Matthew Hoh: There Is No Winning In Afghanistan

Fareed Zakaria talks to former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh who recently resigned as a Political Officer in Afghanistan. You can watch the enti
up

Fareed Zakaria talks to former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh who recently resigned as a Political Officer in Afghanistan. You can watch the entire interview here.

ZAKARIA: Matthew Hoh is the young Foreign Service officer who resigned this week from his post in Afghanistan. He joins me now.

Matthew, I'm going to just start by reading a bit from your resignation letter. You say, "I fail to see the worth or value in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is truly a 35-year-old civil war."

And then you go on to say, "Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured that their dead have been sacrificed for a purpose worthy of such futures lost, love vanished and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can any more be made. As such, I submit my resignation."

These are very strong words.

Give us some sense of what this insurgency that we are fighting looks like. What did you think people were fighting U.S. troops for?

MATTHEW HOH, FORMER MARINE CAPTAIN AND U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The first place where I really had -- where this was codified for me and where I started to understand what we were doing and how we were involved -- the Korengal Valley, which I'm sure a lot of your viewers are familiar with. It's been on the cover of TIME Magazine. The "New York Times" refers to it as the valley of death. Off the top of my head, unfortunately, I can't remember how many American soldiers we have lost there, but it's probably 30 or 40.

This is a valley, I don't know, 15, 20 kilometers long. There's only 10,000 people in it. They speak their own language. They speak Korengali. In the year 2009 we have a valley with people who speak their own language. Their only trade is the timber trade. And when they move their timber, they don't even leave their valley. Most of the time, I believe, they just take it to the Mazar Valley, and a middleman picks it up and brings it to Pakistan for them.

We show up. We enter their valley. We occupy the richest man's timber mill. And then we bring in Afghan army and Afghan police, who aren't from there.

And then what do we do? Then we have the Afghan police and Afghan army. They say to the Korengalis, they say, "These mountains here that your families have been cutting trees down, sustaining yourselves for hundreds of years, you don't own them. The central government does. And you have to pay tax on that."

I'm not sure how many people anywhere else in the world wouldn't take up arms against something like that.

And so, and for every Korengal we're in, like I said before, there's a hundred we're not. And there's like -- and that would happen in those other valleys, the same thing, too, in the south. You'll go to, like, these remote FOBs, and you'll ask the commander of the FOB, who's a...

ZAKARIA: FOB means?

HOH: I'm sorry, a forward-operating base. And these are bases of maybe a total of 40 Americans led by, just by a 23-year-old lieutenant. And really, I can't say enough good things about those young men. And I really wish there was more media coverage about how hard their lives were and how difficult the fight is for them. They really are some of the best warriors the American Army has ever had.

But you ask them, "How many local Taliban groups are there around here? How many local enemy groups are there around here?"

And they'll say, "Five or six within a five-kilometer radius."

"Well, do they work together with each other?"

"No, they don't. They stay in their own areas."

This is a very localized population, a population that's really keen on its surrounding community.

The province I was in, Zabul province -- 300,000 people in about 1,500 villages. Each village is roughly about 100 to 500 people. And then you have some urban areas along the highway.

And so, it's a very localized problem.

ZAKARIA: I know that, after you made your objections clear, there was a scurry of activity to try and get you to stay. You had conversations with people like Richard Holbrooke.

Why was Holbrooke not able to convince you to stay? HOH: I accepted his offer for about a week. And then I realized that, if I believed in this mission, if I believed that...

ZAKARIA: What was the offer?

HOH: The offer was to join his staff and be put in a position where I could continue to write and try and influence policymakers from within the administration.

Two things. One, if I believed in the mission, if I believed it was worth our guys dying for, if I believed that 60,000 troops in Afghanistan would defeat al Qaeda somehow -- which it won't -- I would have stayed in Zabul Province, which I've told everybody was the second-best job I ever had in my life.

However, the other part of it, too, was I realized that the administration was going to make a decision shortly, and then I would be stuck. And if I don't believe in it, if I don't think this cause is right, if I don't believe it's justified, then there's no reason to take that position.

ZAKARIA: Were you surprised by the strong reaction to your resignation?

HOH: It's been a bit overwhelming. It's been a bit overwhelming.

My thoughts were this. I would publish the letter. And I figured I would get one or two days of attention, and then it would fade away. And I was fine with that.

However, I've received such an outpouring and a flood of e-mails, and particularly from two communities that have convinced me to stay in this and be a part of the debate as long as possible until it doesn't make sense any more. And those two communities -- one was Afghan-Americans.

I've had a lot of Afghan-Americans contact me and say, "Matt, you get it. You understand. Yes, there is a civil war going on. You understand this conflict (ph). You understand how Afghan society works. You understand this split within the Pashtuns. You understand valleyism, or whatever you want to call it." And that has encouraged me quite a bit.

And the second one is active duty military. I have received many, many e-mails from active duty military and some guys who have just separated from service. Some are here in the States.

I've gotten many e-mails from guys in Afghanistan -- some are people I know, but a lot are people I do not know -- men and women who are saying, "Matt, thanks for doing this. Keep it up. We don't know why we're here. We're not sure why we're taking these casualties. We don't know what it's accomplishing."

ZAKARIA: Do you think -- the top military brass have all endorsed General McChrystal's report and request. Do you think that down on the ground there is a very different feeling?

HOH: Oh, yes. Yes, there is. I think on the ground -- and the perspective is that, what is the strategic value of what we're doing here. Why are we doing this? What are we getting out of it?

It's not going to defeat al Qaeda. It's not going to -- if you take our two goals as being the defeat of al Qaeda, and then, because of its nuclear weapons and because of the relationship with India, the stabilization of the government in Islamabad, 60,000 troops taking 50, 60 dead a month in this country, and how many wounded and killing how many Afghans, as well, it doesn't accomplish either of those goals.

ZAKARIA: Why doesn't it defeat al Qaeda?

HOH: My belief is that, after 2001, al Qaeda evolved. They became, as I like to say, an ideological cloud. It exists on the Internet. They don't need a safe haven in Afghanistan. They've got safe havens in five, six, seven other countries.

ZAKARIA: Most importantly, Pakistan.

HOH: Most importantly, Pakistan.

And they recruit worldwide. The attacks over the last bunch of years, to include our own attacks on 9/11, were conducted by non- Afghans, non-Pakistanis. They were trained and prepared and planned for outside of the region, for the most part. Everyone knows that the flight training took place here in the United States.

This is an organization that is very ephemeral. It doesn't really exist. Occupying a country is not going to defeat them. It's the proverbial fly versus the sledge hammer.

And furthermore, if we keep 60,000 troops -- well, let's look at it this way. If there is 20 or 30 million people in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan, how many recruits does al Qaeda get from there a year? We don't know, but it's probably in the hundreds, at the most, by far. It's probably not even that many.

Well, in a population of 20 or 30 million, how are you going to keep 100 people from being disaffected and joining some fringe group? That's impossible.

Furthermore, occupying a location only provides justification and only lends credence to the goals of that organization. It only inspires young Muslim men to want to defend their culture against an occupying army, which is what we are.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back with Matthew Hoh in a minute.

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