I'm pretty pissed off right now.
It makes less than zero sense to me that Matthew Hoh's resignation as "the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province" seems to be swaying sensible people from Christopher Buckley to Garrison Keillor to Andrew Sullivan. We all, naturally, have heard of Zabul province. We all, naturally, had heard of Matthew Hoh long before the Washington Post wrote up his resignation Tuesday. Our hopes for Afghanistan, our sense that the war there might be salvageable hinged mostly on the confidence we felt knowing that Hoh was there in Zabul province representing us. Right? Well, we're sure acting like it.
Am I pissed because I want this war, because I love this war? Absolutely not. As I wrote last November for the Huffington Post, I want a goddamn time machine. I want to go back to 9/12/01 and write and plead and shriek and march in the streets and hand out books about the fate of foreign armies in Afghanistan. I want to generally do whatever it would have taken to shake our shell-shocked nation from the delusion that an invasion and occupation would catch bin Laden and make us safer. But we don't get a time machine.
I mention my piece from last November for reasons other than self-aggrandizement. Rather, the opposite: to remind you that it didn't take some genius with super-duper-secret info to notice just how serious a mess we've been facing in Afghanistan. And that may sum up why I'm so pissed. The basic grim truths that Hoh wrote about in his much-quoted resignation letter were all basically true when he took his job a few months ago.
The situation was awful. The situation had been awful. The situation is awful. Pure damned-if-we-stay-damned-if-we-go awfulness.
This is probably why Richard Holbrooke, the top U.S. envoy to the region, told the Post for that same Tuesday article that "I agreed with much of (Hoh's) analysis."
If you've been paying attention, Hoh's analysis should basically provoke a "Well, yeah. No shit. What are we supposed to do about it?"
Read through the excellent interviews that accompanied the recent PBS Frontline episode about Afghanistan. Read those and tell me there's some obvious path, some magic bullet, some means of unscathed escape. Don't have time to read all ten of the interviews? Fine. Just read the Andrew Bacevich interview and the Steve Coll interview.
As Andrew Exum wrote Tuesday, "I know about 50 really smart people on Afghanistan with lots of time on the ground there, and no two have the same opinion about what U.S. policy should be. Let's not turn one dude whose opinions on Afghanistan happen to line up with the zeitgeist into the flippin' Delphic oracle."
Lest anyone bristle at the "one dude" line, I should point out that Exum, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, also referred to Iraq vet Hoh as "talented and patriotic."
Getting out of Afghanistan seems clearly to have been the right thing for Hoh personally. I continue, though, to believe what I wrote earlier this month in my most recent HuffPost piece:
"It fundamentally harms the long-term cause of global peace if America permits itself to move through history in a remorseless, irresponsible cycle wherein a Bush-type leader launches reckless wars and an Obama-type leader yanks our troops out. No matter how much we want our troops home, it is immoral to throw a country into chaos and then walk away simply because we grow weary of that chaos."
Wordy, I know. But I hope you'll slog through those two sentences and think about the underlying ideas. I hope you will think about the ideas of people who've earned the right to have their opinions considered much more carefully than mine: Exum, Coll, Bacevich, Rory Stewart, Michael Semple, this Air Force officer stationed in Afghanistan.
Hoh was right to go public with his profound misgivings. His conscience called him to do so. But our consciences call upon us to think hard about this. All of this. Maybe harder than we've ever thought about a decision faced by our government. Partly because this deserves our careful consideration. Partly because if we think about it long enough, we may at least dimly remember this mess of an occupation when -- inevitably -- terrorists strike again and some swaggering fool of a president tells us we need to conquer a troubled country to make ourselves safe.
********************* UPDATE (10/30/09)
Wednesday, during a Washington Post online chat that I didn't see until almost a full day after I wrote this post, a reader from D.C. asked Hoh about the same basic idea I put in my headline here. The exchange went like this:
Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't you have known before going to Afghanistan that the war was pretty intractable? I mean, the history of the country is clear. What new information did you learn that so completely changed your mind about U.S. involvement there?
Matthew Hoh: I did study quite a bit and I spoke to many friends and colleagues who had previously served in Afghanistan. I did have concerns about the endstate of our goals in Afghanistan, but also felt the need to contribute and to continue to serve. Upon arriving in Afghanistan and serving in both the East and the South (and particularly speaking with local Afghans), I found that the majority of those who were fighting us and the Afghan central government were fighting us because they felt occupied. This concurred with history I had read and with what colleagues had told me.
Now, I may be reading Hoh's words through a filter. But there's nothing in his response to the Post reader that makes me rethink what I asserted above: "Basic Truths in Hoh Resignation Letter Were True When He Took His Job."