Matthew Hoh’s Afghanistan: An Insider Talks

Matthew Hoh’s Afghanistan: An Insider Talks

Matthew Hoh’s Afghanistan: An Insider Talks

Why did the senior State Department representative resign from his Afghanistan post? The full interview.


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.

How do you link more troops to the guy on the plane?

There’s no link. In Washington, there’s a total link. John Boehner, the House minority leader, was arguing, “If we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to fight them here.” It’s terrible, playing politics with fear and foreign affairs and war. Politicians on both sides of the aisle do it. And lots of ordinary Americans, who haven’t traveled and seen the outside world, are easily frightened and demagogued.

Are the scenarios in writing?

No. People were too savvy to do that.

Since the generals got the extra troops—21,000 in spring 2009 and 30,000 approved last December—why didn’t they say a few months later that they won and negotiate?

It didn’t fit the time line. Also, they had to stay long enough to make it plausible. And people don’t have a way to know what’s really happening. Not in Washington. Not even in Afghanistan.

Why not?

Who will tell them? It’s dangerous for reporters to go out alone, so they embed with troops and do good pieces about the problems they face. For the bigger picture, reporters are briefed at headquarters by people like me, civilian or military, who do dog and pony shows.

Dog and pony shows?

PowerPoint presentations and windshield tours to areas of progress. We also show them to Congressional delegations, administration or military staff, academics, development firms and think tanks. There are multiplevarieties of briefings andtours, which areupdated and tailored depending on the visitor.But the briefings are almost always rosy: acknowledging some difficulties,but predicting success.


You’re at your desk all day and never get to see where an IED went off or a house where a grenade exploded. If you do speak with Afghans, they’re on our side or payroll, and tell stories we want to hear. It is extremely rare for a visitor to ever speak to Afghans with a different point of view. 

If delegations go out, we take them to what you can call Potemkin villages. These are theplaces we want people to see, like a school or road we built. Meanwhile, what’s happening a kilometer away is totally different. The Soviets did this. We did this in Iraq and probably in Vietnam.

I’m sure even in Caesar’s time, delegations from Rome visiting the legions in Germany were shown fortresses built to keep the barbarians out of conquered areas, or how barbarians were being taught to be citizens or economically independent. Some poor scribe probably drew something on a wall. Now we call them PowerPoints.

Some journalists are good, but most don’t ask the right questions. Like how being in Afghanistan makes us safe or building a farm in Helmand province affects Al Qaeda. They only look at tactical issues, like how many Afghan forces we’ve trained. Or how many farmers no longer grow opium. ABC’s Diane Sawyer is a good example. She came to Afghanistan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who flew her over the country and showed her some things. She also met Afghan authorities and troops. But she never challenged him. David Gregory, the new Meet the Press guy, did the same thing with Petraeus in August.

The presentations are really for Washington consumption.

For whose, specifically?

Congress. You’re not going to tell the ones who fund the war that things aren’t going well.

Could you tell visitors what was happening?

Yes. When the embassy briefed Congressman [John] Murtha’s staff, my colleague there was annoyed they were given the same old line. She had them call us in Zabul, for a more honest view.

Were you ever rebuked?

A couple times. In Kandahar I told military commanders and political officers that Pashtuns in the south boycotted the elections. Also, not to expect the development aspectof COIN [the US counterinsurgency strategy] to work—that I’d seen the same development-focused strategies not work in Iraq. Later my boss reprimanded me for being “too negative.”

What about the US stating that the Taliban didn’t want to negotiate until now?

This is just not true. There are even press reports on Taliban attempts to talk. A few factions have talked with the Afghan government and UN for a couple years. For example, in 2008 the Saudis hosted secret meetings, which were backed by Britain. CNN and the Asia Times both covered this.

The website of the Quetta Shura (the biggest Taliban faction),, had lots of propaganda but also stated their goals—ending the occupation and governing their areas without interference. It also told Pakistan’s military and ISI [its intelligence agency] that it wants peace and their help in obtaining it, which was reported in the Asia Times.Most importantly, the Quetta Shura’s No. 2 man, Mullah Baradar, was arrested by the Pakistanis (with US help) last year for talking to the Karzai government.

Last spring the second-largest group, Hizb-e-Islami, took a fifteen-point peace plan to Kabul after we pulled out some troops from their areas—where we’d fought since 2006. It said they wanted new elections, for the government to remain in place and their fighters to join Afghan security forces. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. The New York Times reported it. 

I thought the third faction, the Haqqani network, with its ties to Pakistan’s Taliban and Al Qaeda, was too extreme to negotiate with. But it met with Karzai’s government last June and in July, Pakistan said it could bring them into talks. So maybe we can talk with them. This was reported in the New York Times.

Could you talk about your fourth point—the claim that we’re winning the war with COIN?

