Matthew Hoh sounds more like a professor of Asian history than anything. “The British and Russian occupations of Afghanistan were based on irrational fear and regional politics. The British thought Afghanistan could be a buffer state between Russia and India, when Russia had no designs on India whatsoever at that time. We’re making some of the same mistakes.”
Hoh, 36, is the highest-ranking foreign service officer to resign his post in Afghanistan. A former Marine with two tours of duty in Iraq, Hoh spent five months in four separate provinces in the country, particularly Zabul Province, and quickly became disillusioned by the US presence and the point of the mission. So he publicly resigned, and in the months since has toured the country, raising awareness about the war and the need to reverse course.
Hoh believes that the country remains trapped in the same civil war that they have endured since well before the US invasion. “If you read the news articles after the invasion, there are only two or three mentions to Afghanistan being in civil war,” Hoh says. “Before the invasion, there are thousands of mentions. The invasion hasn’t stopped the civil war at all, nothing’s changed, but the media never brings it up.”
The central split in Afghanistan falls not just along ethnic lines, but among the majority Pashtuns, a split between an urban, secular class and a poor, rural, religious class. Hoh traces it back to the 1970s. “When the king was deposed, the urban elites put forward a socialist agenda, and the Afghan Communist party actually pushed that further,” according to Hoh. “One of their biggest mistakes was to mandate the shaving of beards, I believe for working in government positions. The tribes in the valleys and the villages saw this as a threat to their way of life. The generals I worked with said that in 1978, the villagers in my province revolted when the government asked them what their wives’ names were.”
Hoh maintains that this war endures, and that instead of the ire directed at the Afghan Communist Party or the Soviet occupiers in the 1970s, our military bears the brunt of this opposition. The insurgency has rallied around this, with the majority of those fighting simply not wanting a foreign presence in their villages. “This counter-insurgency mindset, that you can win hearts and minds, just is crazy to me,” Hoh said. “Most people have their minds made up. We have spent billions building roads, schools, clinics, and it doesn’t matter. They are against foreign occupation, and against our perceived support of one side of a civil war.”
As for the strategy of building up local Afghan forces to police their own country and provide for their own security, Hoh is skeptical. “Lots of those security forces on paper don’t even exist; they’re ghost employees.” In one province, he saw the actual numbers of police forces reduced by 30% from the numbers on the rolls. The Afghan Army is the most disciplined, benefiting from training from US forces, Hoh said, but even they would need 6-7 years to stand up on their own. And the cost for Afghanistan to maintain the size of security forces recommended by the US military would wind up costing 2-3 times their total GDP. “The only way the Afghans could support that is if they legalized the drug trade,” Hoh said. And if the US filled that funding gap, the war would cost even more than it does currently, a burden which is quickly growing too greatly.
Hoh believes that Al Qaeda should be combated as a threat, and that Pakistan needs to be stabilized. But he doesn’t feel that the occupation of Afghanistan has achieved either goal. And he doesn’t see one true strategy that will fit into all the complexities in Afghanistan. “There’s a knee-jerk fear among some people, this foundation of personal politics that makes them think they look tougher by trying harder to win a war. They’re pushing this strategy of escalation and counter-insurgency just to prove their point, and I think that’s a terrible way to manage a war. This isn’t a grad school exercise, there’s no cookie-cutter solution to 34 provinces with probably 340 problems.” Hoh cited genuine disagreement within the military over the best way forward, in contrast to the perception of a monolithic tendency toward counter-insurgency.
Hoh would also like to see a civilian-led effort, which is somewhat paradoxical, since he comes from the military. Because of the improvisational skills built through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because the Department of Defense has so many more resources than the State Department, the military has been thrust into the development role and now houses the men and women best equipped for the job. However, while “every military person I know” would agree with the need for more civilian capacity, Hoh said that this would not be a silver bullet in Afghanistan either. He noted that the Soviet Union put a lot of emphasis on civilian advisers as well, with little success. It would take ingenuity of the ilk of the local development grants that have proven successful in certain regions of the country.
I asked Hoh about that recent report from The Nation from Aram Roston about how the military has indirectly funded the Taliban by paying them not to attack supply lines. Hoh was careful not to use “Taliban” as a blanket signifier for the insurgency, and he said that he didn’t witness anything personally like that. “But I believe it happened, and it just shows you the situation we’re in. I would say that the enemy gets as much funds from our aid and development as from any other source. The government’s education minister in Zabul province, where I served, his brother was a well-known Taliban commander in another province. What are we doing there? What are we getting out of it? We’re paying people not to shoot us in one place so they can shoot us in another one?” This prevalence of corruption and graft is a major factor in Hoh’s eventual turning away from the mission.
Hoh painted a grim picture of an Afghanistan mired in civil war and political stalemate. He did agree with the many observers who feel that neither side would be able to fully gain hold over the country, adding that the Taliban could never regain power without the backing of Pakistan, but he stressed that the central government could never fulfill their duties without being resented – “these villagers don’t want to pay their taxes to a central government in Kabul.” He feels that the only solution lies in ending the occupation and reaching a political accommodation between the warring factions. “And Hamid Karzai has no interest in doing that, so we’re stuck for at least five years. I think it’s sad.”