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Ex-State Department Official Explains Exit Over Afghan War Strategy

October 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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In an interview with Judy Woodruff, Matthew Hoh, the first U.S. official known to resign in protest to America's presence in Afghanistan, discusses his objections to the war.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, we continue our ongoing conversations on Afghanistan.

Tonight, it’s with an official dissenter to U.S. policy.

Judy Woodruff is in charge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After five months serving with the State Department in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest against American policies there.

In his September 10 letter of resignation, revealed this week in “The Washington Post,” the former Marine captain said: “I fail to see the value or worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditure of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war.”

Hoh’s resignation was greeted more in sorrow than in anger by the State Department. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke said — quote — “We took his letter very seriously because he was a good officer.”

Mr. Hoh joins us now.

MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you for being here.

So, is it your view that the U.S. should just get out?

MATTHEW HOH: Of course it’s impossible to wave a magic wand and be gone from there. However, I do believe we are involved in a 35-year-old civil war.

I believe we are not the lead character in that war, that it’s an internal conflict. I believe that 60,000 troops in Afghanistan do not serve to defeat al-Qaida and do not serve to stabilize the Pakistan government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that has given you the confidence to know this? What did you see in Afghanistan?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure.

Well, before I went, I studied quite a bit about it, I read a lot of its history, particularly the late ’70s and in the Soviet-Afghan war. Additionally, I have many friends and colleagues who have served in Afghanistan.

I went there with some ideas that this didn’t sit well with me about what we were doing there, but I wanted to contribute. When I got there, however, serving in the east and in the south, the similarities were the same.

What I found, we were fighting people who were fighting us only because we’re occupying them or because we are supporting a central government that they view as occupying them.

Most importantly, I think I listened to as many Afghans as possible because my role as a political adviser was to work with the Afgha

Bystanders in a civil war?

Matthew Hoh
Former State Department Official
They have never had a central government that has brought them anything. It's only taken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say, Matthew Hoh, that what you see is a civil war going on; the U.S. is a bystander. But what it looks like to many Americans, as they look, is that it's the Afghan government being attacked, the Afghan people being attacked by the Taliban, by elements of al-Qaida. How can we be sure which is right?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure.

First of all, al-Qaida does not exist in Afghanistan. I think there's plenty of evidence to that fact. And the way the country works, it's so localized there. It's what I refer to and other people refer to as valleyism. They're concerned with their...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Valleyism?

MATTHEW HOH: Valleyism, yes, so if you take the idea of nationalism, shrink it down to a much smaller level.

These are folks who live within communities of 100 to 500 people. And that's -- I don't want to say where their world ends, but that's what they're concerned with. And they have never had a central government there that has done any good, that has never -- that has delivered services to them. And they have never had a central government that has brought them anything. It's only taken.

And, so, to them, whether it was the Najibullah, the Rabbani, the Taliban, or the Karzai government, they're all one in the same. And particularly in the east, where they're fighting us and the south, where they're fighting us, those folks there don't make up the people who are the central government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the argument, though, by as you know, by General Stanley McChrystal, who's in charge over there for the military, by John McCain, who's very much in favor of the U.S. staying, is that, if the U.S. leaves, Taliban takes over, and al-Qaida's going to come back.

MATTHEW HOH: I don't believe al-Qaida will come back.

I believe that, since 2001, al-Qaida has evolved. They have turned into, as I like to say, an ideological cloud that exists on the Internet and recruits worldwide. They -- if you look at the attacks al-Qaida has been successful with over the last seven, eight years, including attacks on 9/11, they weren't conducted by Afghans or Pakistanis.

And a lot of the preparation and training, it took place in Western Europe or even here in the United States. So, I don't think al-Qaida has any interest in ever tying itself again to a geographical or political boundary. I think they're content to exist as they have evolved. And they are a threat, and they should be our priority. We need to defeat them.

But, again, 60,000 troops in Afghanistan does not defeat al-Qaida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the Taliban?

