An Interview With Matthew Hoh

If Matthew Hoh could tell you one thing to help you understand the United States' predicament in Afghanistan, it's that the presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al Qaeda.
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If Matthew Hoh could tell you one thing to help you understand the U.S.'s predicament in Afghanistan, he'd tell you:

The presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al-Qaida.

Think about that for a moment. We are paying roughly $1 million per troop, per year in Afghanistan. That's roughly twice the per-troop cost in Iraq. We've suffered well more than 800 deaths in Afghanistan. And yet here is the former top civilian official in Afghanistan's Zabul province, a former Marine who served in Anbar province in Iraq, telling us that the presence of our ground forces does nothing to defeat the organization that's supposedly the target of our operations in that country.

So, if we're not going about the business of defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan, what are we doing?

We're involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. We're only taking one side in that civil war. And, our presence there is only encouraging the civil war to go on.

Hmm. This is all sounding very familiar.

I spoke to Matthew on Friday afternoon by phone. My first call to him went straight to voicemail, where I learned that apparently he'd had so many press calls about his resignation letter that his voicemail message directed inquiries on that topic to his email address. If you recall, the State Department took his letter seriously enough that it prompted job offers from Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke to get him to stay. Since then, Hoh has been the focus of a great deal of media attention, and for good reasons:

  • With all the rhetoric about the "success" of the so-called "surge" in Iraq and its supposed lessons for Afghanistan, the opinion of a person with experience with both has a lot of heft;
  • The fact that his feelings about the situation were strong enough to provoke a resignation and a subsequent rejection of a position in Washington gave him moral authority; and
  • Hoh was the beneficiary of good timing: his resignation came at a time when the media and policymakers had been cajoled into a willingness to entertain views outside the Washington, D.C. conventional wisdom that failure to send more troops immediately would lead to disaster.

Over the course of the past year, groups opposed to deepening U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan (such as Brave New Foundation's Rethink Afghanistan project, the Get Afghanistan Right coalition and many other groups and individuals) worked relentlessly to keep a critical perspective on the war in Afghanistan in the public debate. These escalation opponents relentlessly hammered the proponents of a counterinsurgency (COIN) effort for their inconsistencies and self-contradictions, especially with regard to the COIN doctrine's need for a legitimate host-nation partner. By the time the Afghan presidential elections exploded into a showcase of abject corruption and illegitimacy, these activists had laid the groundwork that helped the American people interpret the events of late August 2009 as a serious blow to the assumptions underlying the rationale for a deep military involvement. At the same time, President Obama refused to be rushed into a second troop increase in Afghanistan by an increasingly abrasive Pentagon whisper campaign, allowing the nation to take a collective breath and widen the debate about options. These factors, combined with cratering public support for the war effort, pushed policymakers and the media into a willingness to entertain views dissenting from those presented by General Stanley McChrystal. Enter Matthew Hoh.

Matthew's letter is a four-page punch in the gut to the rhetoric of pro-counterinsurgency factions. It wrecks the idea that the U.S. will ever have a legitimate partner (referred to by the COIN field manual as a "north star") in Afghanistan or that our strategy will lead to the destruction of al-Qaida. He ends the letter with regret that assurances can no longer be given that those who died in Afghanistan gave their lives in a mission worth the cost in "futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept."

Hoh sees our presence driving the conflict in at least two ways. On one hand, our military support for the corrupt Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan assures the Kabul cartel that we will not allow them to be overrun by insurgents. Because of that perception, the GoIRA is not willing to work out a political settlement with their opponents to form a true national government. The support we have given thus far (which is very close to the maximum possible support we can give), however, is not enough to allow the GoIRA to crush the insurgency totally. Thus, within the constraints on U.S. and Afghan national power, the only possible solution to the conflict other than strategic failure is a political solution negotiated between GoIRA and it's opponents--and that's precisely what the GoIRA won't seek as long as they can be assured of our continued military support.

[T]he only way to end this civil war is through political reconciliation, through some kind of political negotiation reaching to some kind of settlement. ...The Afghan officials who are on our side have no interest in doing that. ...They have no interest in giving up the position they have right now. And our presence there keeps them in power that way. I don't really see them having any interest in taking Afghanistan into, you know, a modern age or a progressive country, all of the things we believed we were doing there for the past 8 years.

On the other hand, the U.S. presence fuels the ever-expanding insurgency, pulling people who resent our support for a corrupt, predatory government and who intensely resent outside interference in their lives into conflict with coalition troops.

In both the east and the south, where our troops were heavily engaged in combat...on a daily basis, those are areas populated by rural Pashtuns...The bulk of those people were fighting us just because we're occupying them--not out of any ideology, not out of any real ties to the Taliban, not out of any hatred for the West. It was just because they did not want foreign troops, or, for that matter, the Afghan national army or Afghan national police, which do not represent them, in their valleys and villages.

...If you take the Korengal Valley, for example, which is well-known to the American people as "The Valley of Death,"'s 15-20 miles long, it only has about 10,000 residents, they speak Korengali...these are people who are not interested in things outside their valley. They prefer to be left alone. Of course, putting more troops in their valley is something they're going to rebel against, especially troops from the central government, which does not represent them. ...It's really a question of these people wanting to determine their own existence and ...govern themselves. For every Korengal we're in, there's a hundred that we're not in, and if we were in [them], it would be the same issue of us having to fight them only because we're occupying them.

