Matthew Hoh: US Has Lost Track of Why It is In Afghanistan


Matthew Hoh, the first US government official to formally resign his post because of objections to America’s course in Afghanistan, makes a compelling case that America has lost its strategic sensibilities in this war which President Obama has adopted as “the good war”.
In this Al Jazeera/Riz Kahn Show interview above, the former military and foreign service officer articulates what some of us on the outside have been saying about America’s engagement in Afghanistan — there is confusion about mission, a lack of focus on al Qaeda, a muddled picture of the contours and motivations of the Taliban, and embrace of a government that is not liked in many parts of the country. Hoh argues, along similar but more informed lines that I have, that we are embedded in the middle of a civil war.
Read more about Matthew Hoh in this fascinating piece by the Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung.
— Steve Clemons


18 comments on “Matthew Hoh: US Has Lost Track of Why It is In Afghanistan

  1. Kathleen Grasso Andersen says:

    Boy, you can say that again..I never quite accepted our reasoning for going to Afghanistan in the first place..thank heaven for men with the courage of their conviction like Ellsberg and Hoh.
    On aother front, there’s some really good news…
    23 CIA agents convicted
    in kidnapping, torture trial in Italy
    CIA station chief defense: ‘I am not guilty. I am only responsible
    for following an order I received from my superiors’
    They acted under orders from Bush and Cheney. Today, however, an Italian court convicted 23 American involved in the CIA’s kidnap and rendition/torture program.
    Around the world, and right here in the United States, outraged people are demanding that the architects of the criminal enterprise – Bush and Cheney – be brought to justice.
    Twenty-two of the convicted Americans were immediately sentenced to five years in jail.
    The other convicted American, Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, was given the harshest sentence: eight years in prison. “I am not guilty. I am only responsible for following an order I received from my superiors,” Lady was quoted as saying by the newspaper Il Giornale.
    As the Associated Press writes, “The trial is the first by any government to scrutinize the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which human rights advocates charge was the CIA’s way to outsource the torture of prisoners to countries where it is practiced.” The defendants were tried in abstentia and are considered fugitives.
    This is a crucial step on the road to justice. But it must go to those at the top, to the architects of these criminal acts.
    It is noteworthy that the defense offered by the attorneys of the convicted was that they were following the orders of the Bush/Cheney White House.
    From Italy to Spain and Germany, court proceedings have taken place or are underway against Bush-era crimes.
    ‘We The People’ must let the world know that the American people too will not tolerate torture, secret prisons, kidnappings, assassinations and wars of aggression. Unless Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are held accountable before the law it will send a message to the world that future U.S. officials can repeat these dastardly acts with impunity.
    This movement has truth on its side. It also has public opinion on its side. As the convictions in Italy show it is gaining strength globally. We are organizing at full speed now and in the months ahead.
    Will wonders never cease.


  2. DonS says:

    Yeah, actually, it’s pretty amazing the fast track exposure Hoh has gotten. The ins and outs of that would be pretty interesting . . .
    I suppose one could cynically speculate that if this ex junior officer, military and civilian, is the loudest voice for the ‘opposition’ Obama has to contend with, as far as prominent national exposure of ideas from a fresh source, it’s not much of a problem.


  3. Zathras says:

    DonS’ first observation in his post upthread is correct. I did not want to be too harsh on Karen DeYoung, a fine and experienced reporter, because it wasn’t clear to me that her mistake was deliberate, as opposed to having been produced by confusion or editing for length.
    As to the second point, it doesn’t appear to me that anyone was trying to keep Mr. Hoh “under wraps.” He seems to have been regarded as a bright young man and a valuable government employee, albeit one who drew different conclusions from facts well known to the people to whom he reported. It may or may not be true that the Obama administration is well aware that there is limited damage a junior official who resigned his most recent posts a couple of months after taking it can do to its Afghan policy. In general, I don’t assume that this administration will always react to potentially awkward but not critical personnel situations like this in the same way the Bush administration would have.


  4. Linda says:

    One minor correction as I was writing in a hurry and meant to say that I hadn’r reread the Columbia Review of Journalism article about the above in a long time.
    If anyone is interested, just goggle Project Censored for 1989, and you will find a summary of the WSJ incident there. We can either believe or not believe what we read in newspapers, but we can’t read at all what editors decide not to publish.