The idea is you put thousands of troops in an area to secure it and support the government so it can bring services to people who need them. You then win their hearts and minds and they turn against insurgents. Supporters of the current policy point to Iraq, where back in 2006 and 2007 thousands were killed every month, and now, deaths are in the hundreds. But this improvement is not because of COIN. Mainly, it’s because we changed our strategy and started dealing with the various insurgent groups separately as well as addressing many Sunni grievancesAlso, by the time the surge began in Iraq, Baghdad had more or less segregated itself along Sunni and Shia lines, which led to a significant decrease in the violence in 2007 and the Iraqi government (through our pressure) began to reel in many of the Shia death squads. I think, too, that the understanding that the US would not remain forever in Iraq was beginning to set in, which changed the perspective of many in Iraq to that of understanding that some degree of reconciliation would be necessary among various groups.

So, I don’t agree that COIN or the surge led to the stabilization of the Iraq conflict post-2007. Actually I am unsure that anyconflict has beenresolved this way. In Afghanistan, things will stabilize when we pull our troops out and the villagers don’t need the Taliban any more, as I think we may be seeing in those parts of eastern Afghanistan where we have reduced our presence.

Second, the more troops we add, the more people turn to the Taliban. Our troops are getting killed in record numbers, and roadside bombs and assassinations nearly doubled since 2009. Marines launched a huge offensive last winter in Marja and still couldn’t clean out the Taliban. In September’s elections, of the 50,000–80,000 people in Marja, only 400 voted. Clearly they’re not embracing the government that held elections.

Third, there’s no link between the $336 billion we’ve spent for the troops—and we’re adding another $119 billion in 2011—and increased support from Pashtuns who make up the bulk of the support for the Taliban. We’ve also spent over $50 billion for development and to train Afghan forces. Show me one area where because of our development spending we’ve decreased the conflict, decreased support for the Talibanorincreased support for the Karzai government. You can’t.

Fourth, even if villagers need things, they don’t want them brought in by outsiders who ignore cultural and ethnic issues. Say you’re a rural Pashtun. In comes the American military, bringing their Afghan buddies who are not from the region, incredibly corrupt, and completely exclude you. It would be the same if the UN assigned Irish, black and Hispanic firemen to Boston’s North End, which is Italian. They’re Bostonians, but the wrong type, particularly if they’ve been fighting you for years.

Last, how can you do development in war zones? When experts talk about a “right way” to do it, they miss the point. You can flood a country with money, but it won’t work unless there’s political stability. Things get blown up or not used. For example, schools don’t always open because teachers won’t come to such dangerous areas. Or so much money is siphoned off, there’s not enough to pay them. When people who support COIN say we built things in the north and west, and people valued them, it’s true. But there, the population was on our side and the provinces were stable.

So what effect has COIN had?

Afghanistan is swimming in money, which not only hasn’t ended the war, but prolongs it, because everyone’s chasing it. If you’re on the outside and not profiting, you fight to get it. If you’re getting rich and buying mansions in Dubai, why reform the government, have a negotiated settlement or peace? I argue we should stop the flow until we get political stability.

It also causes corruption. First, government officials take about 10 to 40 percent. Next, local power brokers—who often include people we call the Taliban—get their share. The last 10 to 40 percent goes to those who do the construction. But even here, contractors have to pay off their government connections—because without them, they wouldn’t be allowed to bid.

Who else benefits?

MH. A lot of US firms. When you send 30,000 more troops, you need 50,000 more contractors to support them. They all have lobbyists, just like other industries. So of course the guys selling fuel, uniforms or helicopters are happy. It’s the same with firms that train Afghan forces and teachers, or build a legal system or roads. Like the people who create the theories, many have good intentions. But the ideas and projects are promoted by institutions that profit from them.

Another problem is the way we do projects, and I include the World Bank and UN. I saw this in Iraq, and it’s the same in Afghanistan. Say I’m USAID, and I give an American firm a large bulk contract to build schools. The firm sub-contracts the projects out, over and over, until they finally get to where people build some things. All along the way, everyone takes a cut, with the American contractor first.

So when Congress gives $10 billion for development, up to 40 percent can stay in or returns to US companies to manage the projects. That’s $3 billion or $4 billion! In the end, only 10 cents to 40 cents of each dollar gets to the projects.

You say the war is misguided. Why?

Americans always see what’s happening in a first-person story—how it affects our national interests—not underlying causes, who the players are, or why a country is unstable. We think the problem in Afghanistan is Al Qaeda or the Taliban. But they’re not the reasons why Afghans are fighting each other. The old, real issues must be resolved.

What should the US do now?

We have to address the political cause of the conflict, or we’ll never negotiate a settlement. The Afghanistan Study Group’s recommendations state that Afghans have to reconcile their differences among themselves. Also, that Afghanistan’s neighbors—Pakistan, India, Iran and others like Russia and China—have to see peace talks reflecting their interests. If they don’t, they’ll sabotage the process. Until now, Pakistan and India haven’t been willing to take part. That’s why the US must push for and lead the talks—to bring them to the table.

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