Matthew Hoh: Please refute what I’m saying, we are stuck in the Afghan civil war

Matthew Hoh, who recently resigned from his State Dept. job to protest U.S. policy in Afghanistan, gave his views on the Lehrer Newshour last night. I was impressed with his cogency, and also his quiet insistence that the current more-troops-or-not discussion get to the core question: Should the U.S. military be in Afghanistan at all. Politely but stubbornly, Hoh argues that the reasons usually given, in passing and without scrutiny, for a continued U.S. occupation, just don’t hold up. Al Qaida is not in Afghanistan. A resurgent Taliban does not threaten U.S. national security. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not stabilizing the situation in Pakistan. We are in the middle of someone else’s civil war.

The full transcript of the interview is here. Below are a couple of key excerpts, followed by video of the interview. Hoh, a former Marine captain, spent five months in Afghanistan before resigning in September. His resignation letter, explaining his reasons, went public this week. The Newshour interviewer was Judy Woodruff. Here are a couple of key moments:

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it your view that the U.S. should just get out?

MATTHEW HOH: Of course it’s impossible to wave a magic wand and be gone from there. However, I do believe we are involved in a 35-year-old civil war.

I believe we are not the lead character in that war, that it’s an internal conflict. I believe that 60,000 troops in Afghanistan do not serve to defeat al-Qaida and do not serve to stabilize the Pakistan government.


HOH: I found, we were fighting people who were fighting us only because we’re occupying them or because we are supporting a central government that they view as occupying them.


HOH: Since 2001, al-Qaida has evolved. They have turned into, as I like to say, an ideological cloud that exists on the Internet and recruits worldwide. They — if you look at the attacks al-Qaida has been successful with over the last seven, eight years, including attacks on 9/11, they weren’t conducted by Afghans or Pakistanis.

And a lot of the preparation and training, it took place in Western Europe or even here in the United States. So, I don’t think al-Qaida has any interest in ever tying itself again to a geographical or political boundary. I think they’re content to exist as they have evolved. And they are a threat, and they should be our priority. We need to defeat them.

But, again, 60,000 troops in Afghanistan does not defeat al-Qaida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the Taliban?

MATTHEW HOH: The Taliban, we chased them out of power in 2001, like we rightfully should have.

However, what you have in Quetta now, I believe, is just the remnants of that. And while the Quetta Shura Taliban, as we refer to them, is a threat, and is a threat to the Karzai government, I don’t believe they are a threat to the United States.

And, furthermore, I don’t believe that they would be able to retake Kabul, particularly if we ensure that there was no Pakistani support for them if we left Afghanistan.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think would happen, though, if President Obama did give General McChrystal the troops he wants or a significant increase in the number of troops?

MATTHEW HOH: I believe it’s only going to fuel the insurgency. It’s only going to reinforce claims by our enemies that we are an occupying power, because we are an occupying power.

And that will only fuel the insurgency. And that will only cause more people to fight us or those fighting us already to continue to fight us.


HOH: I think we have to realize that, sometimes, people don’t like us and don’t want to be like us. And we have to accept that. And then we have to engage them politically and work with them that way.


(Woodruff introduced this question by saying that Hoh is only 36 and spent only five months in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are you to say what the United States should be doing, when there are others who have been there longer, studied it for years, and so forth?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. And I wish people would refute what I’m saying. I have seen that criticism, but I have not seen anyone tell me why it’s not a civil war.

I have not seen anyone tell me how stabilizing the Afghan government will defeat al-Qaida. I have not heard anyone tell me how keeping 60,000 troops, or 80,000, or 100,000 troops in Afghanistan will stabilize Pakistan. So, I haven’t heard the answers to those questions.

As for the criticisms about my age or that I was only there for five months, I was there for five months. I was in two parts of the country. I worked with as many local people as I could. And I listened as much as possible.

At that point, what I wrote — first off, what I wrote in my resignation letter, there’s not a novel or unique thought in that. Those are thoughts shared by military officers and State Department officers as well. My concern is not how are we fighting this war, but why are we fighting this war.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/30/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    I have been trying to recall where it is written that to be “occupiers” is a bad thing.

    If it means we are hated by those who would take advantage of our absence, I suppose it is a bad thing for them. But it seems to me it would be appreciated by those opposed to them, if we did it well.

    Frankly, I don’t have much sympathy for people who chop off other folks’ fingers, bomb people in a shopping mart, and blow up schools for girls.

