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Five Ex-U.S. Ambassadors to Israel Tell Senate Trump Pick David Friedman “Unqualified” For Post

Posted: 1:31 am  ET

 

On December 15,  Trump named David Friedman, a two-state solution critic as the next Ambassador to Israel. On Thursday, February 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will hold his confirmation hearing (see SFRC Hearing 2/16/17: David Friedman to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel).

We understand that a letter signed by five former U.S. Ambassadors to Israel during Republican and Democratic administrations (Thomas Pickering, William Harrop, Edward Walker, Daniel Kurtzer and James Cunningham) was delivered on February 15 to the senior staffers of all members of the SFRC to be passed to their principals. The letter quickly leaked to the press.

“We believe him to be unqualified for the position,” the former ambassadors wrote.

The letter also urged the Senators to examine whether Friedman “has the balance and the temperament required to represent the United States as ambassador to Israel.”

“The American ambassador must be dedicated to advancing our country’s longstanding bipartisan goals in the region: strengthening the security of the United States and our ally Israel, and advancing the prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors, in particular the Palestinians,” the former ambassadors wrote. “If Israel is to carry on as a democratic, Jewish nation, respected internationally, we see no alternative to a two-state solution.”

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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?

Screen Shot 2013-04-09

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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-09

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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Buzkashi Boys: When U.S. Taxpayers Almost Won an Oscar (Or Smartifying Capacity Building)

The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Short Film (Live Action) category but lost to Curfew.  A couple says ago, the State Department announced a big do in WashDC, a Panel With Stars and Producer of Oscar-Nominated Afghan Short Film “Buzkashi Boys.”

The U.S. Department of State will host a screening and roundtable discussion with the producer and stars of the Oscar-nominated short film Buzkashi Boys on February 28 at 12:30 p.m. in the Marshall Center Auditorium.

The making of Buzkashi Boys was supported through a grant from U.S. Embassy Kabul to the Afghan Film Project. The goal of this project is to help revitalize the Afghan film industry, which was once a vibrant part of Afghanistan’s cultural life.

During the filming of Buzkashi Boys thirteen Afghan interns were trained in all aspects of film production. Afghan media organizations, which until recently were forced to rely on foreign expertise, will benefit from this training for years to come. Almost all of the trainees continue to work in the local media or television industry. Some are making their own films, strengthening national identity by telling their own stories.

Here are some photos of the stars of Buzkashi Boys during their visit to Foggy Bottom for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013.

The stars and producer of the Oscar-nominated film Buzkashi Boys visit the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The stars and producer of the Oscar-nominated film Buzkashi Boys visit the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., for a screening and Q and A on February 28, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain] (click image to view a slideshow)

What was not included in the announcement is the 29-minute film’s unusual distinction.  According to the WSJ, the film was “funded almost entirely out of a $150 million State Department campaign to combat extremism, support Afghan media and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.”

As part of the public-diplomacy project, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul gave Mr. French and his Afghan Film Project more than $220,000 in 2010 to make “Buzkashi Boys” and use the production to train aspiring Afghan filmmakers.

Tara Sonenshine who currently serves as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for State recently blogged about the BB in DipNote touting this as one of the “innovative examples of our many public diplomacy programs in support of a peaceful, prosperous, stable Afghanistan”:

In the case of “Buzkashi Boys,” we supported the Afghan Film Project — the non-profit NGO whose creation was integral to the movie. A grant from the State Department funded the training of 13 Afghan interns in all aspects of film production. Those graduates are now among the best-trained filmmakers in Afghanistan. Most of them have gone on to work in the local media or television industry, or have begun to make their own films.

While the movie didn’t win an Oscar, it sent out powerful messages about a future we can all support: an Afghanistan where ethnic and linguistic divisions can be transcended through a common love of culture, where aspirations are possible, and where the playing fields are level for everyone. On the economic side, it showed foreign movie and television investors and artists that Afghanistan is open for business and growing its people’s capacity to become a vibrant center of national self expression.

Okay, now that you’ve read that, let’s take a look at this item from El Snarkistani of the Republic of Snarkistan, who probably won’t get any invite to embassy events anytime soon:

So to review:

– US government funded film
– Filmed in Afghanistan
– Afghan streetkid star

– Total funding: around $260,000

I say again: that’s a pretty big shoestring.

By way of comparison, remember Clerks? That cost $27,000. And the first Paranormal Activity? $15,000. So why was it so expensive to make this film in a country where median monthly incomes are a few hundred dollars? Your main star’s a street kid who sells maps and “bodyguard services” to foreigners on Kabul’s Chicken Street, so I’m guessing he wasn’t that expensive. Must have been all that capacity building.

