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Matthew Hoh: Foreign Service official resigns in protest over Afghan war

Matthew Hoh was asked to stay in the job.
Matthew Hoh was asked to stay in the job. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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Matthew Hoh
Former Foreign Service officer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 1:00 PM

Matthew Hoh, a former Foreign Service officer and former Marine Corps captain who last month became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, was online Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the reasons why he thought the war "wasn't worth the fight."

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Matthew Hoh: Hi Matthew Hoh here to talk about my resignation from my post in Afghanistan. I look forward to your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't you have known before going to Afghanistan that the war was pretty intractable? I mean, the history of the country is clear. What new information did you learn that so completely changed your mind about U.S. involvement there?

Matthew Hoh: I did study quite a bit and I spoke to many friends and colleagues who had previously served in Afghanistan. I did have concerns about the endstate of our goals in Afghanistan, but also felt the need to contribute and to continue to serve. Upon arriving in Afghanistan and serving in both the East and the South (and particularly speaking with local Afghans), I found that the majority of those who were fighting us and the Afghan central government were fighting us because they felt occupied. This concurred with history I had read and with what colleagues had told me.

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Medina, N.Y.: I can appreciate that you have seen first-hand the problems we face in Afghanistan but I wonder and worry about what is going to happen in Pakistan if we leave?

Matthew Hoh: I feel that our two goals in that region should be the defeat of al-Qaeda and the stabilization of Pakistan (because of its possession of nuclear weapons and because of its history/relationship with India). By no means am I a Pakistan expert, but I do know we need to dedicate resources (personnel and money-but not troops) to ensure Pakistan's government remains successful. I don't know if this means we toughen our stance with Pakistan (to the point we threaten our lack of support) or whether we provide support in total with no strings attached. Regardless, 60,000 troops in Afghanistan, does not stabilize Pakistan. If anything, evidence suggests our presence in Afghanistan has destabilized Pakistan.

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Washington, D.C.: Not worth the fight? Have you forgotten about 9/11 and the failed state that existed before we entered Afghanistan? Do you want to give all we have accomplished, removing the Taliban from power, taking away al-Qaeda's safe haven, making it possible for women to get an education, etc., back to the Muslim extremists? Isn't that letting them win?

Matthew Hoh: I disagree and I think it is emotional arguments like this that keep us tied to Afghanistan and to a policy that fuels the insurgency as well as adds credence to calls for global Islamic jihad. 9/11 was a tragedy for this country and we cannot let another event like that happen, particularly as we have still not recovered from the emotional shock of the event 8 years later. Additionally, events like 9/11 cause tremendous shock to world financial markets, something we cannot allow to occur, especially at this point in time. However, since 9/11 al-Qaeda has evolved and no longer will tie itself to a political state or geographical boundaries. They have turned into an ideological cloud that exists on the internet and recruits worldwide. Look at the makeup of the attackers for the 9/11, London and Madrid attacks and additionally looked at where they planned and trained for their operations. Heck, the 9/11 attackers trained here in the US! The people we are fighting, for the most part, in Afghanistan are fighting us because they do not want to be occupied by either a foreign army or a central government force. Simply put, al-Qaeda does not exist in Afghanistan and 60,000 troops with the hope of stabilizing the Afghan central government which may or may not succeed in 5-10 years time will not defeat al-Qaeda.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello there, I was recently admitted to the foreign service as a political officer. My parents and girlfriend are adamant that I not include Afghanistan or Pakistan to risk death for a botched war. You resigned from the Foreign Service because of the limits of our current strategy in Afghanistan. Since you are so well placed to understand both the strategic policies and the ground level realities, my question to you is: why didn't you accept the roles offered to you by Ambassador Eikenberry or Richard Holbrooke?

Matthew Hoh: Thank you for your question. I resigned because I reached a point in my conscience where I could not support the loss of American lives for a goal I don't believe serves strategic US interests. If I agreed with this policy, I would have remained working in Afghanistan at the provincial level.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't you think it's ridiculous that you are getting so much attention for quitting your job, yet, those who fight and die for us on a daily basis get little to no coverage in the media?

