US Diplomat Delivers Odd Resignation in Afghanistan

This Washington Post photo of Matthew Hoh was taken during an October 23, 2009, interview. Hoh was a Foreign Service officer with the State Department and stationed in Zabul Province, an insurgency-infested province along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Click to enlarge.

Matthew Hoh, a Foreign Service officer with the State Department, has became the second US diplomat to leave Afghanistan since September. Hoh, a former Marine, voluntarily resigned from his post because he no longer believed in the US mission in Afghanistan. Hoh writes in his September 10 resignation letter (PDF download link) that he doubts the “current strategy and planned future strategy” of the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Hoh did not resign because of “how” the US is fighting the war but “why” and “to what end.” He says that he does not see “the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.” In a recent Washington Post interview, Hoh indicated that he was open to the idea of the U.S. remaining in Afghanistan but with a much lighter combat footprint. “We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath,” Hoh says, “But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve.”

Hoh’s resignation letter finds many faults with the crisis in Afghanistan. Hoh cites the rampant corruption in the Afghan government. He states that the U.S. does not understand the “insurgency’s true nature” and that the very presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan plays to the insurgency’s justification to its own people. So is Hoh right? Does the U.S. need to dramatically scale back its troop levels in Afghanistan (at a time when President Obama is actually contemplating a surge) and let Afghans resolve the 35-year crisis largely on their own? No.

While most of Hoh’s analysis is on target, some of his most important points suffer from faulty comparisons and oversimplification. For instance, in an example of a faulty comparison, Hoh writes that if the U.S. is in Afghanistan to prevent it from returning to a safe haven for international terrorism, then why not also garrison other states known for terrorist activity such as Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and the western part of Pakistan? Hoh’s rational is that if the latter idea is bad then so is the former. In fact, Hoh notes (correctly) that international terrorism is not “tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries.” So, according to Hoh, why lay down the proverbial gauntlet and fight terrorists in Afghanistan when they can easily migrate to other lands?

Afghanistan is fundamentally different from the other states that Hoh mentioned for several reasons and these realities justify the current U.S. effort in Afghanistan. First, and foremost, Afghanistan has the Taliban whose egregious religious and political intolerance motivated it to host Osama bin Ladin and al Qaeda, which planned the September 11th attacks on Afghan soil.

This 1931 photo of one of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, was taken by Maynard Owen Williams who worked for National Geographic. The Taliban, known for religious intolerance, destroyed it and another one similar in size in March 2001. Click twice to enlarge.

For all of the Sudanese government’s horrific actions, at least it expelled bin Ladin in 1998 following international pressure, but the Taliban could not be persuaded to do the same. The Taliban’s excess makes the ultra conservative Iranian theocracy look liberal in comparison. It remains determined to re-conquer all of Afghanistan and militarily force its ideology and culture (the Taliban is a hybrid of religious extremism and Pashtun culture) on all other Afghan ethnic groups.

Hoh concedes that the U.S. has “some obligation” for Afghanistan not to become a bloodbath. This concession is likely Hoh’s affirmation of the ethical burden that the U.S. and NATO bear toward the Afghan people. Since the U.S. decided to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following September 11, then it was also obligated to help afterwards. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell summed up such an ethical responsibility with the famous phrase: “You break it you buy it.”

The second factor that makes Afghanistan special is that every one of its neighbors has strategic and national security interests in what goes on within its borders. Afghanistan is a mutated buffer state gone wild. Consequently, Afghanistan’s enduring civil war bears an inextricable proxy element, which destabilizes South and Central Asia. The continuous meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs by its neighbors has fatally handicapped the Afghan people’s ability to resolve the ongoing crisis by their own efforts.

Incidentally, in a reversal of the proxy factor, Hoh also argues that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan destabilizes Pakistan and increases the insurgency in that country. Someone needs to tell Hoh that this argument is used by Iran and Pakistan to persuade the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, but an abrupt U.S. pullout would itself destabilize the region and benefit Iran and Pakistan as these two states would seek to cement their influence in Afghanistan through their respective proxies, or the various Afghan ethnic groups. Iran would back the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, and Pakistan the Pashtuns in all out civil war.

A third factor that justifies the U.S. role in Afghanistan is related to Hoh’s point about the migratory nature of international terrorism. While terrorism is not tied to any one location, state-sponsors nonetheless offer terrorism significant advantage. A fundamental problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that, as General McChrystal’s Initial Assessment of Afghanistan (PDF download link) to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, a large portion of the 41 million Pashtuns that live in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been violently infiltrated by the Taliban so that the traditional Pashtun tribal structure is melting away. Put simply, you have one of the world’s largest “stateless” ethnic groups (after the Kurds) merging with a radical ideology and this phenomenon is inherently more dangerous than an ideology alone. Compounding this problem, the Pashtun lands in Pakistan’s tribal lands operate like a state-within-a-state giving the Pakistan-based Taliban freedom of action.

Hoh’s analysis of Afghanistan also contains a serious oversimplification. Hoh generalizes that all Afghans do not support the current system of government. He writes that the US encourages “an ideology and a system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.” Is Hoh really suggesting that all Afghans do not want representative government and the power to choose who they want to lead them? After all, he also says in his letter that the insurgents fight against “an unrepresentative government in Kabul” so evidently Hoh believes that the Pashtuns want a representative government. If not, then what system of government does Hoh think that Afghans want or need?

Hoh’s sweeping generalization does not align with the facts. In a recent Brookings Institute seminar about the 2009 Afghan presidential election, it was noted that the 2004 Afghan elections had strong voter turnout, although the figures were lower among the Pashtuns. The high turnout signaled national optimism. However, the 2005 and 2009 elections recorded significantly lower turnout, which was likely due to an increasing frustration with the Karzai government among a growing number of Afghans.

In this year’s parliamentary elections, there were still provinces with solid voter turn. For instance, Bamiyan Province, home to the Hazaras, whom the Taliban massacred for their Shiite heritage, had a 75% turnout rate. Other non-Pashtun dominated provinces also had respectable turnout rates. However, and most striking, Pashtun voter turnout rates this year plummeted almost everywhere. Put simply, Hoh’s argument is largely a Pashtun/Pakistan one.

Perhaps what Hoh should have said was that the U.S. encourages “an ideology and a system of government unknown and unwanted by large elements within the Pashtun ethnic group.” Even then, Hoh would need to qualify such a statement since he indicates that the Pashtuns do in fact want a government that represents them; moreover, President Karzai does enjoy some Pashtun support among tribes who are not aligned with the insurgents. The truth is that the Taliban want an authoritarian, Pakistan-aligned, government that represents Pashtun views of society and religion, where the key political posts in the country are occupied by Pashtuns.

One curious fact about Mr. Hoh’s stay in Afghanistan is that it was too short because he voluntarily resigned after only five months. In addition, he was stationed in the Pashtun-dominated, insurgency-infested Zabul Province that borders Pakistan. Perhaps had Hoh been stationed in a non-Pashtun dominated province perhaps he might have come to a different conclusion on Afghanistan. After all, people are shaped by their experiences.