Matthew Hoh, a Senior Civilian Official in Afghanistan, Resigns Over U.S. Strategy

Former Marine Says It Will Take Decades And Billions of Dollars to Achieve Success in Afghanistan


Oct. 27, 2009—

A key U.S. official in Afghanistan has resigned in protest over U.S. policy in the war-torn region, as the Obama administration deliberates its future strategy there.

Matthew Hoh, a political officer in the foreign service and a senior civilian officer in Zabul, Afghanistan, wrote a four-page letter to Ambassador Nancy Powell, director general of the foreign service at the State Department, to express his "doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy," as first reported by the Washington Post today.

Today, Hoh told reporters he submitted his letter of resignation on Sept. 10 because he doesn't agree with the U.S. mission in the country. Afghanistan, Hoh said, is in stark contrast to Iraq, especially when it comes to security.

"I feel that our strategies in Afghanistan are not pursing goals that are worthy of sacrificing our young men and women or spending the billions we're doing there," Hoh said. "I believe that the people we are fighting there are fighting us because we are occupying them -- not for any ideological reasons, not because of any links to al Qaeda, not because of any fundamental hatred toward the West. The only reason they're fighting us is because we are occupying them."

Hoh spent six years in Iraq, where he served as a Marine Corps captain and then worked as a civilian for the Department of Defense.

The 36-year-old told reporters he wants people to know that stabilizing the Afghan government doesn't equate to defeating al Qaeda.

"If that's our goal, to defeat al Qaeda, we need to change our strategy because, you know it's the proverbial swatting of the fly with a sledgehammer, all you do is basically exhaust yourself and you put holes in your walls and your floors, and you don't do anything to the fly," he said. "We are still fighting them the way we would have fought in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, and we need to change. We need to evolve to actually fight this threat so that we can affect it."

The U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, and Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently tried to talk Hoh out of resigning. The latter even offered him a job but Hoh declined, according to the Post.

The State Department said today that senior officials spoke to Hoh and heard him out, but that they believe the Obama administration's strategy is on the right track.

"We take his point of view very seriously. But we continue to believe that we are on track to achieving the goal that the president has set before us," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

Asked how Hoh's resignation stacked up against those of career officials who resigned over the conflicts in Bosnia and Iraq, Kelly replied, "Without minimizing the obvious passion and depth of feeling of Mr. Hoh, in terms of his perception of the mission in Afghanistan, yeah, I would draw a distinction between his situation and somebody who had been in the Foreign Service and had a stake in the Foreign Service for 20 years or more."

Matthew Hoh Resigns Over War in Afghanistan

Hoh's resignation comes as a blow to the Obama administration, which has yet to decide whether it will send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as the lead commander on the ground, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has requested.

Speaking at the Naval Base in Jacksonville, Fla., Monday, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of the issue and explained why, despite some criticism, he's taking his time to decide.

"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," the president told servicemen and women. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And, if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done."

The president also acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead in the region.

Fourteen Americans died Monday in three helicopter crashes, with one involved in anti-drug operations, making it the deadliest day for U.S. casualties in Afghanistan in four years. On Tuesday, eight U.S. service members working with NATO security forces were killed and several people were injured in attacks in southern Afghanistan.

Obama will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Friday to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the White House would only say today that the president is "in the process of evaluating where we are." Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president had seen Hoh's story but had not read his letter of resignation.

Administration officials will likely pay close attention to Hoh's letter, in which he says that even if the United States increased its commitment to the region, it would take years -- if not decades and generations -- and billions of dollars to achieve success. He also argues that the U.S. military presence contributes to the legitimacy of the insurgency, led by ethnic Pashtuns.

"To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war," the former Marine wrote in the emotional letter.

Hoh told reporters the benefits of engagement in Afghanistan doesn't outweigh the costs because there are so many threats on different levels.

"There are so many local groups, it's infinite," he said. "We are enmeshed in a civil war… stabilizing the government does nothing to defeat al Qaeda."

Hoh's message is one that may reverberate with troops on the ground. Many of them have told ABC News they do not believe they are in greater danger than during the Bush administration, but that morale is an issue and they want Obama to make a decision quickly.

The president will wait until after the run-off presidential election in Afghanistan Nov. 7, some analysts said.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week showed that 31 percent of Americans believe Obama has a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, while 63 percent think he does not.

And Americans' view of the war in Afghanistan may not be very far off from that of Hoh's. Nearly half of Americans surveyed, 47 percent, said the war has not been worth fighting, and 49 percent say more troops should not be deployed to Afghanistan.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is credited with giving Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai the push to accept a run-off election, said Monday that the U.S. mission should be more narrow and modest rather than the far-reaching, counter-insurgency strategy McChrystal has suggested.

"The nature of our commitment has to evolve away from U.S. military-dominated effort toward support for Afghan institutions and Afghan answers," Kerry said in the speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We need to ask ourselves at every turn, will what we do, will this help the Afghan people take responsibility for their country? And if the answer is 'no,' we probably shouldn't be doing it."

ABC News' Richard Coolidge contributed to this report.