Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer knows why his nation is fighting.
When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.
A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.
But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.
“I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department’s head of personnel. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”
The reaction to Hoh’s letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials, concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,” Holbrooke said in an interview. “We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him.”
While he did not share Hoh’s view that the war “wasn’t worth the fight,” Holbrooke said, “I agreed with much of his analysis.” He asked Hoh to join his team in Washington, saying that “if he really wanted to affect policy and help reduce the cost of the war on lives and treasure,” why not be “inside the building, rather than outside, where you can get a lot of attention but you won’t have the same political impact?”
Hoh accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week later. “I recognize the career implications, but it wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said in an interview Friday, two days after his resignation became final.
“I’m not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love,” Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the “second-best job I’ve ever had,” his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.
“There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed,” he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys.”
But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there — a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.
As the White House deliberates over whether to deploy more troops, Hoh said he decided to speak out publicly because “I want people in Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and say, ‘Listen, I don’t think this is right.’ ”
“I realize what I’m getting into . . . what people are going to say about me,” he said. “I never thought I would be doing this.”
Hoh’s journey — from Marine, reconstruction expert and diplomat to war protester — was not an easy one. Over the weeks he spent thinking about and drafting his resignation letter, he said, “I felt physically nauseous at times.”
His first ambition in life was to become a firefighter, like his father. Instead, after graduation from Tufts University and a desk job at a publishing firm, he joined the Marines in 1998. After five years in Japan and at the Pentagon — and at a point early in the Iraq war when it appeared to many in the military that the conflict was all but over — he left the Marines to join the private sector, only to be recruited as a Defense Department civilian in Iraq. A trained combat engineer, he was sent to manage reconstruction efforts in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
“At one point,” Hoh said, “I employed up to 5,000 Iraqis” handing out tens of millions of dollars in cash to construct roads and mosques. His program was one of the few later praised as a success by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
In 2005, Hoh took a job with BearingPoint, a major technology and management contractor at the State Department, and was sent to the Iraq desk in Foggy Bottom. When the U.S. effort in Iraq began to turn south in early 2006, he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. He assumed command of a company in Anbar province, where Marines were dying by the dozens.
Hoh came home in the spring of 2007 with citations for what one Marine evaluator called “uncommon bravery,” a recommendation for promotion, and what he later recognized was post-traumatic stress disorder. Of all the deaths he witnessed, the one that weighed most heavily on him happened in a helicopter crash in Anbar in December 2006. He and a friend, Maj. Joseph T. McCloud, were aboard when the aircraft fell into the rushing waters below Haditha dam. Hoh swam to shore, dropped his 90 pounds of gear and dived back in to try to save McCloud and three others he could hear calling for help.
He was a strong swimmer, he said, but by the time he reached them, “they were gone.”
‘You can’t sleep’
It wasn’t until his third month home, in an apartment in Arlington, that it hit him like a wave. “All the things you hear about how it comes over you, it really did. . . . You have dreams, you can’t sleep. You’re just, ‘Why did I fail? Why didn’t I save that man? Why are his kids growing up without a father?’ ”
Like many Marines in similar situations, he didn’t seek help. “The only thing I did,” Hoh said, “was drink myself blind.”
What finally began to bring him back, he said, was a television show — “Rescue Me” on the FX cable network — about a fictional New York firefighter who descended into “survivor guilt” and alcoholism after losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks.
He began talking to friends and researching the subject online. He visited McCloud’s family and “apologized to his wife . . . because I didn’t do enough to save them,” even though his rational side knew he had done everything he could.
Hoh represented the service at the funeral of a Marine from his company who committed suicide after returning from Iraq. “My God, I was so afraid they were going to be angry,” he said of the man’s family. “But they weren’t. All they did was tell me how much he loved the Marine Corps.”
“It’s something I’ll carry for the rest of my life,” he said of his Iraq experiences. “But it’s something I’ve settled, I’ve reconciled with.”
Late last year, a friend told Hoh that the State Department was offering year-long renewable hires for Foreign Service officers in Afghanistan. It was a chance, he thought, to use the development skills he had learned in Tikrit under a fresh administration that promised a new strategy.
In photographs he brought home from Afghanistan, Hoh appears as a tall young man in civilian clothes, with a neatly trimmed beard and a pristine flak jacket. He stands with Eikenberry, the ambassador, on visits to northern Kunar province and Zabul, in the south. He walks with Zabul Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, confers with U.S. military officers and sits at food-laden meeting tables with Afghan tribal leaders. In one picture, taken on a desolate stretch of desert on the Pakistani border, he poses next to a hand-painted sign in Pashto marking the frontier.
The border picture was taken in early summer, after he arrived in Zabul following two months in a civilian staff job at the military brigade headquarters in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. It was in Jalalabad that his doubts started to form.
Hoh was assigned to research the response to a question asked by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April visit. Mullen wanted to know why the U.S. military had been operating for years in the Korengal Valley, an isolated spot near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan where a number of Americans had been killed. Hoh concluded that there was no good reason. The people of Korengal didn’t want them; the insurgency appeared to have arrived in strength only after the Americans did, and the battle between the two forces had achieved only a bloody stalemate.
Korengal and other areas, he said, taught him “how localized the insurgency was. I didn’t realize that a group in this valley here has no connection with an insurgent group two kilometers away.” Hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders and maintain their own local power bases.
“That’s really what kind of shook me,” he said. “I thought it was more nationalistic. But it’s localism. I would call it valley-ism.”
‘Continued . . . assault’
Zabul is “one of the five or six provinces always vying for the most difficult and neglected,” a State Department official said. Kandahar, the Taliban homeland, is to the southwest and Pakistan to the south. Highway 1, the main link between Kandahar and Kabul and the only paved road in Zabul, bisects the province. Over the past year, the official said, security has become increasingly difficult.
By the time Hoh arrived at the U.S. military-run provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in the Zabul capital of Qalat, he said, “I already had a lot of frustration. But I knew at that point, the new administration was . . . going to do things differently. So I thought I’d give it another chance.” He read all the books he could get his hands on, from ancient Afghan history, to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, through Taliban rule in the 1990s and the eight years of U.S. military involvement.
Frank Ruggiero, the Kandahar-based regional head of the U.S. PRTs in the south, considered Hoh “very capable” and appointed him the senior official among the three U.S. civilians in the province. “I always thought very highly of Matt,” he said in a telephone interview.
In accordance with administration policy of decentralizing power in Afghanistan, Hoh worked to increase the political capabilities and clout of Naseri, the provincial governor, and other local officials. “Materially, I don’t think we accomplished much,” he said in retrospect, but “I think I did represent our government well.”
Naseri told him that at least 190 local insurgent groups were fighting in the largely rural province, Hoh said. “It was probably exaggerated,” he said, “but the truth is that the majority” are residents with “loyalties to their families, villages, valleys and to their financial supporters.”
Hoh’s doubts increased with Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war “has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency.”
With “multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups,” he wrote, the insurgency “is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.”
American families, he said at the end of the letter, “must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more.”
‘Their problem to solve’
Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh’s resignation but that he made no effort to dissuade him. “It’s Matt’s decision, and I honored, I respected” it, he said. “I didn’t agree with his assessment, but it was his decision.”
Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to discuss “individual personnel matters.”
Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry’s deputy, said he met with Hoh in Kabul but spoke to him “in confidence. I respect him as a thoughtful man who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I expect most of Matt’s colleagues would share this positive estimation of him, whatever may be our differences of policy or program perspectives.”
This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken’s invitation.
If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.
He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption — all options being discussed in White House deliberations.
“We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath,” Hoh said. “But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve.”
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009