where her mother provides regular updates on Kelly’s condition including the following:

I know that people in the DC area are eager to see Kelly, however, it won’t be possible for quite awhile. She’s in intensive care right now.  I want to thank everyone for their prayers and words of encouragement. They are definitely helping our family to cope. This is a marathon; not a race sprint and I appreciate your support.

We understand that a separate hometown fundraiser was also done by several friends of Ms. Hunt last April 20 at the Deja vu Nightclub in Lorain, Ohio (thanks JA!).

— DS

Zabul Attack: Can it possibly get any worse than this?

Via Jay Price and Rezwan Natiq, McClatchy Newspapers, Posted on Wednesday, 04.10.1

Ahmad Zia Abed, a reporter for Shamshad TV, said he and a videographer from his station were among about a dozen people, including the officer, Anne Smedinghoff, 25, whom American soldiers were escorting on the 200-yard walk from the local headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to what they thought was the school. A man at the gate said they had the wrong place, though, that this was the provincial agriculture institute.

The group retraced its steps to the American base to figure out what to do next, Abed said. The entrance to the base is just a few feet from the street, he said, and just as they reached it, walking more or less in single file, something slammed into his back and he staggered forward.
[…]
Abed’s account of the bombing, the most detailed to surface since the explosion, raises new questions about the circumstances that led to the deadliest combat incident in Afghanistan for Americans this year and contradicts what relatives of the victims have said they were told – that Smedinghoff and her military escorts had been in an armored vehicle when it was rammed by a suicide vehicle. Smedinghoff was the first American diplomat to die in Afghanistan during more than 11 years of warfare here.

The FBI has opened an investigation into the attack, said a U.S. government official who declined to be identified because of that investigation. He confirmed Wednesday night that the party had been on foot, and said earlier reports that they were in a vehicle convoy were inaccurate.
[…]
Smedinghoff’s father told journalists in the United States that he’d been told she was in a vehicle and the bomber either rammed it or detonated his explosives nearby. But Abed said she’d been his media escort all the way from Kabul to Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, and that he was certain she was on foot.

Read in full here.

— DS

Zabul Attack: Don’t know a lot but yes, the party was moving on foot …

On the April 10 Daily Press Briefing, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell confirmed the identity of Kelly Hunt as one of the four State Department employees injured on the April 6 attack in Zabul, Afghanistan.  Also that “in addition to those tragically killed, four Department employees were injured as the party was moving on foot a short distance to a school, wearing personal protection gear and under escort of U.S. soldiers.”

A quick look:

— A party of six civilians (five State, one DOD; two killed, four wounded) with three U.S. soldiers as armed escort (all killed) “in a walking movement from the PRT down to the school down the road.”

— Distance from PRT to school – “I don’t know the exact distance, but we’re – this is in yards, not – it was a short distance down the road.”

— Was there some kind of ceremony that was going on? – “I don’t know the whole details…”

— Is that why the governor was there? – “I’m not sure….”

— Could you confirm there were two suicide bombers? – “I cannot confirm at this time any other further information, only that they were walking when the attack occurred.”

 

Read in ful below:

DPB: April 10, 2013  1:06 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. I have one thing at the top. On a somber note, I would like to provide an update on the State Department personnel who were injured in Saturday’s attack in Qalat, Afghanistan. In addition to those tragically killed, four Department employees were injured as the party was moving on foot a short distance to a school, wearing personal protection gear and under escort of U.S. soldiers.

With the family’s permission, I can confirm that Kelly Hunt, who was a Public Affairs officer with Kandahar Airfield Regional Platform-South in southern Afghanistan, was wounded and has been medevaced to Germany, where she is receiving the best possible medical care. Secretary Kerry spoke with Kelly’s father on Saturday and with her mother yesterday and conveyed his sympathy to the family during this difficult time.

Two employees with less serious wounds are receiving ongoing treatment at NATO-ISAF medical facilities in Afghanistan. The fourth employee was treated for more minor injuries and has been released. Out of respect for these employees and their families’ privacies, those are all the details we can offer on the injured.

And just to reiterate what Kelly and her colleagues were doing in Zabul Province on that day, it was – they were going to bring children’s books in Dari and Pashto to a school as part of an Embassy-funded program in cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Education to promote literacy and provide teacher training. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world, and through a cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy has distributed 1.9 million books to 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and provided training for their use in classrooms. So, as Secretary Kerry noted in Istanbul, this team was helping the children and educators of Afghanistan build a better future.