MATTHEW HOH: The Taliban, we chased them out of power in 2001, like we rightfully should have.

However, what you have in Quetta now, I believe, is just the remnants of that. And while the Quetta Shura Taliban, as we refer to them, is a threat, and is a threat to the Karzai government, I don't believe they are a threat to the United States.

And, furthermore, I don't believe that they would be able to retake Kabul, particularly if we ensure that there was no Pakistani support for them if we left Afghanistan.

The risks of more U.S. forces

Matthew Hoh
Former State Department Official
I believe it's only going to fuel the insurgency. It's only going to reinforce claims by our enemies that we are an occupying power, because we are an occupying power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think would happen, though, if President Obama did give General McChrystal the troops he wants or a significant increase in the number of troops?

MATTHEW HOH: I believe it's only going to fuel the insurgency. It's only going to reinforce claims by our enemies that we are an occupying power, because we are an occupying power.

And that will only fuel the insurgency. And that will only cause more people to fight us or those fighting us already to continue to fight us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't think there's any argument the U.S. can make to the Afghan people that we're there to -- as we have been, to promote democracy, that could change their view of what you say is...

MATTHEW HOH: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... is -- that we're an occupying force?

MATTHEW HOH: I was up in east of the country, up in Kunar and up in the Nuristan areas, just where we lost eight soldiers a couple weeks ago.

The brigade combat team that was there for a year, in one year's time, they dropped about a half-million pounds of ordnance off aircraft, and they shot about 50,000 rounds of indirect fire and artillery.

Now, on the other hand, they all spent probably about $160 million to $180 million in development money over the course of a year. This is in an area of 4.5 million people. If, after eight years of war, you have done these kinds of things, and people aren't coming around, I don't think they're ever going to come around.

I think we have to realize that, sometimes, people don't like us and don't want to be like us. And we have to accept that. And then we have to engage them politically and work with them that way.

Corruption in Afghanistan

Matthew Hoh
Former State Department Official
The idea that we're losing somebody's son or somebody's husband is dying to support a regime that's profiting off of our aid money is criminal. It's wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the other points you make, Matthew Hoh, is about corruption in the Karzai government. You were very blunt in writing that Karzai is advised by drug lords. And you went into some detail about that.

The other argument, though, on that is that, well, that's just endemic in that culture, that the U.S. has to be prepared to accept a certain amount of corruption when you're dealing with these people.

MATTHEW HOH: I think that would be true if we weren't sacrificing our young men and women in support of that regime.

The idea that we're losing somebody's son or somebody's husband is dying to support a regime that's profiting off of our aid money is criminal. It's wrong. And, furthermore, you know, I know a lot of people speak about the Taliban receiving financing through opium and everything. There are a lot of us who believe that they receive just as much money through our own development money we're spending there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last thing I want to ask you is, some people have said it all sounds very good, but you were only there in Afghanistan for five months. You're relatively young, what, 37?

MATTHEW HOH: Thirty-six.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty-six years old.

MATTHEW HOH: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are you to say what the United States should be doing, when there are others who have been there longer, studied it for years, and so forth?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. And I wish people would refute what I'm saying. I have seen that criticism, but I have not seen anyone tell me why it's not a civil war.

I have not seen anyone tell me how stabilizing the Afghan government will defeat al-Qaida. I have not heard anyone tell me how keeping 60,000 troops, or 80,000, or 100,000 troops in Afghanistan will stabilize Pakistan. So, I haven't heard the answers to those questions.

As for the criticisms about my age or that I was only there for five months, I was there for five months. I was in two parts of the country. I worked with as many local people as I could. And I listened as much as possible.

At that point, what I wrote -- first off, what I wrote in my resignation letter, there's not a novel or unique thought in that. Those are thoughts shared by military officers and State Department officers as well. My concern is not how are we fighting this war, but why are we fighting this war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matthew Hoh, thank you very much for coming in to talk with us. We appreciate it.

MATTHEW HOH: Thank you, Judy.