Matthew Hoh’s Afghanistan: An Insider Talks
Matthew Hoh has impeccable establishment credentials. From 2004 to 2007 he served first as a Defense Department civilian on a reconstruction team and then as a Marine company commander in Iraq. In 2009 he was the State Department’s senior representative in Afghanistan’s Zabul province and political officer in Nangarhar province, areas of fierce fighting against the Taliban insurgency. But in September 2009 he resigned his post to protest the war.
“I had to. I couldn’t stand the BS of it anymore,” Hoh says. “Military officers and soldiers, people at the embassy—even at very senior levels—many privately said I did the right thing. Many said they would too, but couldn’t, for financial and career reasons.”
Now Hoh is director of the Afghanistan Study Group, which recently produced a report on a course of action to end the war. Over a period of months in 2010 investigative journalist Barbara Koeppel interviewed Hoh for The Nation to learn why this smart, skilled official, with a “calling” to serve his country and a high-level career ahead of him, took one giant step—out.
Barbara Koeppel: What do you mean by the “BS of it?”
Matthew Hoh: About the way certain issues are presented. The main ones are about why we’re there. That the Taliban created the conflict, that we are affecting Al Qaeda and that the US presence there is serving to stabilize the country. That Karzai and the US have wanted to negotiate and the Taliban haven’t. That we’re winning the war with our counterinsurgency strategy. That we’re reducing corruption.
Let’s start with why we’re there. The military and Bush and Obama administrations said it was to get rid of Al Qaeda and make the US and world safer. Yes, we have to fight them. But as for ousting them from Afghanistan? This is ridiculous. They’re currently not there! After we invaded and removed the Taliban government that sheltered them, bin Laden fled to Pakistan, Al Qaeda decentralized with a truly global presence and now has branches everywhere, even in Europe and America. They use local individuals or small cells that don’t require large safe havens to plan attacks, so why would they return? The CIA says only 50–100 are left in Afghanistan, which is a few more than the German police say are currently in Hamburg, let alone the 1,000–2,000 the State Department says are present in Iraq. Our efforts against Al Qaeda are not just ineffective; they don’t make sense. Worse, young Americans are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, while their families back home are being told their sacrifices are making us safer.
What about your second issue, about the Taliban being the only cause of instability and conflict in Afghanistan?
History tells a different story. The conflict is very complex, multi-dimensional and goes back three decades. In 2001–02 we installed a government in Kabul headed by Karzai. In doing this, we backed one side in a long civil war—the more progressive-secular and urban camp, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, and some Pashtuns and those who live in the north and west. But it excluded one-third of Afghans, the rural, religious, traditional camp, who are Pashtuns in the south and east—which include the Taliban—whose forerunners we backed in 1980s, against the Soviets.
So we create a government that rewards one side and excludes the other. So there are cracks in the political order we created. This gets much worse in 2005 or 2006, when we decided extend the government’s power into southern and eastern Pashtun areas. At the same time, various elements of the Taliban and other insurgent factions had strengthened and returned into parts of Afghanistan.The push went badly, since villagers rebelled, turning to the Taliban to get rid of the outsiders. And so the cycle began. We add more troops, which strengthens the Taliban and weakens support for the government. Suicide attacks, IEDs, military and civilian dead or wounded—all rise commensuratelywith eachincrease in foreign troop or Afghan government presence. We misunderstand many ofthecauses of support for the Taliban. They didn’t wear sandwich boards or hand out pamphlets to win people. They are the Pashtuns. Most don’t want to rule the country. They just want to get rid of the occupiers.
Could you explain your next point—that the US says it has wanted to negotiate and the Taliban haven’t. As of last month, the US is promoting talks.
This is new, and good. What’s maddening is that we could have negotiated earlier, even in 2005. We claimed we supported talks, but the evidence is contrary. It’s only now that we’re giving Taliban leaders safe passage to Kabul. Before, we would have captured or killed them. And as long as we kept pouring in $100 billion a year for the war, Karzai had no incentive to reconcile.
When I was in Nangarhar in 2009, an Air Force commander asked me about our reconciliation policybecause Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the leader of the second-largest Taliban faction) told him they wanted to start talks. I said “I’ve got a blacklist”—the kill and capture list—“but nothing on reconciliation.”I contacted our Kabul embassy, which said, “Stay out of it. Only the Afghans should be involved.”
But we were involved. The US and NATO had 100,000 troops there. If we didn’t take a serious role in the peace process, it wouldn’t happen.
Also, our preconditions were total nonstarters. We insisted the Taliban accept the Constitution, which they can’t, because it gives the Karzai government absolute say andexcludes the populationfrom which they draw theirsupport. We demanded they lay down their arms. But why should they surrender when a third of Afghans support them and they see themselves winning, or at least in a stalemate;let alone they portray themselves as an army of national liberation?
Directly talking to Afghans in the south and east led me to understand most Taliban groups are tired and want to stop fighting;it’s been near constant for over thirty years. But they’re not going to surrender. The US should drop these conditions, realizing Karzai must address the Pashtuns’ grievances, share power and bring Taliban fighters into the security forces. Our third condition, that the Taliban must renounce Al Qaeda, is still correct.
Our refusal to negotiate weakened our diplomats. Imagine you’re Ambassador Eikenberry or Special Envoy Holbrooke, and you want to push diplomacy. But your boss, Hillary Clinton—the senior diplomat in the US—pushes a military solution. It cuts the knees out from under anyone outside the Pentagon who was advocating for any alternative strategy.
There have been reports for a couple of years of talks between elements of the Taliban and the Karzai government, and in 2008 the British supposedly endorsed such talks. However, the talks never went anywhere because the US didn’t back them. Secretary of Defense Gates even called them “defeatist.” Without the US support of talks, the Karzai government’s interest is really half-hearted at best.
Why didn’t Karzai want to reconcile?
Why did he have to? He was propped up by Americans, British and Canadians who were spending billions that lined his and his friends’ pockets. His camp’s been fighting theiropposition for decades (although alliances have often shifted), so why give them a share of the pot?
Only last winter, when Obama said we might withdraw in eighteen months, did Karzai probably feel any real pressure to negotiate.
Why do we support talks now?
Because the timing fits with our two scenarios.
The Administration and military want the war to end, but the military didn’t want to be seen as “losing” Afghanistan, though everyone knows it’s a stalemate or worse, that we’re losing. Now, General Petraeus says we’ve made progress and can negotiate. Meanwhile, thousands more Americans and Afghans died and were wounded and more billions of dollars were wasted.
The administration wanted to stay for political reasons, to win what they call “the right war” and do it closer to the 2012 elections. It wanted to prove Democrats are tough and the president can say, We gave the generals the extra troops, they beat the Taliban and we can withdraw.And we’re closer to 2012.
America has a strong militaristic streak, which is why Obama and McCain campaigned on winning in Afghanistan. There’s also the fear factor. Last Christmas, when that guy tried to light his underwear to blow up the plane over Detroit, do you remember the cry from Republicans that Obama was weak on terror? Can you imagine if he hadn’t put in the 30,000 troops (plus the 21,000 in spring 2009)? He’d have been painted as the typical Democrat, soft on terror and weak on defense.