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.