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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-13

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: Walking But Not Lost, More Details But Not Official; Plus Update on Kelly Hunt

On Friday, April 12, the AP citing a senior State Department “not authorized to speak to the news media” reported that the initial reports that members of the group were in vehicles, as well as subsequent media reports that they were lost, are incorrect.

The official reportedly provided the details on condition of anonymity.  This report contradicted the eyewitness account of an Afghan reporter cited by McClatchy news on Wednesday, April 10.

You may read the full AP report here.

Last weekend, The Skeptical Bureaucrat  (TSB) posted about this here:

It’s quite bad enough already, judging by the details that have come out so far. Let’s see … the book donation visit to the Sheik Baba Metti school by a team from the U.S. Embassy and PRT Zabul was announced to the press one day in advance. But, despite that lack of operational security, the team was allowed to walk to the school from the PRT’s base at FOB Smart rather than use protected vehicles. The roughly 100-meter long route to the school evidently wasn’t swept before the team’s walk, or blocked to traffic during the movement. The team’s military escort didn’t know which gate to use to enter the school – a school that the PRT itself funded and regularly visited – which required the team to double back to FOB Smart and further expose themselves to attack.

Lastly, the attack reportedly involved a roadside bomb as well as a suicide driver in a bomb-laden vehicle. If that’s true, it means that the Taliban were able to plant a command-detonated bomb in the street immediately outside FOB Smart despite the surveillance that street was undoubtedly under by both the U.S. and Afghan military.

There is reportedly an ongoing FBI investigation. The FBI investigates bombings in the U.S. and overseas where incidents were acts of terrorism against U.S. persons or interests. But this is the war zone. Was there also an FBI investigation on the suicide bombing that killed a USAID officer and wounded an FSO in Kunar Province last year? (Update: We’re told by a blog pal in Afghanistan that the FBI investigates a lot of different incidents in Afghanistan and that there is “nothing unusual” with them investigating the April 6 attack.  Was also asked about an ARB for Camp Bastion.  Camp is under military control so that’s a clear exception to ARB regs; nothing to keep DOD from pursuing its own inquiry but we haven’t heard anything moving on that direction. Read this piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran on the Taliban attack that resulted in the deaths of two Marines and the largest loss of allied materiel in the 11-year-long Afghan war).

No way to tell right now if there will be an Accountability Review Board. As TSB pointed out, there is a limited exception for convening an ARB if the security incidents involving serious injury or loss of life occurs in Iraq or Afghanistan. We found an exemption for incidents between October 1, 2005-September 30, 2009. In December 2009, that exemption remained in effect through September 30, 2010.

Following the findings of “accountability” from the ARB on Benghazi, we are not holding our breath on an ARB on this latest incident. After not seeing any ARBs convened for several attacks on embassy properties with significant damages last year, we’re starting to think that an ARB in its current authority is not the best use of time/resources to assign accountability.

The notion that an ARB is convened to investigate security incidents that result in “serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property” and then keep the result secret and the interviewees secret is absurd. Add to that the fact that the Secretary of State did not even convene an ARB for all the mob attacks last year which resulted in significant destruction of embassy properties, makes one think that the ARB on its present form is not as useful or effective as it should be.  It also leaves the recommendation on whether or not the Secretary of State should convene an ARB on the hands of the Permanent Coordinating Council in the State Department, staffed by people who answer to their chain of command.

So – we’d much rather see the FBI conduct these investigations.

Also last Thursday, Lt. Col. Justin Kraft, the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team commander released the following statement via FB:

We recently lost three of our nation’s finest warriors. They were sons, brothers, one was a father, and all were men who lived, served and died with honor. They gave to their country and their brothers and sisters in arms the last full measure of their courage. 

We are less for this loss. 

Please keep their families in your thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.

DOD identified the three soldiers killed in the April 6 attack but to-date the identity of the DOD civilian who perished in the same attack had not been released. Who was he/she? Did he/she leave behind a family?

On April 14, Staff Sgt. Chris Ward was buried at Oak Ridge. According to knoxnews.com, Maj. Gen. Jeffory Smith, commander of Fort Knox, Ky., presented  the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star to Ward’s mother. The passing of these casualties was heartbreaking  to their loved ones, fellow soldiers and largely ignored by the public. The death of  three  soldiers in the battlefield of Afghanistan … not much was said.

On April 18, knoxnews.com also reported that Kelly Hunt, the State Department employee wounded in the attack arrived earlier this week at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington.  Friends of Ms. Hunt at her home state are organizing a fund-raiser online to help the family.  You can check it out here. We have been looking but have not been able to find a contact email for the organizers.  The family Friends of Ms. Hunt have also put up a Facebook page – Kelly Hunt’s Road to Recovery , it includes updates from Dinah Hunt, Kelly’s mother.

 

— DS

 

Updated on April 22@1720 PST with info on ARB

Updated on April 22 @21:41 PST with FB page correction; page put up by friends not family.

 

 

 

 

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