Matthew Hoh has impeccable establishment credentials. From 2004 to 2007 he served 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. In 2010 investigative journalist Barbara Koeppel interviewed Hoh for The Nation. Why did this official with a promising career ahead of him take one giant step—out? "I had to. I just couldn’t stand the BS of it anymore."
Barbara Koeppel: The "BS of it"?
Matthew Hoh: The way certain issues are presented. The main ones are about why we’re there: that the Taliban created the conflict, 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.
Who has and hasn’t wanted to negotiate? It seems the US is now promoting talks.
This is new and good. What’s maddening is that we could have negotiated earlier, even in 2005.
Why do we support talks now?
Because the timing fits with our two scenarios. The administration and military both wanted 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. Now General Petraeus says we’ve made progress and can negotiate. 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."
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 timeline. Also, they had to stay long enough to make it plausible. And people don’t have a way to know what’s really happening.
Who will tell them? It’s dangerous for reporters to go out alone, so they embed with troops. Some journalists are good, but most don’t ask the right questions. They only look at tactical issues, like how many Afghan forces we’ve trained. For the bigger picture, reporters are briefed at headquarters by people like me—civilian or military—who do dog-and-pony shows. We also showed them to Congressional delegations, administration or military staff, development firms and think tanks.
Windshield tours to areas of progress, and Power-Point presentations that are tailored, depending on the visitor. But the briefings are almost always rosy, acknowledging some difficulties but predicting success. If delegations go out, we take them to what you can call Potemkin villages. These are places we want people to see, like a road we built. The presentations are for Congress. You’re not going to tell those funding the war that things aren’t going well.
What about the Taliban? The US said the Taliban didn’t want to negotiate.
This is just not true. Quetta Shura’s website had propaganda but also stated its goals—ending the occupation and governing its areas without interference. The second-largest group, Hizb-e-Islami, took a fifteen-point peace plan to Kabul after we pulled out some troops from their areas. They 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.
What about US claims that we’re winning the war with COIN [the counterinsurgency strategy]?
Our troops are getting killed in record numbers, and roadside bombs and assassinations have nearly doubled since 2009. 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 for the 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 Taliban or increased support for the Karzai government. You can’t.
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 getting rich and buying mansions in Dubai, why reform the government, have a negotiated settlement or peace? It also causes corruption. Government officials take 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 construction.
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 as 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.
This article was supported by the Henry Demarest Lloyd Fund at the Center for Investigative Reporting.