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Washington Post U.S. official resigns over Afghan war

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    U.S. official resigns over Afghan war Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer knows why his nation is fighting By Karen DeYoung
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 27, 2009
    U.S. official resigns over Afghan war
    Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer
    knows why his nation is fighting
    By Karen DeYoung
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, October 27, 2009


    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 accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week
    later. "I recognize the career implications, but it wasn't the right
    thing to do," he said in an interview Friday, two days after his
    resignation became final.

    "I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in
    love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best
    job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where
    many of his closest friends still serve.

    "There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda
    and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked
    a bunch of guys."

    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.

    As the White House deliberates over whether to deploy more troops, Hoh
    said he decided to speak out publicly because "I want people in Iowa,
    people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and
    say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right.' "

    "I realize what I'm getting into . . . what people are going to say
    about me," he said. "I never thought I would be doing this."
    'Uncommon bravery'

    Hoh's journey -- from Marine, reconstruction expert and diplomat to war
    protester -- was not an easy one. Over the weeks he spent thinking about
    and drafting his resignation letter, he said, "I felt physically
    nauseous at times."

    His first ambition in life was to become a firefighter, like his father.
    Instead, after graduation from Tufts University and a desk job at a
    publishing firm, he joined the Marines in 1998. After five years in
    Japan and at the Pentagon -- and at a point early in the Iraq war when
    it appeared to many in the military that the conflict was all but over
    -- he left the Marines to join the private sector, only to be recruited
    as a Defense Department civilian in Iraq. A trained combat engineer, he
    was sent to manage reconstruction efforts in Saddam Hussein's home town
    of Tikrit.

    "At one point," Hoh said, "I employed up to 5,000 Iraqis" handing out
    tens of millions of dollars in cash to construct roads and mosques. His
    program was one of the few later praised as a success by the U.S.
    special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

    In 2005, Hoh took a job with BearingPoint, a major technology and
    management contractor at the State Department, and was sent to the Iraq
    desk in Foggy Bottom. When the U.S. effort in Iraq began to turn south
    in early 2006, he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. He
    assumed command of a company in Anbar province, where Marines were dying
    by the dozens.

    Hoh came home in the spring of 2007 with citations for what one Marine
    evaluator called "uncommon bravery," a recommendation for promotion, and
    what he later recognized was post-traumatic stress disorder. Of all the
    deaths he witnessed, the one that weighed most heavily on him happened
    in a helicopter crash in Anbar in December 2006. He and a friend, Maj.
    Joseph T. McCloud, were aboard when the aircraft fell into the rushing
    waters below Haditha dam. Hoh swam to shore, dropped his 90 pounds of
    gear and dived back in to try to save McCloud and three others he could
    hear calling for help.

    He was a strong swimmer, he said, but by the time he reached them, "they
    were gone."
    'You can't sleep'

    It wasn't until his third month home, in an apartment in Arlington, that
    it hit him like a wave. "All the things you hear about how it comes over
    you, it really did. . . . You have dreams, you can't sleep. You're just,
    'Why did I fail? Why didn't I save that man? Why are his kids growing up
    without a father?' "

    Like many Marines in similar situations, he didn't seek help. "The only
    thing I did," Hoh said, "was drink myself blind."

    What finally began to bring him back, he said, was a television show --
    "Rescue Me" on the FX cable network -- about a fictional New York
    firefighter who descended into "survivor guilt" and alcoholism after
    losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks.

    He began talking to friends and researching the subject online. He
    visited McCloud's family and "apologized to his wife . . . because I
    didn't do enough to save them," even though his rational side knew he
    had done everything he could.

    Hoh represented the service at the funeral of a Marine from his company
    who committed suicide after returning from Iraq. "My God, I was so
    afraid they were going to be angry," he said of the man's family. "But
    they weren't. All they did was tell me how much he loved the Marine Corps."

    "It's something I'll carry for the rest of my life," he said of his Iraq
    experiences. "But it's something I've settled, I've reconciled with."

