|Why we should leave Afghanistan
||NEW YORK POST
At first, Matthew Hoh didn’t think he was doing anything that consequential — maybe he’d attract some attention for the first day or two before becoming, as he puts it, a “footnote.”
But since news broke, a little less than a month ago, of his resignation from the State Department over the US war in Afghanistan — he is the first US official to publicly quit in protest — Hoh has swiftly become an influential voice, both within and outside the government. The timing of his resignation, dated Sept. 10, 2009, was fortuitous, he says: “People want to understand this.”
This week, as President Obama announced that he will soon decide how to proceed in Afghanistan and whether to escalate US troop levels, Matthew Hoh, former Senior Civilian Representative in Zabul Province, has been taking meetings on Capitol Hill and with administration officials. He was recently invited to speak with the Vice-President’s national security adviser, Tony Blinken. “It was a good conversation — they were very open and interested in what I had to say,” Hoh says. “Very inquisitive.”
From his colleagues, both military and civilian, Hoh says he has received overwhelming support. “My State Department counterparts and a lot of military officers feel the same way,” he says. “I did not have a Eureka moment. Nothing in that [resignation] letter is novel or unique.”
Public opinion sways similarly: Over the past few weeks, several polls have shown that support for the war in Afghanistan has reached its lowest point ever. A CBS News poll released this week shows 69% of Americans view the war as “going badly,” with the sharpest decline among Republicans and independents.
Hoh, now 36, served as an officer in the Marines in Iraq in 2006. He saw a good friend die, drowning after their helicopter crashed in Anbar province. He says the trauma he suffered in combat has not affected his decision to resign and go public: “I made my peace with that a long time ago.”
From the time Hoh was young, he says, he wanted to serve his country. He grew up working-class in New Jersey; his father was a “dirt poor” high-school dropout and teenage dad who worked hard, went to night school, “did everything he could for his family and did it well.”
Hoh has also worked at the Pentagon, and at the Department of Defense in Iraq. He was assigned to Afghanistan in May; five months later, he drafted his resignation letter.
“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,” he wrote. “To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war.”
US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry — himself the author a leaked memo arguing for no further increase in troop levels — and Richard Holbrooke, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Hoh and tried to keep him from quitting. (Holbrooke has conceded that he largely agrees with Hoh’s assessment.) Hoh, swayed by the old argument that one can effect more change by working within the system, agreed to stay. He lasted a week.
“Seeing the kind of stuff I did — I didn’t want to participate in this,” he says.
Our top priorities, says Hoh, should be destroying al Qaeda, killing Osama bin Laden, and stabilizing Pakistan. “Al Qaeda has not been in Afghanistan since 2001,” when the US first invaded, he says. (Last month, Gen. Jim Jones, the president’s national security adviser, said that there were less than 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan.) “Another 60,000 troops in Afghanistan won’t make a difference,” Hoh says. “But you’ll have hundreds more dead Americans.”
Further, he says, al Qaeda is an elastic, amorphous entity, one based not geographically but ideologically. Hoh points to the logistician for the attacks of Sept. 11, who coordinated everything from a small apartment in Hamburg, Germany. Al Qaeda’s largest attacks since then have occurred in Madrid, London and Indonesia.
“Al Qaeda is a collection of ideas, of independent, autonomous cells,” Hoh says. “They don’t need a lot of funding. They need an apartment with an Internet connection.”
Hoh is also deeply troubled by the conflation of the Taliban in Afghanistan with al Qaeda; the two, he says, are unrelated. “Al Qaeda is a worldwide organization with an apocalyptic vision to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the world,” he says. “The Taliban’s views are very local.” Though the Taliban gave shelter to al Qaeda in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is offering to renounce the organization should they be represented in a coalition government.
“That’s something we should look at,” Hoh says. “But whether the Taliban were complicit in or lead any of the attacks — no. They are not in cahoots. They have separate goals.”
The shadow of Vietnam, to which this war has often been compared, is long. “People [in power] are taking that seriously,” he says. “There are parallels. The idea that we’re supporting the corrupt and illegitimate [Karzai] regime — I think that troubles a lot of people. Is that an honorable thing to do, to ask our young men and women to die? For this regime?”
As with Vietnam, US forces in Afghanistan, Hoh says, are attacked only because we are there, and so it follows that an insurgency abhors a vacuum. He talks about having visited Korengal — “the deadliest area for US troops” — and the primitiveness of the inhabitants, maybe 10,000 in all, speaking their own language, living off a timber-based economy. He recalls asking the commanding officer what would happen if he pulled his troops out.
“So why are we still here?”
“Because we were here before.”
“And that goes on so much,” says Hoh, with more sadness than anger. “It’s this mindset we have: ‘We’ve been here eight years, so we need to be here a ninth.’ To borrow a phrase, it’s the march of folly.”
That said, Hoh is not advocating for a sudden and complete withdrawal. He thinks the US needs to take a far harder approach to Karzai, force him to negotiate with Pakistan by threatening to cut off funds. He thinks the US should end combat in valleys and villages, work only at the lowest levels politically, and aim to be gone within a year.
And then, he says, the US should focus on Pakistan (a state Hillary Clinton recently criticized for harboring terrorists; Osama bin Laden is believed to be in hiding there) and destroying al Qaeda. Hoh does concede that Pakistan is an imminent danger to the US and the West, but says the notion that the bulk of al Qaeda operatives are recruited and trained in that nation alone is false.
“We need a much more serious approach, using intelligence and law-enforcement,” he says. “If we go down this rabbit hole that al Qaeda is tied to a political or geographical boundary, we are never going to defeat them. We have to acknowledge them for what they are, not what we’d like them to be.