  5. Linda says:

    Robert Naiman,
    I totally agree with what you wrote and what impressed me was how his caring, curiosity, and diligence caused him to read up on history of Afghanistan before he resigned and spoke out.
    If one doesn’t know the long history or at least the last 25 years (and it’s unlikely Hoh was paying attention to this as a teenager), then one really can’t understand US and Afghanistan as Steve Coll and others have written, blow-back, the pipeline/Unocal/Khalilzad/Karzai, etc.
    And the media are to blame as well including a courageous journalist Mary Williams Walsh who was the WSJ correspondent there during the war–way before Daniel Pearl. U.S. journalists did not get into Afghanistan to cover that war, but mostly were in Peshawar and were invited into Afghanistan rarely. A stringer for CBS News was there and would invite other journalists to come in and observe “battles” from afar, if I recall correctly, just watching explosions from afar.
    Ms. Walsh learned that these were being faked for the press, research that stringer and found out that he had a very unsavory past including felon convictions in US. I haven’t read the story which is in Columbia Review of Journalsim for anyone who is interested–so I might be off a little on a few details.
    WSJ was about to nominate Walsh for a Pulitzer for her coverage of the war, but they refused to publish her story–so she resigned and went to work for LA Times and then NY Times.
    The foreign and military policy experts keep getting US into these endless unwinnable wars. We need more of the common sense and common decency of Mary Williams Walsh and Matthew Hoh.


  6. Mr.Murder says:

    GH Venture Partners was big on the initial pipeline bid as well. Kissinger was once a board member, they helped lopbby the money going to the pipeline trails’ flavor of the month warlords preceding 9-11.


  7. ... says:

    the usa has lost it’s way period…. fill in the blanks in any number of directions… it is like a dead carcass where all sorts of deadly diseases are ready to be released to anyone who goes near.. whether it be the military industrial complex that has been running things in the usa for so long, or any other area, the usa is essentially devoid of anything good or relevant…
    personally i am waiting for the other financial shoe to drop… it is only a matter of time…


  8. Harry Governick says:

    Matthew Hoh may believe the U.S. has lost track of why It is in Afghanistan, but I haven’t lost track, and doubt if Haliburton and oil industry friends have lost track:
    A brief snippet from the above referenced government site:
    Mr. MARESCA (Unocal Corporation). Congressman, I am not here to defend the Taliban. That is not my role. We are a company that is trying to build a pipeline across this country [Afghanistan].
    Mr. ROHRABACHER (R – CA). I sympathize with that. By the way, you are right. All factions agree that the pipeline will be something that’s good. But let me warn you that if the pipeline is constructed before there is a government that is acceptable at a general level to the population of Afghanistan and not just to international, other international entities, other governments, that your pipeline will be blown up. There is no doubt about that. I have been in and out of Afghanistan for 15 years. These are very brave, courageous people. If they think they are being stepped on, just like the Soviets found out, they are going to kick somebody back. They are not going to lay down and let somebody put the boot in their face. If the government that is receiving the funds that you are talking about is a government that is not accepted by a large number of people in Afghanistan, there will continue to be problems. You say you have had a positive relationship with all the factions. That is what you are presenting to us today.


  9. Robert Naiman says:

    I have a very slight disagreement with Linda: if you
    read Matthew Hoh’s letter of resignation, and Karen
    DeYoung’s excellent piece in the Washington Post,
    it’s obvious that where Hoh is coming from is not
    just direct observation. Direct observation caused
    him to start questioning what the U.S. is doing; as
    a result of his doubts, he started reading. A person
    who was just coming from a place of direct
    observation wouldn’t begin his critique by saying
    that the U.S. is intervening on one side of a 35-
    year-old civil war (first paragraph of Hoh’s
    resignation letter.)


  10. DonS says:

    Zathras, your right about characterizing Hoh’s mode of employment, but that is the WAPO’s fault, not Hoh’s. What is really clear, regardless of terms of employment, is that the government and the military went way out of their way to try to keep Hoh in the fold; read ‘under wraps’. Why, besides his articulateness, I don’t know. At least they didn’t shoot him on his way out the door, but we can watch for the backstabbing to begin anytime now to discredit his views. If the WH thought so damn much of his views before his departure, they certainly have not embraced them, and it is just crazy for the WH to appear to give credence to such an unorthodox person and say, oh yeah, we have room for him in a VERY IMPORTANT POST in our Afghan outreach even though his take on the situation is everything that the WH tries to deny or hide.


  11. JohnH says:

    Sad that serious discussion of American foreign policy can be conducted on Al Jazeera but not in American corporate media.
    Most of the debate has focused narrowly on the choice of the right MILITARY solution.
    I call this the “ready-fire-aim” syndrome. The only thing in question is the choice of weapon to fire.
    American foreign policy is clearly on the rocks. It’s time to replace the “War on Terror” with a “War on Error.”


