The Chicago Tribune gained access to the 2013 U.S. Army report on the death of State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan.
She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians, three soldiers and a local interpreter killed in what was once the deadliest day of last year for Americans in Afghanistan. There’s always a new record set.
Because karma demands balance, the same day that Anne was killed “NATO” forces accidentally killed ten Afghan children in an air strike. The children’s crime was being in a house of a suspected Taliban man. Neither the U.S. Army report, nor any of Anne’s official mourners at State, mentioned the ten dead kids. Nothing about them in the Tribune story this week either.
The mission in which the four on the American side gave their lives was to allow a visiting State Department VIP participate in a book give-away to local Afghan kids, surrounded by media. These events were common in Iraq, and are common in Afghanistan, and are designed to generate “positive visuals.”
“Failed at All Levels”
The Army report cited by the Tribune (the State Department report on the incident remains forever classified) lays out in black and white what most people with knowledge of what really happened already knew: poor planning that “failed at all levels” led to the deaths. Specifics:
“The [security for Anne] platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school.”
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.”
The book event at the school was characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier 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 also desired “more media reporting.”
The people who created the mission that killed Anne have blood on their hands. However, in a statement in response to the new report, the State Department spokesperson only said “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission.”
Dying for a Mistake
A current Foreign Service Officer (FSO) meme is that if only they were not bound by overly-strict security rules, they would have been more successful in Afghanistan (Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan…) Diplomats, many say, perhaps in an attempt to seem less flaccid next to the military, should be allowed to assess their own risk. After all, they volunteered to be in harm’s way no less than the soldiers who die every day around them. Such a theme runs through Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s somewhat naive book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
Without disparaging Anne, though she too was perhaps naive, there is that question about risk. The issue is that almost no FSOs in the field are in a clear position to assess risk. Having done my own time in wartime Iraq, I rarely had access to the full intel picture, never knew who the Embassy had or had not told about my movement outside the wire and never knew what military action might have taken place before I got there. And what specific knowledge or training did I, or most any FSO, have on military tactics and risk assessment? I was in a very, very poor position to assess risk.
Instead, I trusted the State Department and others, as did Anne. What seems to have happened to her in part is that the desire to hold yet another pointless media event overshadowed a proper risk assessment by professionals and the taking of proper steps to mitigate that risk. To me, the “hero” tag applies when one knowingly acts, consciously setting aside personal safety (like running into a burning building to save a child), not when someone is gullible enough to stumble into something.
Everyone a Victim
As for the “helping others” part, well, I wrote a whole book about how little help we gave to Iraqis. In Anne’s case, her mission that day seemed highly skewed toward a VIP photo-op, what the Army called “Happy Snaps” and offered little to the Afghans except the chance to again serve as props for our attempts to dis-portray reality. How did the Afghan kids who were to receive books from Anne and the Afghan kids who were blown up by NATO that same day differ? Just an accident of location. Everyone was a victim.
In Iraq during my own service I came to realize I was putting my life, and those of the soldiers around me, at jeopardy so someone in Washington could have fresh photos for another Powerpoint proving we were winning. It would have been a poor exchange of my life if I had been killed doing that, and, with respect to the dead, it was a poor exchange for Anne, the three soldiers, and the interpreter.
For this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for.