A Sudden Exit Driven By An 'Irrational' War A former Marine captain who became the first foreign service official to publicly resign in protest over the war in Afghanistan says staying in the country is not in America's interest. Matthew Hoh says leaving Afghanistan would not turn the country into an al-Qaida safe haven again.
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A Sudden Exit Driven By An 'Irrational' War

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A Sudden Exit Driven By An 'Irrational' War

A Sudden Exit Driven By An 'Irrational' War

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Matthew Hoh is a man who has seen the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan up close. Now, he's become the first U.S. official to publicly resign in protest over the war in Afghanistan. Hoh began his public service in the Marine Corps. Then, as a civilian Defense Department employee, he led reconstruction efforts in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Later, as a captain in the Marines, he fought in Iraq's Anbar province, where he was cited for uncommon bravery. And after his stints in Iraq, Hoh signed on as Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan, working on development efforts in Zabul province, a hotbed of the Taliban.

Last month, Hoh resigned, saying in his resignation letter that he had lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purpose of the United States' presence in Afghanistan. And Matthew Hoh joins us to explain that decision. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATTHEW HOH (Former Foreign Service Officer, State Department): Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: In your resignation letter to the State Department, you said: My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. Can you explain what you meant by that?

Mr. HOH: I'm not so much concerned about the how of the war. I'm not so much concerned about debating General McChrystal's views or any of the views of the folks here in D.C., that think-tank crowd. I'm more concerned about why we're in Afghanistan. Why are we losing soldiers and Marines in combat to people who are fighting us - really only because we're occupying them? Why are we supporting an Afghan government who, if we are successful in stabilizing it, that stabilization won't defeat al-Qaida? And if Pakistan is a priority because of its nuclear weapons, then why do we have 60,000 troops in Afghanistan and why are we not fully supporting Pakistan? And so, those are the issues that I really feel need to be addressed, and I really hope the American people understand what we're doing there. To me, it does not make any sense in terms of - the losses of our soldiers do not merit anything that comes in line with our strategic interests or values.

BLOCK: This is quite a lengthy and at times, emotional resignation letter that you sent to the State Department. One point you make is that we have understood the true nature of the Afghan insurgency. You used the word, valleyism. I want you to explain what you mean by that.

Mr. HOH: Sure. I think everyone is familiar with the term nationalism. We have seen that throughout our history in terms of from our own revolution, where we fought out of nationalist concerns to, you know, most recently the Vietnam War, where, I believe, we mistook what was Vietnamese nationalism for some type of communist threat. In Afghanistan, everything is much more localized. Allegiance is really to your family and then to your village or your valley. And that's what they fight for. There has not been a tradition of central government there, and I don't believe central government is wanted. And actually, I believe they fight the central government just as much as they fight the foreign occupiers.

BLOCK: Can you compare what you saw in your time in Afghanistan - you were there for about five months - with what you saw in Iraq? You were there at the height of the Sunni insurgency. Why have you concluded the war in Afghanistan seems - is fundamentally unwinnable?

Mr. HOH: Yeah. I don't want to go down that path about talking about whether or not it's winnable or not. I prefer to keep talking about, is it worth winning? Is it worth losing more lives? And is it worth spending billions of dollars that frankly, this country does not have? I don't feel it's unwinnable. I just don't feel - it's not worth winning. No one has been able to answer to me: Why are we there? And that's what I'm looking for.

BLOCK: You were in Afghanistan for about five months. That's not a huge amount of time. Do you really think it's enough time on the ground to fully understand the situation in all parts of the country?

Mr. HOH: Yes I do, because I was fortunate to have served time in two different parts of the country. I served time in the east, where our forces are heavily engaged in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, as well as time in the south, where our forces are also heavily engaged. I had done quite a bit of studying. I have many friends and colleagues who had served in Afghanistan prior to me going there. And then most importantly, the position I had as a political adviser, my job was to work with local Afghans on a daily basis. And I did, and I was able to get out, and I was able to meet with local Afghans throughout the east and the south of the country. And they're the ones who really codified my thoughts on this. And you realize that what they want is to be left alone.

BLOCK: The question, then, would be if they are left alone, as you say, if the Taliban were to take over in Afghanistan again, would the - would al-Qaida regroup there? I know you have said that you don't think they would. Secretary of State Clinton disagrees entirely. She has said if the Taliban take over Afghanistan, I can't tell you how fast al-Qaida would be back in Afghanistan. Is she wrong?

Mr. HOH: I don't believe that's correct. I believe that after 2001, we disrupted al-Qaida and chased al-Qaida and Taliban out of Afghanistan, that al-Qaida evolved and al-Qaida became, basically, an ideological cloud that exists on the Internet. I don't believe al-Qaida will ever again tie itself to a geographical or political boundary. I believe they have evolved, and that they get recruits worldwide. They're not looking for a safe haven in Afghanistan. They don't need that. They've already got safe havens in half a dozen other countries - Somalia, Sudan, Yemen.

And more to the point, if you look at the successful attacks al-Qaida has had, including 9/11, the majority - the vast majority of those attackers are not from the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Many of them are Western-European or from the Gulf. And so much of that training and planning for those attacks - whether it was 9/11, Madrid, London - took place in Western Europe or - you know, hey. I mean, as everyone knows in the 9/11 attacks, a lot of that training happened here in the U.S.

BLOCK: You're talking about the flight schools.

Mr. HOH: Correct, correct. So, I think what we're doing is, we have an approach where we haven't evolved ourselves. We are still set up to do our foreign policy and our defense operations like we were in 1991. And we need to change. Al-Qaida changed. They evolved. They got smart about how they're going to do their operations. We need to do the same. And more to the point, say we do continue to occupy Afghanistan and say, hey, we - say we even go farther. Say, we occupy Pakistan. Occupation only reinforces the message of al-Qaida. Occupation only causes people to want to fight the West and to join their ranks.

BLOCK: And your message is it is not just now that you feel this is the case, you feel this has always been the case in Afghanistan.

Mr. HOH: That's correct. You know, of course, we had to go in there in 2001. We had to drive the Taliban from power. We had to do our best to destroy al-Qaida. But that was eight years ago, and things have changed. And we have just basically - because we have been unthinking in our approach, I think, because we've been unflexible in our approach, we just continue to march down this path. We're - now, we have 60,000 troops, we're looking to bolster it to 80 or 100,000. And we just keep going into more valleys and finding more enemies because we're going into their valleys. But yes, I do believe that we're now in a position where we have to really change - fundamentally change our approach to fighting al-Qaida.

BLOCK: Matthew Hoh, you end your resignation with this thought: Families 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 any more be made. What message do you think that sends to families of the more than 800 troops who've already died in Afghanistan? Was it a lost cause? Did - were those deaths, do you think, in vain?

Mr. HOH: This is a very - that's a very difficult question. And it's a very emotional question. I just had a friend this week pass away in Afghanistan. It's - it's very hard to say that. It's very difficult. It was very difficult for me to write that, but I don't believe we should continue losing and sacrificing our young men and women for goals that meet no strategic purpose to the United States. And the idea that we should continue fighting there just because we have been fighting there for the last eight years, I think, is completely irrational.

BLOCK: Matthew Hoh, thanks for talking with us today.

Mr. HOH: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Matthew Hoh resigned his post with the State Department in Afghanistan last month. You can read his resignation letter at our Web site, npr.org.

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