Which is what’s missing from the narrative surrounding this film: at no point are we hearing how that money went to help the Afghan film industry. In fact, in a story for the National, Lianne Gutcher reports that French and his team made choices that would virtually ensure that whatever skills were learned would not translate to the Afghan film scene once the movie was completed.

French also insisted on shooting with RED cinema cameras – an American brand that is expensive to hire and insure. That offered little benefit to Afghan filmmakers, who cannot afford RED. Afghanistan’s film and TV industry mainly uses MiniDV, a far lower standard.

Completely absent from the photos taken of the cast and crew by the media during this Oscar season are the filmcrew that French and his team were supposed to train in the first place. Any publicity photos feature French (prominently, and why not, with those eyes, that hair, and that beard?) and the two co-stars, but noticeably absent are any other Afghans. Based on how much the US Embassy in Kabul has been falling all over itself on social media to promote this thing, one would think that the goal of telling the “good news” about Afghanistan has been achieved. With…buzkashi.

[…]

No, what you need is a story that’s going to make foreigners feel good about Afghanistan. And if, along the way, you hire an Afghan as your “Assistant Chef,” well, that’s all to the good, isn’t it?

Make no mistake: this film isn’t directed at Afghans. I don’t think it’s even been screened for an Afghan audience at this point, as the only publicity here in Afghanistan around the film has focused on showings at foreign embassies. When the Soviets used to do this, we called it propaganda. Since it’s the 21st century, and we’re Americans, somehow this is…capacity building. Or, as David Ensor, who headed up the US public diplomacy effort in Kabul at the time, told the Wall Street Journal, 

“I was in the hope business, and we were making investments in Afghanistan and its people that were designed to make life better and create a perception of change in the right direction,” he said.

“Create a perception of change”? Perish the thought that we’d create any actual change. Whether you’re calling it public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations, or propaganda, it all boils down to the same thing: creating the perception that things are going to be just fine. What’s troubling is that telling the real stories of average Afghans would do just that. For a quarter of a million dollars, you could find a whole lot of Afghans whose lives have been directly and positively changed by the US presence here.

Coming from me that may be a surprising statement, but it hasn’t all been bad here. The problem is that the Department of State and other government organizations here are so focused on making sure everyone knows that the billions they’re dumping here is doing some good, that they forget that it’s really not that complicated, after all. Instead of making a film about how American dollars have made real change in the lives of actual Afghans, the State Department would rather dump even more money into things that “create a perception of change.”

So we funded a film that’s disconnected by and large from the country in which it’s filmed. We didn’t really build the capacity of the Afghan film industry, unless you count beefing up the resume of an American director and his non-Afghan crew. And we just cross our fingers and hope that somehow people think we’re doing some good here. Marvelous.

Read in full here: Buzkashi Boys: When Propaganda Becomes Capacity Building.

Photo via US Embassy Kabul/FB

Buzkashi Boys actors under the Great Seal at the US Embassy Kabul with Ambassador James Cunningham.
Photo via US Embassy Kabul/FB (click on image for a slideshow)

On a related note, we saw this tweet from US Embassy Kabul and we could not walk away:

U.S. Embassy Kabul ‏@USEmbassyKabul

In the 1940s, the Office of War Information & @StateDept worked w/Hollywood to produce films to aid the war effort.

@USEmbassyKabul @StateDept Which ones?

U.S. Embassy Kabul ‏@USEmbassyKabul

@diplopundit One infamous film that comes to mind is ‘Mission to Moscow’ (1943). The War Dept during WWII had a number of others.

Which led us to dig up ‘Mission to Moscow’, a film directed by Michael Curtiz in 1943 based on a book by former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies.  According to Wikipedia, this film has also been called  “unquestionably the most blatant piece of pro-Stalinist propaganda ever offered by the American mass media”.

Oh, dear!

Once you start digging into the Office of War Information (OWI), it’s almost impossible to stop – there’s an ‘um, richness of material there just so hard to ignore. Several OWI-connected films got nominated for Academy Awards and one even starred an actor who later became a U.S. president:

Some other USG-connected movies received nominations and won some awards:

A longer list of Allied propaganda films for World War II is available here.

About the OWI:

“The Office of War Information (OWI) was a U.S. government agency created during World War II to consolidate government information services.   […] In 1943, the OWI’s appropriations were cut out of the fiscal year 1944 budget and only restored with strict restrictions on what OWI could do domestically. Many branch offices were closed and the Motion Picture Bureau was closed down. By 1944 the OWI operated mostly in the foreign field, contributing to undermining enemy morale. The agency was abolished in 1945, and its foreign functions were transferred to the Department of State.  The OWI was terminated, effective September 15, 1945, by an executive order of August 31, 1945.”