  12. PissedOffAmerican says:

    October 29, 2009
    Desperately Seeking Peacenik, Pot-Smoking Hippies
    There were several issues I wanted to discuss in my previous post about Matthew Hoh and his resignation, but I finally decided I was unable to include them, primarily because they were off the track of my central argument. Since I published the earlier article, Hoh participated in an online chat at the Washington Post. (Many thanks to reader D.K. for alerting me to it.) In that discussion, Hoh made a number of statements that confirm all my major earlier points — and he also offered some statements about a new subject that demand comment.
    I. Give Me the Hippies. Please.
    To begin, let’s again note this passage from the Washington Post story about Hoh’s resignation:
    “I’m not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love,” Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the “second-best job I’ve ever had,” his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.
    “There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed,” he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys.”
    I discussed the second paragraph in detail in my earlier post, showing why I consider it unspeakably awful. Here, I want to talk about the very first sentence: “I’m not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love.”
    Many of those deeply opposed to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan seem to regard this statement as strengthening the case for the truth of Hoh’s objections to U.S. strategy, as if to say: “See? Hoh isn’t some drugged-out nutcase, who’s opposed to war like some disgusting appeaser! He’s not against all wars, just against this war! That’s why we should listen to him!”
    They appear to think this is a good argument. People should be careful about the premises they (perhaps) inadvertently accept in their eagerness to advance their case. I have a very different view of Hoh’s statement. My immediate reaction when I read that statement has remained unchanged, and it is very simply this:
    Why not? What the hell is wrong with that?
    Hoh implicitly relies on the fact that what’s “wrong with that” is so self-evidently obvious that it need not even be stated. Everyone — or at least all respectable, serious people — has nothing but contempt for those peacenik, pot-smoking hippies, so we don’t even need to explain why. But, Mr. Hoh, and others who may be of like mind, yes, you do.
    If a substantial number of people were seriously and consistently devoted to peace, and if they were genuine embodiments of compassion and empathy for others and urged everyone else to behave in the same way, the world would be an infinitely better place than it is now. And if such individuals did all this in a notably relaxed, non-confrontational way, so much the better.
    So I repeat: What the hell is wrong with that? I could offer many more words about the highly dubious nature of a style of argument that trades on negative, cheap and lazy stereotypes and offers them as accurate and truthful judgments, but never mind all that. Fill in the details as you wish. I’ll only wonder the following: if we’re going to conduct public discussions in this manner, what might be said about a former Marine, “many of [whose] closest friends” are also Marines, who was “never more happy” than when he was “whacking” some bad “dudes” in a criminal war of aggression? Well, I’ll leave it to others to say whatever they think appropriate about that. If I have to choose between the two stereotypes, give me the hippie any day. Please.
    II. The Online Chat in General, and the Great Danger of the Arbitrary
    As I read through the online chat, my major impression was how utterly conventional Hoh sounds. On many specific topics, he sounds no different from many politicians or other national leaders. It is certainly true that no other high level official has resigned over Afghanistan, but see my earlier essay for the reasons as to why I view that as ultimately meaningless given Hoh’s overall views, especially his enthusiastic willingness to murder in other criminal wars of aggression. And with regard to Afghanistan, it’s not as if Hoh is the only person raising these concerns about U.S. strategy. The fact that these objections are fairly well-known, and that many people oppose continued or increased U.S. involvement on those particular grounds, is one of the primary reasons that Obama has delayed an announcement on his decision regarding any future commitment for as long as he has. Moreover, Hoh’s comments in the chat confirm one of my earlier arguments: that all of these facts about Afghanistan were easily accessible to any intelligent layperson long before this latest U.S. involvement, just as was true in Vietnam and in Iraq.
    You can read the chat for yourself, and make your own judgment about this issue. But for me, the conventional nature of Hoh’s statements and approach made me begin to wonder precisely why he resigned, and if there was some additional reason that he hasn’t identified. It’s not that I disbelieve him, for I have no reason to. But my question, one which only grew stronger in my mind as I read his comments, is: Why did he draw the line here exactly? Why not somewhere else? And, most importantly, why not in Iraq? But as we know, he was “never more happy” than when he “whacked” some bad guys in Iraq, although neither he nor any other U.S. personnel had any right to be there.


  13. samuelburke says:

    “I would not know what ‘victory’ means. … In this sort of war, one controls what one can take and hold and police with ground forces; one does not control what one bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of all contingencies that anyone should come to us on his knees and inquire our terms, whatever the escalation of our effort. …
    “If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation – to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale.”
    “It was Dec. 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the “Outlook” section – George Kennan calling for a major reality check”


  14. Zathras says:

    Not a knock on this Matthew Hoh fellow, but the Washington Post story evidently characterized him as a Foreign Service Officer. He wasn’t:
    Another comment on his personal situation, from a Canadian veteran of Afghanistan (2nd paragraph):
    Hoh’s resignation letter captured very well some of the difficulties facing the mission in Afghanistan. Some of the reporting on his departure from the service seemed a little too driven by what one reporter wanted to see; though the Post article was a longer than usual piece, it’s also possible that some detail was cut out of the story to reduce its length.