On the topic of that corrupt, unrepresentative government, Hoh offered a couple of anecdotal examples of the corruption that permeates every level of government in Afghanistan:

I know a USAID official who got into a plane...with the governor of his province, and the governor had about $300,000 in a duffel bag with him. ...The governor that I worked with had been removed from another province as the governor because he had been caught red-handed in a fairly extreme corruption case. Now this governor, Governor Sari, has been a friend of President Karzai for 35 years. So, after the U.S. embassy exposed this and complained about it, all Karzai did was move this governor...from one province to another province....To believe that the vast majority of Afghan officials that you're working with have any allegiance to what we're trying to do other than to enrich themselves or to make out in some manner is wrong.

I asked Hoh about the recent report on the quadrupling of the insurgency since 2006. According to at least one estimate, 10 percent of the estimated 25,000-man-strong insurgency were hardcore religious extremists, while the rest accepted training and funds from the "Taliban," but lacked ties to their ideology or broader agenda beyond throwing out the invaders.

I completely agree. The number I've seen is that there are 25,000 "Taliban" (which I believe is an incorrect term to apply to the people who are fighting us because it makes a reference to the Taliban regime of pre-September 11, 2001, and I think that misleads people and causes confusion, particularly among the American public about who we are actually fighting there.). But if you go with that 25,000 number...only a few thousand of those are actual hardcore "Taliban" with a capital "T." The majority of the rest of those groups are local fighters who are pretty independent of one another, just primarily concerned with their local areas, their valleys, their village, and who are tied to the Taliban with a capital "T" only through monetary or funding allegiances, and through a desire not to be occupied by a foreign power or by the other side in a civil war.

...But, if there are 25,000 troops now, Derrick...if we put more troops into the south, if we put 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 troops into the south, next year there will be 30,000, 35,000 or 40,000 enemies fighting us. As we move into more valleys and more villages...people are going to rebel against us.

So, the continued presence of massive numbers of U.S. troops removes the incentives for the GoIRA to negotiate a political settlement while providing the fuel for the growth of the insurgency. Hoh's advice to policymakers? End combat operations and sharply reduce U.S. troop levels. Doing so would pull U.S. troops out of areas where locals fight us just because we are there and would compel the GoIRA to negotiate with their opponents. Otherwise the U.S. presence will continue to fuel an unsustainable dynamic whereby the GoIRA has a near-term upper hand but cannot decisively defeat their opponents while the opponents use our presence as a recruiting tool for the resistance movement.

You're either characterized as all in our all out, and that's wrong. I don't think anyone is calling for us to completely wash our hands of Afghanistan and just walk away. When I call for withdrawal I call for stopping combat operations because it just doesn't make any sense; all it does it just prolong the conflict. I call for some kind of political reconciliation to end the fighting there. So a withdrawal would have to be somewhat gradual while negotiations were going on.

But wait, one might ask: what about al-Qaida? Hoh's policy prescription deals mainly with settling the civil war between the "Taliban" and the GoIRA. How does al-Qaida fit into this? Aren't they the reason we're in Afghanistan in the first place? Wouldn't our withdraw allow them to reestablish "safe havens" and allow them to keep the ones they have in Pakistan?

I don't believe al-Qaida needs or wants safe havens [like they had in 2001]. They just don't operate that way. they recruit worldwide. They are really an ideological force that exists on the Internet. They influence individuals or their operations are carried out by these small, independent, autonomous cells that really don't require much to operate other than a couple of rooms and a satellite phone or an internet connection. and if you look at the vast majority of attacks that have happened over the last decade regarding al-Qaida, they've been carried out by people not from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, but residents of North Africa, residents of the gulf states or citizens of Europe or citizens and residents of the United States who do their preparation and their training in countries where the attacks occur. So this idea of a safe haven and their requirement for it is not borne out by any evidence of the way al-Qaida has operated for at least the last decade. After 2001, they evolved. They don't need a safe haven. It would be great for the United States if they did have safe havens because then we could bomb them. So we have to attack al-Qaida as the organization as it exists and not as we want it to exist.

The concern that our presence their encourages people to respond to their ideology is a valid one. We're currently occupying two Muslim countries, and we have to understand that lends credence to al-Qaida's argument that it is defending the Muslim world from Western invasion.

How many recruits do they [al-Qaida] get per year? A hundred? Two hundred? The Muslim population is over a billion. You're talking about such a small fraction. It's really associated with such a fringe movement that we have to attack using human intelligence and using law enforcement techniques. Army brigade combat teams do not affect al-Qaida. Having 60,00 troops in Afghanistan is not affecting al-Qaida. ...[T]he destruction of al-Qaida should be our priority...but we need to go after that organization as it exists and not with ground combat troops in Afghanistan.

Matthew said he's pleased with the state of debate following his resignation and return to the United States.

I can tell you that one of the things that pushed me to resign was this feeling that I had, and I think most people had, or a lot of people had, particularly guys I was serving with in Afghanistan, that an escalation of troops and an open-ended commitment to supporting the Karzai regime seemed almost like a done deal all throughout the summer...There was no discussion of any other type of seemed almost like a guarantee...I got home in September and that's when I first heard there were debates on this within the administration...I'm very pleased the way the debates have been going. I'm not sure what's going that's going to happen with [the troop ]increase--I'm sure we're going to get one. The best thing though that we're going to get some kind of withdrawal date, which is what we need. If we can get a withdrawal date within a year or two I'll be very happy, because that's so much better, so infinitely better, than some type of open-ended commitment or some type of 4- or 5-year plan. My thoughts are hopefully we can get some type of commitment to withdraw and stop combat operations within the next year or two.

I guess that's being a realist. I'd like to see it stop tomorrow.

Brave New Conversations recently filmed a conversation between Hoh and Daniel Ellsberg. Here's a clip:

You can find the full episode on the Brave New Conversations website. Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. He blogs regularly at Return Good for Evil.

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