    So if being an “occupier” means that these people are restrained from their wanton terrible behaviour, hunted down, and eliminated by us — even at a price — I can live with that.

    I would just like to know we were doing it well.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/30/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    Former Commander of NATO Forces in Afghanistan General Dan K. McNeill has stated that by following Counter Insurgency Strategy (COIN)we will need 400,000 troops to successfully occupy Afghanistan. He also went on to say that if you want to occupy just the Pashtun region in would take about 250,000 troops according to the COIN strategy.

    Why is there such a disparity in numbers from what General Chrystal has stated he would require, 40 to 80 thousand troops. These numbers seem to pale in comparison to what the COIN manual states. But then again we do not have the number of troops to do the job as the manual dictates. Clearly this is just a down payment on yearly requests for more and more troops.

    I fear Gen. McChrystal is — recognizing that we’ve done things wrong in Afghanistan for eight years and gotten ourselves in the soup, but reasoning from this that the way to get out of the soup is to do the same things right.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/30/2009 - 12:56 pm.

    I respect Hoh for speaking out; so clearly articulating his point of view.

    And age has nothing to do with wisdom and honesty. Questioning Hoh’s capabilities on that score…it’s the old military commander f**ts with their atrophied, arthritic minds that should be questioned and held responsible for the deaths and escalating chaos with no acceptable closure ever to be attained.

    Next I suppose they’ll be questioning Hoh’s patriotism.

    You may want to check out a harsher critic; another military man, retired…Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff under Secretary of State Collin Powell on…”The Military-congressional conflict”; a 2-part video/transcript plus part 3, “Will the empire end with leadership or blood.”

    Gareth Porter has one story over at…”NATO forces turn to warlords”.

    Picture a mad scenario…we hire private defense contractors to protect our troops and defense contractors hire/pay warlords to protect themselves; with money the common denominator?

    And why should anyone be surprised, they don’t like us very well? Our drones kill school children too.

    In fact the latest buzz word out of droneville, command centers so far away from the drone actions…a ‘hit’, a kill of whomever the faceless persons are targeted…they are called squirters” May be a buzz word from some former kid’s nintendo game…who knows…keep the fate, eh?

  4. Submitted by Roy Erickson on 10/30/2009 - 02:46 pm.

    God Bless Matthew Hoh!!

    He seems to have brought LOGIC back into the building!! (Even though Elivis may have left.)

    Logic is not a function of age (or youth) and he makes the case beautifully:


    Our national interests are not at stake in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. Al Qaida is not based in a PLACE; it is a world wide ideological movement found almost everywhere.


    We cannot export ‘democracy’ to countries/peoples who neither want it nor understand it.

    To talk about ‘supporting a central government’ when no such thing has ever existed in that country is absurd.


    We ARE trapped in a civil war…one that has an incredible number of ‘players’–not just North and South as was true in the U.S.

    And we have already been engaged in another country’s civil war for eight years–twice as long as that President Lincoln presided over!


    We cannot AFFORD this war. Not in terms of American lives…or the devastating affect on our economy.

    The entire cost of proposed health reform could have been covered by what we have spent in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan!!



    History has shown us clearly from our Viet Nam experience that, no matter how many troops, if the people we are trying to ‘save’ don’t want us and support us, the mission is lost.

    God Bless Matthew Hoh again for being brave enough to tell it like it is.

    Like an earlier commentator, I sincerely hope he is not villified/crucified for having the courage to speak out.

  5. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/30/2009 - 03:20 pm.

    Curious comment about occupiers being a bad thing. What is a good occupation? Especially one that involves killing thousands of civilians, including using drones (nice and clean; no Americans need get close, even), and arousing even more insurgency.
    I cannot think of one good reason we should stay in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been reading some good ideas about why we should not–along with plans to start withdrawing over the next 2-3 years.
    Hoh knows much more about it than I do (or you do) and so do all of the writers I’ve been reading.
    Maybe the writer should fly to Iraq and Afghanistan and take a look for himself. He could even take him Hummer.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2009 - 03:39 pm.

    If there were no cost to saving other people from themselves then it MIGHT be justified, but unfortunately foreign wars are not free.
    We were supposed to support Iraq through their oil revenues (remember that?) — are we supposed to support Pashtunistan (the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan) through poppy revenues?

    We have better use for the billions at home.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/30/2009 - 06:12 pm.