Perhaps the most instructive item we found rummaging around is from Elmer Davis, the director of OWI in 1942 who said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.”

There. Got that?

Now given all that history with Hollywood, should we really call this ‘innovative?”  In the meantime, since the stated goal of the Buzkashi Boys project is “to help revitalize the Afghan film industry,” we asked over in the Twitters the following question:

@USEmbassyKabul @TOLO_TV Curious – how many of the 13 AFG interns fm BB are currently wrking in AFG film industry?

That’s not really an unreasonable question to ask, is it?
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US Mission Afghanistan: New Ambassador Sworn in a Country Forgotten by Presidential Candidates

The new U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham was sworn in by Consular Officer Alissa Redmond at the U.S. Embassy on August 12 in Kabul.  Ambassador Cunningham previously served as Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Ambassador James Cunningham swearing-in at US Embassy Kabul.
Photo via US Embassy Kabul/Flickr
(click on photo to view the slideshow)

If you have the time and the interest, the swearing-in video including the ambassador’s speech is here.

Meanwhile, back here at home, the presidential campaigns are in full swing. The veepstakes finally has a winner.  And the Super PACs and the gazillionaires are doing their best spending obscene amounts of money to help “speed up” the economic recovery and get their man into the White House.  Really, you don’t think this economy would have been a lot, lot worse without all that money pouring in, all that election hiring, ad campaigns, pizza, etc. etc.  Thank god for the green slime!

And then, of course, with the line-up complete and the presidential campaigns in full swing, The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins had the audacity to bring up that almost forgotten country of Afghanistan.

“How’s this for a conspiracy of silence? With less than three months to go until Election Day, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have successfully avoided saying almost anything about America’s war in Afghanistan. Remember that war?”

Do we really want to remember that in August we already have 289 coalition forces dead in Afghanistan? Or that attacks on U.S. and NATO troops by Afghan security forces, the so called ‘green-on-blue’ attacks which has resulted in death is already at 34, two less than the casualties from the entire 2011? Or that 108 civilian contractors have already died in Afghanistan in the first two quarters of 2012?

We do, we do, but who’s asking the candidates? Perhaps we need Will McAvoy to ask the candidates about their state of amnesia over these affairs far, far away, including green slime growing on trees or in somebody’s bank account.

Domani Spero

State Dept’s Crocker, Feltman on May Departures … Leaving Posts in Nine Days?

AP’s Matthew Lee is reporting that Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs (NEA) who has guided U.S. policy through the tumult of the Arab Spring, plans to retire from the foreign service at the end of May and become a deputy to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon. The report says that Feltman is expected to be named U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs.

Back in March 2012, Inner City Press first reported that Ambassador Feltman is slated to assume UN’s top political job currently filled by another former State Department hand, Lynn Pascoe.  Read it here.

And the Twitterverse erupted with Reuters news from Chicago that Ryan Crocker is reportedly expected to step down soon from his post as President Barack Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan. According to Reuters’ unnamed sources, “The Obama administration is considering Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham to replace Crocker when he leaves the post as early as this month.”

No one in Kabul is talking, but somebody in Chicago certainly did talk. Since both these departures are supposed to happen this month, and there’s only nine days left before we turn the calendar, we should hear about this officially very soon.

With Brett McGurk nominated for Iraq (and yet to get his confirmation hearing), Ambassador Munter leaving Islamabad this summer, and Ambassador Crocker reportedly leaving as early as this month – there will be a complete turn over of the Chiefs of Mission for our Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan (AIP) missions.

Update @ 12:43 pm ET: The US Embassy in Kabul has now confirmed via Twitter Ambassador Crocker’s departure.  NPR says that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also confirmed in an email to reporters just after 11:30 a.m. ET that Ambassador Crocker’s departure is due to “health reasons.”

CNN reports that “Crocker was appointed to the post in Kabul on July 25, 2011. The relatively short length of his service in the Afghan capital is no surprise. In recent history, American ambassadors have served similar terms.

Well, that’s not quite right. The last four ambassadors appointed to Kabul served two-year terms. During the last five ambassadorial appointments to Kabul, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Political appointee, served for approximately 19 months. Another political appointee, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry served approximately 27 months. Ambassadors Neuman and Wood served approximately 20 and 23 months respectively.  If Ambassador Crocker is going to stick around until the “donors conference in Tokyo in July” he shall have served 12 months this time around. Ambassador Crocker was also  appointed Charge d’Affaires ad interim from Jan 2, 2002-April 3, 2002 after the reopening of the US Embassy Kabul in 2001.

Domani Spero