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 *U.S. official resigns over Afghan war* 
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Post *U.S. official resigns over Afghan war*
*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
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

"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


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."

Wed Oct 28, 2009 1:20 pm
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