Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Expert Quits Afghan Mission And Rattles The Brass

For those of you who believe our mission in Afghanistan is a war of futility as I do then this article in today's Washington Post reaffirms that notion.

As you will learn, Matthew Hoh is no peacenik rabblerouser but a seasoned combat Marine, civil engineer and member of an elite Foreign Service team whose resignation shocked the top civilian foreign policy leaders in the Obama administration.

"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 State Department thought so highly of Hoh that he was flown to Washington with a face-to face talk 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.

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 between rural and urban rivals.

One of Hoh's last assignments was researching an answer for Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked during a visit last April. He wanted to know why the U.S. military was suffering casualties for years fighting in the Korengal Valley near the Pakistan border.

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.

Continues the Post article:

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."

Hoh said the United States needs to reduce its combat troop level now at 68,000. "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."

On Monday, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Council on Foreign Relations that he is urging the administration to redefine its strategy that would focus “on what is achievable as well as critical, and empower the Afghans to take control of their own future.”

The senator said the United States must be both patient and realistic, and that “a sustained, long-term commitment to the Afghan people,” on civilian as well as military fronts, is essential to avoid a failure that would have enormous implications.

At the same time, Kerry said the United States need not create “a flawless democracy” in Afghanistan, nor vanquish the Taliban “in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy.

“We don’t have to control every hamlet and village,” Kerry said, using language reminiscent of America’s futile war in Vietnam. But Kerry asserted that, unlike the Viet Cong, the Taliban did not have broad, deep support among the common people, which he said portended well for eventual success in Afghanistan.

It's not that I agree with Hoh's assessment of the Afghan mission, but a notion that he speaks from first-hand knowledge unclouded by politics as is the case of our generals. Hoh's letter of resignation struck hard at the soft underbelly of our foreign policy leaders or they wouldn't have given him a second thought.

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