Protest resignation over Afghan plans puts Obama team on edge

October 27, 2009

On Monday, the State Department sent out its no. 2 official to tout how it was managing to get U.S. civilians out into the field in Afghanistan, with nearly 1,000 expected to be in place by year-end.

A day later, it was in damage control mode after the resignation of one of its star employees was plastered on the front page of The Washington Post and on the Internet.

In an emotionally-charged four-page letter dated September 10, Matthew Hoh said he was quitting because he had lost confidence in the war effort and whether it was worth the blood spilled there.

AFGHANISTAN/Hoh’s letter is notable  because he was seen as just the kind of person the State Department wants in Afghanistan. A former Marine and then Department of Defense civilian, he served in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. On a one-year contract with the State Department, he was serving as the senior civilian representative in Afghanistan’s Zabul province.

Just as President Barack Obama is reviewing his approach in Afghanistan, Hoh said he had “doubts and reservations” not only about the current but also future strategy in the eight-year war.

“I fail to 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,” said Hoh in his resignation letter to the State Department’s human resources director.

In language that must make the State Department cringe, Hoh said the United States was no more than a “supporting actor” in a tragedy and that the U.S. presence had only served to further destabilize the country as well as its neighbor Pakistan. USA-CRIME/CUBA

“I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he said.

Excusing the “tone” of his letter, he argued that the United States was mortgaging its economy on a war which would drag on for years.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Hoh had been a “valued member” of the team in Afghanistan and that the department respected his opinion.

“We take his opinion seriously but we continue to believe that we are on track to achieve the goals that have been laid out for us. Those are to improve Afghan governance and provide security for the people of Afghanistan and help to rebuild their country and have a future which presents an alternative to the negative vision of the Taliban,” said Kelly.

The White House was noncommittal in its response to the letter. “I think the president has seen the story. I don’t believe the president has seen the letter,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

State Department officials said there had been a lot of arm-twisting to try and get Hoh to stay and that the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had also appealed to him not to quit.

Asked whether there could now be a rush of other resignations — as happened during the Iraq war when disaffected State Department officials quit in protest of U.S. strategy — U.S. officials said they did not think that would happen.

“There is a tendency to conflate this with the resignations during the Iraq invasion, but this is really not the case. Not to diminish this guy’s views, but…I don’t sense a groundswell of resignations. The response to serve in Afghanistan is so much bigger than it was in Iraq,” said one official.

This was certainly the message from Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew on Monday who said there were more applications than jobs for posts in Afghanistan.

Well now there is an opening in Zabul province to fill….

UPDATE: A State Department official called to make clear that Hoh was not a career foreign service officer, but was on a limited contract for the department when he resigned.

Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (Afghan policeman patrols village in Zabul province in 2008), Reuters/Jim Young (State Department building in Washington)

5 comments

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I respect Mr. Hoh’s opinion and the fact that he had the guts to back it up with his resignation…typical of a good Marine. However, I don’t agree with it. Furthermore, I regret that by going public he has given Al Jazeera and others a huge boost…they are reporting only selected passages from his resignation letter.

I would venture that for every Michael Hoh that thinks Afghanistan is not worth fighting for that there are others that do. I am one of them. I have stepped up to work in Afghanistan. I will be happy to take Mr. Hoh’s place in Zabul….the sooner the better.

Afghanistan is not a “lost cause”.

Posted by Raul Mas | Report as abusive

Congratulations to you, Matthew Hoh, I am delighted that you have the courage to submit a letter about the truth in Afghanistan. Now, I hope that the United States will make the correct decision and withdraw the men and women from Afghanistan and Iraq because it is an internal tribal civil problem.

Posted by Eileen C. Tronnes Nelson | Report as abusive

Matthew Hoh may be a person who was driven by his conscience, but he is NOT a Foreign Service Officer. He signed on for a limited, non-career, one-year appointment, which was to last until September 28. He submitted his letter of resignation a few weeks before that. He was signed on as a political officer in a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan in Zabul. His role as a PRT political officer was to monitor and report on political and economic developments in his province. He may have been the ‘Senior Civilian Official” but he was likely the only civilian official there.

Whatever Hoh’s views on Afghanistan, his ‘resignation’ was simply a hastening of the end of his one-year contract. He was not vested into a career at the Department of State, nor had he served in a variety of diplomatic posts. The Washington Post mentions his own admissions of his struggles with PTSD and drinking, both are issues that would cause State’s Diplomatic Security Service to suspend a career FSO’s security clearance and definitely preclude service in a high-threat location such as Afghanistan or one of the dozens of embassies and consulates located in dangerous places.

An analogy would be a journalist from Reuters being commissioned as an U.S. Army Major and put in charge of Psychological Operations for the province – the military does not do that anymore, and perhaps State needs to take more care in mentoring and screening ‘mustangs.’

State has an internal ‘dissent channel’ where employees who are committed to continued service in government can air their personal objections on U.S. policy to the highest levels. Resignation is an option, but is not the only option.

Posted by J.S. Service | Report as abusive

I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE TROUPS COME HOME FROM THE WAR. IF
THE PRESIDENT SENDS MORE TROUPS OVER THERE, THE OPPOSITION WILL SEND MORE AGAINST THE USA AND OTHERS THAT ARE TRYING TO WIN THE WAR. THERE IS NO WAY IN THAT VAST COUNTRY TO SAVE OUR SOLDIERS FROM DYING.

Posted by S. R. HENRY | Report as abusive

S.R. Henry

Its spelled troops.

I think the United States needs to take care of their own business at home before nosing in on problems abroad. Sure the situation in Afghanistan is unfortunate, but I agree with Matt Hoh, the U.S. does not know what it is doing there anymore. It was originally about Al-Qaeda, but lately, has anyone heard anything about advancements on finding Osama bin Laden or any important arrests? Nope. I think the way things are going, U.S. occupation is going continue to drag on for years with the result of little or no improvement. This is with more, or with less troops there. I think to make some good progress, the United States needs to pressure Afghan leaders to clean up their governmental system and dismiss corrupt officials. Only then will policies and reform for the people of Afghanistan will become more transparent, and as a result, Afghanistan will be able to build a structure of democratic government that is free of corruption and is able to serve its people.

Posted by Carlin Ragen | Report as abusive