    A year or more ago, the CIA announced that its drone attacks had killed almost a dozen bad guys, but did not mention that they also killed several hundred Afghans. And we wonder why our presence is resented. I believe the U.N. said today that it was investigating us about those drones. Good!

    I, too, heard Mr. Hoh on the NewsHour and appreciate very much his asking the questions that will be hard to answer but which must be addressed.

    A question I’d like to see someone address is a serious way is this unexamined assumption: Why, 60 years after World War II and 30 years after the end of the Cold War, does the U.S. still consider itself the sole guarantor of world peace — and maintains 700 to 1,000 military bases around the world to prove it?

    Members of Congress and the Defense Department describe how we can keep (name of country) safe and how we can keep (name of continent) safe without ever considering that keeping the whole world safe is not our job. Coming to the aid militarily of a country, when invited by the U.N., is our obligation as a member of the world community of nations.

    As a more pragmatic member of that community, we could build peace by using 90 percent of the defense budget to wipe out poverty at home and abroad, to provide health care and education for all our own people and for others around the world, and could use the other 10 percent of that budget for self defense.

  8. Submitted by Jennifer Wicker on 10/30/2009 - 09:32 pm.

    It boggles my mind that someone would argue it is okay to occupy (or takeover) another country in order to enforce our laws on them. Recent news has told us of a gang rape of a 15 year old girl. People stood by and watched. No one helped her for hours. This didn’t happen in the Middle East. It happened in California! I suppose we should ask Japan to come occupy us to ensure crime doesn’t occur further.

    I have looked at the murder victims, stood next to their grieving parents, in homes less than a dozen miles from the Capitol. That would be the United States Capitol, home of the free. Your argument for taking away someone elses freedom based on your perceptions of individual inicidents is utterly ridiculous.

  9. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/31/2009 - 12:10 pm.

    Gen. McChrystal himself doesn’t think 40,000 troops will do the job. This is a small fraction of the forces he feels are required – and to accomplish what goal?

    “McChrystal estimates that as many as 400,000 local troops and police are needed to hold the Taliban at bay.”, according to a Bloomberg column.

    So how long does it take to build up Afghan police & troops to this level? According to the same column, “NATO plans to build up Afghanistan’s 94,000-man army to 134,000 by the end of 2010. The 90,000-strong police force is set to rise to 97,000 by the end of 2009.”

    This assumes the forces built will be effective & incorrupt. But a few little factoids indicate the loyalties of these forces are suspect. Where do the suicide bombers get the official police uniforms they wear in so many of their attacks, if not from helpful or corrupt insiders? And just who benefits from the “disappeared” goods and money shipped to Afghanistan which remain unaccounted?

    Based upon even the rosiest predictions of the top planners in this strategy, this whole buildup will take some uncertain number of years. It will cost an uncertain amount of money. There is no history in Afghanistan suggesting such a strategy will work.

    We need a new strategy.

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/31/2009 - 04:14 pm.

    On being “Occupiers”

    For those of us who remember, we “occupied” a significant part of Germany for years after WW II, to keep order, to exterminate the last vestiges of the nazi party, and — with the help of the Marshall Plan, to get Germany back on its economic feet. We are still maintaining bases there after 65 years. It does not seem to me that that was a bad thing. And it is what I refer to when I say I hope we do it well.

    For those who remember, we “occupied” South Korea after we fought the North Koreans to a truce in 1950. We are still there, providing a thin line of defense for the South Koreans, who have been able to develop a thriving democratic economy in the meantime. While we could have done that one better (sparing the North Koreans a half century of slavery and starvation), it seems to me this is another example of a good thing brought about by our “occupation.”

    For those with shorter memories, we have “occupied” Iraq for a long time now, with still mixed results, but with at least a nation that has avoided being crushed by Al Qaida, and is struggling to maintain a government with freedoms the world — not just the US — values. It seems to me this is better than the alternatives that faced that nation under Saddam or in the chaotic period that followed his overthrow.

    We have had other “occupations” that did not go so well — the Phillipines and Viet Nam come to mind — but in my thinking we have on the whole done more good for our fellow human beings than ill, the the amazement and discomfiture of those who oppose us.

    There have always been those among us who deny — both within our country and in the world — that we are our brothers keepers, with an obligation to help those in need.

    I see it as fortunate that, for most of the time, that has not been the view of most of our people. I believe that concern for the oppressed (whether by dictators or extremist mullahs) IS a legitimate concern of ours, and deserving of our help no matter the cost.