Matthew Hoh: I agree with your last part. I do believe coverage of those are the ground is severely lack both in quantity and quality. I am happy for the attention to my issues and to the points I am raising, because I believe they have been absent in the public debate of the war. On a personal note, I am ready for my 15 minutes to be up.

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Austin, Tex.: Do you have a sense of what will be the plight of the women in Afghanistan if the U.S. and U.N. forces were to pull out?

I don't see much coverage in the media of the women in Afghanistan.

Matthew Hoh: The plight of the Afghan women, particularly those who live in the Pashtun belt of the country is tragic and horrific. Girls are locked away for life as early as the age of 11 or 12 (and under the Taliban it may have been as early as age 7), only to leave the house escorted and completely covered. In the province I was in literacy was less than 1% for women and the only employment opportunity I was aware of was done by the US military in partnership with USAID and USDA--this was for roughly 20 widows to clean raisins. It is a terrible plight and it is anguishing to see, as I have a mother, sister, niece, girlfriend...However, we cannot justify the deaths of our young men and women for the goal of changing a society's internal cultural and familial norms. This is a goal best left to NGOs and IOs or through the US government's strategic communications. But this is a process that will take generations/decades.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think there's anything those of us in the F.S. could do to further push the administration towards your understanding of the war?

Matthew Hoh: Continue to write and report honestly and candidly. Speak truth to power at every opportunity.

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Woodbridge, Va: I am trying to get some clarity on the various arguments on this issue. General McCrystal says he needs an additional 60,000 troops to succeed in the mission he was assigned in March. As I understand your position, 1. the mission assigned in March is already beyond salvaging and 2. even if the U.S. succeeded in that specific mission, it would only delay the inevitable. Is that accurate? If so, the question really does seem to be less one of determining resources and more of deciding if it is time to cut our losses.

Matthew Hoh: Yes, I would concur with your assessment. However, please realize my purposes are to have people talk about the "why" of the war and not the "how".

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Chappaqua, N.Y.: To what do you attribute our failure to capture bin Laden, and do you think that his capture would further undermine the rationale for remaining in Afghanistan?

Matthew Hoh: I recently had the opportunity to brief senior administration officials. This was one of my strongest recommendations as a priority and necessity. Without capturing or killing al-Qaeda's senior leadership we will not defeat al-Qaeda.

As for the reasons for our failure to have already done so, I believe we need to not worry about pointing fingers at this point or reliving the past 8 years and need to move forward.

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Jerusalem, Israel: In your resignation letter you discuss the extent to which US troops are viewed as a foreign invader in Afghanistan. I am curious to get your views as to how you believe humanitarian agencies are viewed and two what degree USAID and other humanitarian agencies should link humanitarian space to counterinsurgency efforts.

Matthew Hoh: First, USAID is a US government organization and exists to support the policy goals of the United States. It should not be considered a humanitarian organization in the manner we view NGOs or IOs, such as the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, etc.

I think in most parts of the world aid organizations are welcomed, although in Afghanistan I believe there is some suspicion and distrust of all foreign organizations. Still, there are a lot of good organizations in Afghanistan doing a lot of good work helping local people. Generally, those organizations that work best are those that consist primarily of local staff led by well experienced expats who live and work with local populations.

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Karzai's brother, the CIA and opium: What are the implications to our ongoing presence in Afghanistan of the NYT disclosure that Karzai's brother has been on the CIA payroll the last 8 years and that he is also likely involved in the Afghan drug trade?

Matthew Hoh: I think it is a blight on us and is a smack in the face to those who have participated in counternarcotics efforts. It is also shows the duplicity or maybe the opposite the lack of coherence in our policies and goals in Afghanistan. We've known for a long time that Wali Karzai has been involved in the drug trade. Why are we sacrificing our young men and women to support such a regime? There are also many other undesirables at all levels of Afghan government.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you explain the nature of your employment with the State Department? I understand you were hired to work in Afghanistan on a limited, one-year contract. Are there a lot of people there under similar contracts?