    Late last year, a friend told Hoh that the State Department was offering
    year-long renewable hires for Foreign Service officers in Afghanistan.
    It was a chance, he thought, to use the development skills he had
    learned in Tikrit under a fresh administration that promised a new strategy.

    In photographs he brought home from Afghanistan, Hoh appears as a tall
    young man in civilian clothes, with a neatly trimmed beard and a
    pristine flak jacket. He stands with Eikenberry, the ambassador, on
    visits to northern Kunar province and Zabul, in the south. He walks with
    Zabul Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, confers with U.S. military officers
    and sits at food-laden meeting tables with Afghan tribal leaders. In one
    picture, taken on a desolate stretch of desert on the Pakistani border,
    he poses next to a hand-painted sign in Pashto marking the frontier.

    The border picture was taken in early summer, after he arrived in Zabul
    following two months in a civilian staff job at the military brigade
    headquarters in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. It was in Jalalabad
    that his doubts started to form.

    Hoh was assigned to research the response to a question asked by Adm.
    Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April
    visit. Mullen wanted to know why the U.S. military had been operating
    for years in the Korengal Valley, an isolated spot near Afghanistan's
    eastern border with Pakistan where a number of Americans had been
    killed. Hoh concluded that there was no good reason. The people of
    Korengal didn't want them; the insurgency appeared to have arrived in
    strength only after the Americans did, and the battle between the two
    forces had achieved only a bloody stalemate.

    Korengal and other areas, he said, taught him "how localized the
    insurgency was. I didn't realize that a group in this valley here has no
    connection with an insurgent group two kilometers away." Hundreds, maybe
    thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological
    ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders
    and maintain their own local power bases.

    "That's really what kind of shook me," he said. "I thought it was more
    nationalistic. But it's localism. I would call it valley-ism."
    'Continued . . . assault'

    Zabul is "one of the five or six provinces always vying for the most
    difficult and neglected," a State Department official said. Kandahar,
    the Taliban homeland, is to the southwest and Pakistan to the south.
    Highway 1, the main link between Kandahar and Kabul and the only paved
    road in Zabul, bisects the province. Over the past year, the official
    said, security has become increasingly difficult.

    By the time Hoh arrived at the U.S. military-run provincial
    reconstruction team (PRT) in the Zabul capital of Qalat, he said, "I
    already had a lot of frustration. But I knew at that point, the new
    administration was . . . going to do things differently. So I thought
    I'd give it another chance." He read all the books he could get his
    hands on, from ancient Afghan history, to the Soviet occupation in the
    1980s, through Taliban rule in the 1990s and the eight years of U.S.
    military involvement.

    Frank Ruggiero, the Kandahar-based regional head of the U.S. PRTs in the
    south, considered Hoh "very capable" and appointed him the senior
    official among the three U.S. civilians in the province. "I always
    thought very highly of Matt," he said in a telephone interview.

    In accordance with administration policy of decentralizing power in
    Afghanistan, Hoh worked to increase the political capabilities and clout
    of Naseri, the provincial governor, and other local officials.
    "Materially, I don't think we accomplished much," he said in retrospect,
    but "I think I did represent our government well."

    Naseri told him that at least 190 local insurgent groups were fighting
    in the largely rural province, Hoh said. "It was probably exaggerated,"
    he said, "but the truth is that the majority" are residents with
    "loyalties to their families, villages, valleys and to their financial

    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."
    'Their problem to solve'

    Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh's resignation but that he
    made no effort to dissuade him. "It's Matt's decision, and I honored, I
    respected" it, he said. "I didn't agree with his assessment, but it was
    his decision."

    Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to
    discuss "individual personnel matters."

    Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry's deputy, said he met with Hoh in
    Kabul but spoke to him "in confidence. I respect him as a thoughtful man
    who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I expect most of
    Matt's colleagues would share this positive estimation of him, whatever
    may be our differences of policy or program perspectives."

    This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden's foreign
    policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken's invitation.

    If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would
    advise a reduction in combat forces.

    He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S.
    communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more
    pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government
    corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

    "We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some
    obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to
    draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."
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