[…]

QUESTION: I’d like to go back to Afghanistan —

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: — because the initial reports about this incident were that they were in a convoy, and now, as you said, it’s clear they were on foot. What can you tell us about the circumstances of the actual attack and why the story’s changed?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: And then also, was this – is this changing the way that you guys are thinking about operating in Afghanistan in general?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Michele. I think part of the initial confusion came about because there were reports in the media about the local governor and his convoy. And so some of our initial reporting also indicated that, and that’s why we weren’t able to clarify right away. So our initial read on it was different, and we’re now able to say that it was a convoy and they were walking.

In terms of all the rest of what happened that day, it’s still under investigation, so I don’t have a lot of other details to provide. But we are able to clarify at this point that they were in a walking movement from the PRT down to the school down the road. It appears that this convoy of the governor was right there at approximately the same spot when it occurred, but again, this remains under investigation.

In terms of our security for our personnel in Afghanistan, I’d really refer you to the Embassy for their posture, but obviously, we continually review our security. We don’t necessarily advertise exactly what precautions we’re taking, but when there’s a serious incident of this nature we review all of our procedures.

QUESTION: But does it make you think twice about doing – I mean, this is a public diplomacy thing.

MR. VENTRELL: Right.

QUESTION: You could’ve delivered books quietly and not with a big show like this.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we’re —

QUESTION: Does it make you think twice about doing that?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re going to continue our mission and assisting the Afghan people. I can’t specifically say how we’ll change any of our programming based on this incident. But the Secretary was clear, we’re going to continue in our mission in Afghanistan to help the people of Afghanistan. And this clearly, helping them in their literacy programs, is a vital program that will continue.

QUESTION: But it would be fair to say that you’re reviewing your security procedures and how you do the – implement these type of programs as a result?

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve absolutely reviewing after this incident.

QUESTION: Sorry. You said they were walking from the PRT to the school?

MR. VENTRELL: Right.

QUESTION: And what kind of distance was that?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know the exact distance, but we’re – this is in yards, not – it was a short distance down the road. So it happened very close to the PRT.

QUESTION: And then it was characterized as it was a big show. Was there some kind of ceremony that was going on?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know the whole details of how that day’s book presentation was going to go, but I do believe we had Afghan media.

QUESTION: Is that why the governor was there?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure about the governor’s participation. I’m not sure if he was going at the same moment to go – again, this is all under investigation. These are just some of the information that we’re able to share at this time.

QUESTION: Could you confirm there were two suicide bombers?

MR. VENTRELL: I cannot confirm at this time any other further information, only that they were walking when the attack occurred.

 

— DS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Screen Shot 2013-04-09

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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US Mission Afghanistan: Public Diplomacy Officer for Kandahar, Kelly Hunt Wounded in Zabul

On April 8, knoxnews.com reported that two casualties from the April 6, 2012 attack in Zabul, Afghanistan came from East Tennessee. The news site sourcing family members confirmed the identities of  Army Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge who was killed during the attack  and Kelly Hunt, a 33-year-old public diplomacy officer assigned in Kandahar for the State Department, who was wounded in the same incident. (see photos via knoxnews.com)

On April 9, knoxnews.com noting that details of the attack are still vague, reported  that Ms. Hunt who worked previously as a News Sentinel staffer headed into “surgery again” citing information from family members. She reportedly is in a medically induced coma at a military hospital in Germany.  This is probably the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

According to her LinkedIn Account, Ms. Hunt joined the State Department last year and has been the public diplomacy officer in Kandahar since July 2012.

“As a public diplomacy officer for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, I serve as the RC-South Ambassador’s PD officer and the civilian PD liason for military command. Help design key leader engagements for the Senior Civilian Representative – the Ambassador for RC-S; report daily to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during crisis communication events; write talking points, speeches and readouts for KLE interactions, roundtables with Afghan journalists and interviews with international media; highlight and plan media events to disseminate Afghan news to the international community; serve as the military’s counterpart for a variety of topics; and act as a PD grants officer representative for various RC-S PD grants, proposing grants that will have an enduring and stabilizing impact on the region for years to come while ensuring the grantees stay on budget and on task.”

News reports so far indicate that four other State Department staffers, including Ms. Hunt, were injured in the bombing, one critically.

We should note that Ms. Smedinghoff who was killed in the same attack was a public diplomacy officer working as the Assistant Press Attache at U.S. Embassy Kabul since last year. It appears right now that there were five State Department personnel delivering textbooks to a school in Qalat?

We have more questions than answers right now.  If anyone care to help answer some of those questions, please contact me here.

DOD has also released today the names of the troops who perished in Zabul for “wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit in Zabul, Afghanistan with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.”  The DOD release says that  they were assigned to the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia. Those killed were:  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.

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Updated:  Rewritten to provide only links to restricted knoxnews material.

 

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