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.