Matthew Hoh: Yes, I was hired as a limited non-career foreign service officer. I was sworn into the foreign service as as foreign service officer for at temporary period of time. The US government "deputizes" people in such manner to make up for shortfalls in manning or to bring in people with specialized experience. Much of the "civilian surge" that you may have read about in Afghanistan consists of temporary government hires. Although it is a contract these positions should not be confused with contractors filling various logistics, security and intelligence positions.

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Arlington, Va.: I was struck by your very poignant description of allegiances in Afghan society and the dichotomy of the rural/urban populations. Having been involved with the Afghan expat community for some 20 years, I am dumbfounded that our policy does not recognize the hierarchy in allegiance, i.e., family, tribe, village, etc. Why don't our leaders understand this?

Matthew Hoh: Thank you for your comment. I am not sure about this either. Please help by writing to your elected officials, speaking to local groups and writing opinion pieces.

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Cumberland, Md.: Don't think that our over-emphasis on collateral damage and nation building is harming our effort to wage war effectively as we did in WW II?

Matthew Hoh: This isn't WWII and there shouldn't be a comparison. No one can kill better in this world than the US military, however, if killing was the means to victory we would have "won" this years ago. This is primarily a political fight.

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St. Louis, Mo.: "However, please realize my purposes are to have people talk about the "why" of the war and not the "how.".

Unfortunately we've seen only one Q and A thus far on the "why" of the war...and your answer was flimsy.

If the U.S. pulls out, and we support the Pakistanis with more aid (as you suggest), which would result in al-Qaeda fleeing back to Afghanistan, what would prevent a al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan?

You haven't address this question.

Matthew Hoh: I don't believe al-Qaeda would flee back to Afghanistan. I don't believe they operate any longer in a manner where they want or require the support of a nation-state. They additionally already have safe havens in numerous other failed states, occupying Afghanistan will not defeat them.

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Montgomery, Ala.: What is your preferred strategy for dealing with opium? Do you have any opinion about actually trying to buy the whole crop as some have suggested - to cut out a major source of corruption, addiction and perhaps give the farmers the wherewithal for an alternatives...?

Matthew Hoh: My thoughts on opium are this...

If we replace opium with another crop, a more legitimate crop, like wheat, then the local powers and the taliban will only tax that crop. Additionally, right now there is a complete value chain for opium in Afghanistan, from providing credit to purchase fertilizer and seed, to ready pools of manpower for harvesting, to a system for getting it processed and out of country to its market. Right now, no other crops have that chain. Without creating such a chain no other alternative crop will be successful.

I also feel there are many sources of income for the taliban, which also includes money skimmed or taken from our own reconstruction and development contracts...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How difficult is it to wage military operations in Afghanistan? Isn't every village practically a separate operation with little connection to the ongoings in other villages?

Matthew Hoh: Yes, very much so. The terrain is formidable to put it in an understated manner. The societal makeup to include the interaction of village to village and valley to valley, is such that allegiances seem to be to family and then to village/valley above and beyond anything else. This is why I use the term "valleyism" to explain the reasons why local populations are fighting us and the Afghan central government.

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Ottawa, Canada: What would you say to recently escaped DAVID ROHDE of the New York Times ?

Who wrote:

"Living side by side with the Haqqanis' followers, (over 7 months) I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world."

Matthew Hoh: This is a question I have been asking myself since I read it in his piece. This is what makes Afghanistan, and really any foreign policy issue, so difficult. Nothing is black and white and everything is so complex. I used to describe trying to understand a foreign culture as if you are trying to look at one of those paintings that were popular in the 90s. You know, the ones were you had to unfocus your eyes or stare through the photo, and then you would see the picture hidden behind. The problem with this is that there might not be a coherent, well defined picture behind the blur. We have to accept that.

