An incredibly junior contractor-for-hire has resigned over disagreement with our AfPak policy, prompting a high level scramble within the administration and a long feature in the Washington Post.
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’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.
Now, as it happens, I think Hoh’s analysis of the situation is spot-on:
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.”
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.
Addendum: The original version of this had Hoh as a Foreign Service Officer, which the WaPo piece intimated he was. Reports later in the day corrected this impression. Hoh was a one-year contract hire under a new program the State Department is using to staff Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.