  15. PissedOffAmerican says:

    By the way, “trend lines” may well be defined as increased violence, as well as Israel feeling empowered to escalate its eradication of the troublesome community of genetic inferiors squatting on the Israeli property in the Gaza strip. We just gave them carte blanche permission to be the sole framers of Middle Eastern “trend lines”.
    I wonder, does the term “trend lines” come to mind when one is watching their wife, child, or husband melt in a shower of white phosphorous, or is one more prone to simply consider terms like “suicide belt”, “infidel”, and “jihad”?
    I have never been so ashamed of my government.


  16. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Obama’s Outreach to Muslim World Teetering
    by Jim Lobe, November 04, 2009
    Email This | Print This | Share This | Comment | Antiwar Forum
    U.S. President Barack Obama’s extraordinary efforts since his first days in office to reassure Muslims in the Greater Middle East about U.S. intentions in the region have suffered a series of setbacks that threaten to reverse whatever gains he has made over the past 10 months in restoring Washington’s badly battered image and influence there.
    From Pakistan – where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got an earful of growing anti-U.S. sentiment last week – to the West Bank and East Jerusalem – where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has successfully defied Washington’s demands that he freeze Jewish settlement activity – events appear to have strayed far from the president’s original game plan.
    As for the vast territory that lies between, the badly tarnished election victory claimed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai raises new questions over the viability of what Obama himself called as recently as August “a war of necessity,” while Iran’s failure so far to accept a U.S.-backed plan to export most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) for reprocessing looks increasingly likely to foil his hopes for détente on that front.
    Meanwhile, a series of devastating bombings in recent weeks has raised the specter of renewed ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq, while the widely anticipated U.S. rapprochement with Syria – as well as the resolution of the protracted political impasse in Lebanon – appears to have stalled.
    Few analysts blame Obama alone for the lack of substantial progress on these fronts. In a number of cases, unanticipated events, like the rapid deterioration in security in Afghanistan – and forces over which the administration exercises little or no control, such as the hard-line governments and domestic politics of Israel and Iran – have sabotaged his hopes.
    But disappointment is clearly on the rise among those who believed that Obama’s realist foreign policy strategy of “engaging” foes, and his oft-repeated determination to achieve a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict “from day one” of his presidency, promised rapid improvement in Washington’s standing after eight years of catastrophic decline under George W. Bush.
    “There is a general concern now, especially in the Arab world, that the administration is not delivering with respect to any issues in the region,” said Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who withdrew his appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council (NIC) earlier this year in the face of a media campaign by neoconservative critics close to Israel’s Likud Party.
    “I think there’s been quite a difference between how Obama as a person is perceived and how the U.S. government as an institution is perceived,” he added. “I think what may be happening is that Obama is sinking into the generally negative view of the U.S. government in the region rather than transcending it as he once did.”
    “He started really well, particularly in his speeches in Istanbul [in April] and in Cairo [in June], in changing how the region perceives America and in setting forth a vision of the kinds of relationships he wanted,” said Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Project at the New America Foundation.
    “But those words have not been followed up by the kind of deep restructuring of policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians that [former president Richard] Nixon implemented toward China,” he added. “If he had done so, the trend lines we’re seeing in the region might not be as negative as they appear at the moment.”
    Steve, any chance of you nabbing an interview, or a guest post, from Goldstone?
    BTW, are you ashamed of Maddow and Olberman yet?


  17. Steve Clemons says:

    Linda — totally agree with your assessment. I hope to invite Matthew Hoh to one of our public policy programs at the New America Foundation.
    best, Steve Clemons


  18. Linda says:

    Thanks, Steve, for finally writing about Matthew Hoh who last week spoke out as a matter of conscience about the futility and the realities of our involvement in Afghanistan and perhaps became the Daniel Ellsberg of this war but with even more credibility than Ellsberg had.
    Ellsberg also had been in the Marines, but did not serve in combat at all. Indeed he spent his entire career in the braintrust of the military-industrial-complex at RAND and DOD. Both men had crises of conscience and did the right thing.
    Hoh had no access to secret classified documents like the “Pentagon Papers”, no doctorate, no experience with game theory and foreign policy, and thus no ability to intellectualize or rationalize in fancy theories to explain away the facts he observed on the ground in Afghanistan. And he could not be co-opted into “serving” at a higher level in State Department.
    He just his very good common sense, intellect, and conscience and did the right thing. He is a true American hero. I hope this administration will listen to him and heed his wisdom.


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