I don't doubt that many of the men Mr. Rohde encountered during his captivity believe what he writes. I wonder how many actually believe and the total number of individuals. Also, if I recall right, Mr. Rohde then goes on to say that Haqqani's group was really criminal in nature, hiding behind a veneer of religious conviction. Please correct me if my recollection is not correct.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: There are those who state we need to stay in Afghanistan because we need to fight al Qaeda. Yet, is al-Qaeda staying in Afghanistan to fight back? Hasn't much of al-Qaeda moved into other countries?

Matthew Hoh: Yes, thank you for this post. This is one of my central arguments.

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washingtonpost.com: U.S. official resigns over Afghan war (Post, Oct. 27)

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Pittsfield, Mass.: Mr. Hoh, last month the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, cited the need to uphold "NATO's credibility" as a primary reason to continue the fight in Afghanistan. What do you think? Is the occupation dragging on just to maintain the credibility of the international community?

Matthew Hoh: I think this is a horrible argument to make in order to justify the lives of your soldiers. Seriously, if we and NATO withdraws, will that make the alliance crumble? If anything continued involvement in Afghanistan may cause fractures and fissures to appear within NATO due to the lack of popular support for the war in many European countries.

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Morristown, N.J.: Mr. Hoh, I very much appreciate and respect the position you have taken. As an Afghan-born American I have been doing development work in Afghanistan, I agree with your position. I believe that many in our government and in the military agree with you as well but are not speaking out. The best way for us to get effectiveness out of the Afghan government is to announce our timeline to exit Afghanistan. What is your thought on this?

Matthew Hoh: Yes, I agree and thank you for your work. When I would ask the provincial leadership in Zabul province how long the US should remain in Afghanistan, there answer was 20-30 years. My counterparts in other parts of the South reported similar conversations. When I would ask them why we should remain that long, they would say it was because only 10% of the people supported the government.

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Washington, D.C.: Would a little more thought go into the why of going to war, if the Congress actually had to declare war and that upon a declaration of war, the military draft was reinstated for the duration of said war?

Matthew Hoh: Absolutely. As a former professional military officer I am against the draft because I don't believe it leads to an effective military. However, as a private citizen I feel that a draft would engage our population in the debate. I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft.

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Leesburg, Va.: How much of the current situation in Afghanistan is a result of President Bush abandoning that particular war so soon so he could invade Iraq?

Matthew Hoh: We need to move past these issues and address the problems at hand as they presently are.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you know of other Foreign Service officers who also don't think we should be in Afghanistan, but don't have the guts to resign or even to express their reservations?

Matthew Hoh: Yes.

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washingtonpost.com: Resignation Letter of Matthew Hoh (pdf)

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Annapolis, Md.: If you were to speak with POTUS what course of action would you recommend?

Matthew Hoh: I would recommend stopping combat operations in valleys and villages where they are fighting us only because we are there, I would reduce our combat forces significantly with the ultimate aim of withdrawal in a year or two's time, reduce our development work, I would reverse the relationship of resources committed to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I would engage politically at the lowest level possible with Afghan leadership, to include Taliban, I would force Pakistan to remove the sanctuary offered to the Quetta shura in Pakistan, I would reevaluate how we conduct our foreign policy and defense operations around the world (have we really changed the way we conduct our foreign policy since 1991?), I would intensify our strategic communications efforts (we are the Land of Hollywood, but can't get our message out), etc.

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Washington, D.C.: Why did you go into the Foreign Service?

Matthew Hoh: I went into the Foreign Service to contribute. I've been in public service in one manner or another for the last 12 years and I felt this would be a way I could contribute to our nation's efforts. This was very disappointing for me on several levels. Thank you for this question.

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Matthew Hoh: Thank you for your questions everyone. Please continue this debate as it is very important. Again, thank you.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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