    Those deprived of the freedoms we enjoy are certainly in need, and not just in our opinion: it is not an accident that throughout the world our culture is seen as a light to the world, deserved more or less ever since the Revolution.

    Those who claim “we can’t afford it” remind me of the hard-hearted persons who refuse to give to worthy causes when I knock on their doors. An open and generous heart would look to cutting the earmarks for “bridges to nowhere: before denying help to others in need.

    Those who claim “it’s not our concern” remind me of Scrooge declaring the poor should just die and reduce the surplus population. That they may be fighting amongst themselves is not an excuse to stand aside as those high school students did who watched a poor girl being raped.

    In my opinion, if we can help, we should. But we should take care to do it right, as we often have in the past and hopefully will do in the future. I have no problem with Obama’s desire to do just that. I would have a problem with a solution that was just another version of watching while one group rapes another.

    Sharing our good fortune is what good neighbors do.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/01/2009 - 01:09 pm.

    So, John, when do we invade Saudi Arabia?
    Most of Africa?
    Where do we stop?

  12. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/01/2009 - 08:45 pm.


    Well, we might start with countries that welcome AlQaida members to their capitals, as Iraq is known to have done. Or with countries that paid $10,000.00 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, as Iraq is known to have done. Or countries whose leaders slaughter their own citizens by the thousands, as happened in Iraq and Yugoslavia and is now happening in more than one African country.

    Or with countries with radical Islamist factions that have hosted AlQaida, as Afghanistan obviously has done, and as Somalia appears now to be doing.

    When our interest in self-protection is added to knowledge of a repressive government, I admit that it increases our concern.

    But it seems to me that even without these added factors, to say “Well, we can’t help them all” is something of a cop out. Perhaps the amount of chance that we can actually help, as in the case of Haiti, should be a factor.

    It seems to me we could at very least be more insistent at the UN, instead of applying “realpolitik” rules.

  13. Submitted by James Warden on 11/02/2009 - 08:07 am.

    To me, the real value of Hoh’s comments is his insistence that we have a strategic level discussion.

    Too much of the Afghanistan debate has been focused at the theater and, often, tactical levels of the conflict – should our forces be in the cities or rural areas, counterinsurgency or high-intensity combat, precision air strikes or living among the people, etc.

    Yet Hoh’s letter specifically stated that he wasn’t resigning because of problems with the way the war had been waged or whether it could be won. Rather, he was resigning because he didn’t think it was a war worth winning. All the stuff above is ancillary to answering that question.

    This doesn’t mean I support or oppose Hoh’s sentiments. But our inability as a nation to distinguish the different tiers of a debate – be it conflict, foreign policy or domestic issues – has me profoundly worried about the country’s ability to chart any coherent long-term course

    As far as “occupier”: It began as a technical term that is even mentioned in the Geneva Convention, which requires certain behavior from “occupying powers.” This was a pretty neutral term when war was all about occupying one country to gain a political decision through the use of force.

    The term has become more loaded as the purpose of war has shifted from using force to compel an adversary to using force to set the conditions under which more elusive goals – such as democracy, freedom, etc. – can flourish. As an aside, when I was in Iraq, some media analysts were flagging all news articles with the use of the term “occupier” as a negative article.

  14. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/02/2009 - 09:49 am.

    “Why, 60 years after World War II and 30 years after the end of the Cold War, does the U.S. still consider itself the sole guarantor of world peace — and maintains 700 to 1,000 military bases around the world to prove it?”

    That comment assumes military power is being used to bring peace. I am doubtful that the intentions of our government’s use of military power are so altruistic and benign.

    Another undiscussed reason for being in Afghanistan and Iraq, given their lack of a threat to the US, is that the US considers Iran a threat to the US and Israel. Being in Afghanistan and Iraq gives the US military a forward position to keep Iran in check.

  15. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/02/2009 - 10:11 am.

    “profoundly worried about the country’s ability to chart any coherent long-term course”

    Our history seems to indicate that, while it may change from time to time, we usually to have such a long term course.

    Our leaders, however, seem often to want to hide it not only from the world but from our citizens. We only learn the hidden agendas long after the events and the actors are gone from the stage.

    The unusual leader who speaks openly of his/her agenda and actually lays it before us for approval must face the possibility that we do not support that agenda.

    It’s easier to hide it as, for example, FDR did in the face of an isolationist population. Examples of those who did not might be Lincoln or Truman or Reagan.

    We have mixed feelings about both types of leader.

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