Spencer Ackerman in Washington Independent:
A powerful story from The Washington Post: the State Department’s leading foreign-service officer in Afghanistan’s Zabul province has resigned in protest of the war, writing that he has “lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Matthew Hoh’s departure was considered so damaging — probably more politically damaging than substantively damaging — that both U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and even Special Representative Richard Holbrooke offered him jobs to keep him on board, offering him the chance to incorporate his critiques into policymaking. Instead, Hoh, who commanded a Marine company in Iraq, said he couldn’t do it, and offered this critique, as described by The Post:
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.
The concern about the U.S. presence fueling the insurgency — not for what the U.S. does, but merely for the fact of its existence — was raised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, but it has not yet seemed to penetrate most discourse about the war. Gates himself backed away from the critique in September, saying that Gen. Stanley McChrystal convinced him that the U.S. military could mitigate the danger by actively providing for the Afghan people’s well-being. And indeed, McChrystal has tacitly paid respect to the critique, saying in his much-derided London address that jobs programs could do much to deprive the Taliban of foot soldiers who fight because their lack of economic alternatives accelerate their antipathy to the U.S. presence. That approach won the support yesterday of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in his uneasy embrace of a modified version of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. But if Hoh is right, then it’s simply too late for that strategy, as the mere presence of the U.S. military will have reached the “tipping point” that Gates warned about in January.
When passing through Zabul Province this past summer, I got a brief from a smart U.S. Army officer with whom I had served in the 10th Mountain Division. Over the course of the briefing, he told the group I was with that “rural” is too urban a description for Zabul. What he meant was that the province was almost Biblical in terms of its development. The people of Zabul are isolated, remote, and enjoy no known natural resources. The literacy rate is around 11% — 1% for women. It’s all subsistence agriculture, and making matters worse is the fact that the U.S./NATO mission in the province is underesourced and thus dedicated almost entirely toward keeping Route 1 open. (The population is spread out over the province, too, making population-centric counterinsurgency difficult if not impossible.) All of this is worth keeping in mind when you read the resignation letter of the senior U.S. civilian official in Zabul Province (.pdf). These are the words of a man beaten down by the realities of the mission. I’m a pretty optimistic, cheerful guy, but even I would have a tough, tough time pulling a year’s duty in Zabul. I salute those who do, including the young intelligence officer (and reader of this blog) who stuffed a powerpoint presentation of how we can do the mission in Zabul better into my cargo pocket as I was getting on a helicopter. Guys like that just make you shake your head in wonder, which is why even in this mournful letter, the author takes the time to praise the amazing men and women in our armed services in Afghanistan.
Hoh’s story is interesting. One gathers that he was an outstanding Marine officer and was a rising star as an FSO. Then again, he’d been on the job less than a year. Now, granted, that’s enough time to win a Nobel Peace Prize. But, c’mon, is it really worth this high level of attention that he disagrees with national policy? His experience is, after all, entirely tactical — and at the lower end of tactical at that.
But, gee whiz, our senior leadership is so lacking in confidence in their policy that they’re afraid some 36-year-old former junior officer with nine months’ experience in the foreign service (presumably, much of it spent in training!) will go on the “Colbert Report” and criticize it? So it would seem.
They’ve brought this on themselves. Granted, President Obama inherited this war and his people may have fought it differently had they been in charge during the first seven years. (An unlikely counterfactual, to be sure, since he was an unknown state senator at the time.) But it’s a fight he clamored for during the campaign, stressing it as “a war of necessity.” And he doubled down almost immediately, sending more troops and firing a well-respected four star commander to replace him with a counterinsurgency guru. But now he’s dithering, signaling in the press that he’s lost confidence in the strategy and can’t make up his mind as to what to do now.
Yes, it’s complicated. There are a lot of unknowns and the number of American casualties is escalating. But those men are dying while their commander-in-chief hems and haws, trying to decide whether to heed the expert advice of the general he hand-picked three months ago, do a 180 and go with a counter-terror strategy as preferred by Vice President Biden, or some politically expedient middle course. Their public indecisiveness certainly isn’t doing much to bolster the resolve of the Matthew Kohs of the world, much less the young soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines being asked to risk their lives while they make up their minds.
One might think Hoh provides useful cover to the “Give peace a chance” wing of Obama’s base and their natural allies in the media. John Kerry being against the escalation of a war he once favored is ancient news; Hoh might provide political and media cover for Obama to buck McChrystal and adopt his own instinctive split-the-difference approach in Afghanistan.
Will Obama’s eventual middle ground make any sense? Politically, maybe. But if McChyrstal is wrong about his objectives and requirements, he is wrong, and giving him part of what he needs makes no sense. On the other hand, if he is right than giving him less than he needs makes no sense either.
Jason Zengerle at TNR:
In case it doesn’t and your memory needs refreshing, he’s the career diplomat who resigned in protest from the State Department in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War. I bring up Kiesling because, despite all the hubbub over foreign service officer Matthew Hoh’s resignation in protest over our Afghanistan policy, I’d imagine he’ll become a historical footnote like Kiesling and his action will have little impact on the direction of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy.
Then again, while the Bushies pretty much told Kiesling not to let the door hit him on the way out, the Obama administration put on a full-court press to keep Hoh inside the tent. And Hoh, who was a Marine in Iraq before he joined the Foreign Service and went to work as the senior U.S. civilian officer in Zabul province, does have a different profile from Kiesling, who spent his entire career in embassies, that could make him a more credible anti-war figure in the eyes of the American public.
Read the whole thing. Single-page version here. The disappointment and surprise of some who served on the ground with him is saved for last. Full text of his letter here. It highlights some of the very real problems of the situation in Afghanistan, but concludes that remaining in Afghanistan requires, “if honest,” that we have to invade Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Sudan, etc. Maybe we will before this long war is done. Hard to say. It wouldn’t be the first time, whether in a short four-year war or a 45-year-long one, that we’d had to fight multiple fronts to reomve tyranny and secure freedom in the world. Hoh also includes a Vietnam reference that, tellingly, assumes that failure in Afghanistan is as inevitable as many believe failure in Vietnam was.
Surrender-happy lefty bloggers Greenwald and Attackerman salute the despair. Counter-intelligence blogger and Iraq vet Abu Muqawama offers some perspective on the despair-inducing qualities of Zabul province and the fight there from his own time in Afghanistan. Lefty blogger Taylor Marsh indulges in some gratuitous Bush-bash, but notes our moral obligation and some of the downsides of surrender. I’d add our vital national security interest.
Matthew Hoh is obviously more than entitled to his opinion, and entitled to respect for his choices. I don’t think as a nation we are in a position to take counsel of our despair and succumb to resignation, however. Any more than we had that option in Iraq. Any more than we did in Vietnam, where we did anyway. At a cost of several million Southeast Asian lives, and at a cost to the United States that we continue to pay today, as referenced periodically by our adversaries who believe they can apply the lesson of Vietnam: If you bleed them, they will run. Which I’d suggest is a hint that abandoning Afghanistan may cause more problems than it solves.
UPDATE: Zaid Jilani at Think Progress