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Fmr. Marine, State Dept. Official Matthew Hoh Is First US Official to Resign over Afghan War

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Last September, Matthew Hoh became the first US official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. At the time of resignation, he was serving as the senior US civilian in Zabul province on the Pakistani border. In his resignation letter, Hoh wrote, “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. 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.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers. We’re also joined by Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department official. Last September, he become the first US official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. At the time of his resignation, he was serving as the senior US civilian in Zabul province on the Pakistani border.

In his resignation letter, Hoh wrote, quote, “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. 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.”

We welcome you, as well, Matthew Hoh, to Democracy Now! We’re speaking to you today on the last day of June, more than a hundred NATO forces, US and foreign troops dead in Afghanistan, the most deadly month since the US invaded in 2001, nine years ago. It’s the most deadly year — a thousand deaths. Yet, General Petraeus has just been unanimously approved by the Senate, very little questioning asked about what we are doing in Afghanistan. What questions do you have?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, thanks for having me on, Amy.

You know, I think that the question that should be first and foremost in every American’s mind is those 102 NATO troops — fifty-nine, I believe, were Americans — who were killed this month, how does that affect al-Qaeda? How did those deaths make this country safer? How did those deaths improve our national security? And I think that should be the first question that people ask. What are we getting out of this? What are the benefits of spending $150 billion a year and losing fifty, sixty good young men and women every month?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in your resignation letter, you wrote, “I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.” Could you talk about what led you to that conclusion in terms of your direct experience?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. Afghanistan has been in a civil war, an active, ongoing civil war, since the mid-1970s. We are just taking part in that war. We are backing one side. We’re trying to help one side subjugate the other. What you find, and what a lot of people have come to believe, and you see this — I worked in both the eastern part of the country and the southern part of the country and was out every day working with Afghans, both government, military, and Afghan villagers — you see this dichotomy in the country, you see this split. So, what you find is that the Taliban, which when we say “Taliban,” you’re talking about a very broad group of a very large organization that’s not monolithic — it’s composed of many separate groups that have joined together, basically to repel foreign occupation and also to repel a central government, or resist a central government, that is very corrupt, extremely corrupt. If you refer to the Wall Street Journal article from earlier this week, about a billion dollars a year in US taxpayer and other Western money leaves that country to go to Dubai, you know, so that that has been stolen by Afghan government officials. But you find that the support for the Taliban comes not out an ideology, not out of a hatred for the West, not out of some kinship with al-Qaeda or because they’re terrorists, but because they do not want to be occupied and they are resentful of a government that is very corrupt and unrepresentative.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, talk about the process you went through. You’re a former Marine Corps captain. You’re the highest-level State Department official to quit over the Afghanistan war. How did you come to that point?

MATTHEW HOH: It was a long, long process, as you can imagine. It certainly wasn’t one “eureka” moment, and it certainly wasn’t something that happened overnight or because of just one particular instance or circumstance. I could probably best explain it, as I have worked on Iraq and Afghanistan issues every day of my life, either in those countries or back here in Washington, DC, since 2002. And for me, what it was, what I saw in Afghanistan, was the same mistakes we were making in 2002, 2003 — or 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, particularly with Iraq, with this head-in-the-sand approach, not understanding the reality of the situation, believing in our own theories, believing in our own values. I saw that same approach in Afghanistan. And as a matter of conscience, I could no longer participate with it.

One of the things that I took away greatly from your previous guest’s article in Rolling Stone, Michael Hastings’ article, was the amount of dismissal, the dismissive nature of anybody who disagreed with General McChrystal and his staff. And it was that type of arrogance and that type of hubris that led to our failings in Iraq from '03 to ’07. And I saw the same things occurring in Afghanistan in 2009.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I'd like to bring Congressman John Conyers back into the discussion. This whole issue of, given the experiences of both the corruption with the — in the Afghan government and clearly the fact that our counterinsurgency strategy does not appear to be working, the government’s counterinsurgency strategy, what conversations have you had with President Obama, or your efforts to try to convince him to change course in Afghanistan?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, we’ve never talked about that subject. We’ve talked about more domestic things. But the creation of the Out of Afghanistan Caucus is a manifestation of now the growing discontent — and bipartisan at that — that we in the Congress, who fund these wars, have got to take another critical look at it, because the dissatisfaction is all around us. This isn’t a matter of being a military expert, or how many times have you been there. This is a question of just simple common sense and good judgment. What’s best for our country? What’s best for those people who have repelled in Afghanistan every invading country’s military that I can recall? What are we doing here? What is the logic? What do we hope to accomplish? Is this lust for empire insatiable? And we, who brought Obama to this historic point as the forty-fourth president, have a responsibility to speak up and engage him with this. And this is what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: I was watching Joe Scarborough this morning on MSNBC, and he was saying, “Where are the antiwar Democrats? They were very loud during the years of Bush. And he said, “Where are they now?”

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, this is where they are now, and they’re going to get stronger. And the whole question is, as you put it to me, we’ve got to start talking to our president, and that’s the — this is the way that we’re going to start it off.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In a recent speech of yours, you quoted the following passage of Robert McNamara, who served as Defense Secretary during the escalation of the Vietnam War. This is McNamara speaking in 1995, twenty years after the Vietnam War ended.

    ROBERT MCNAMARA: We were fighting, and we didn’t realize it, a civil war. Now, true, there were some — obviously there was Soviet and Chinese influence and support, and no question the communists were trying to control South Vietnam, but it was basically a civil war. And one of the things we should learn is, you can’t fight and win a civil war without side troops, and particularly not when the political structure in acountry is dissolved. So it wasn’t the press that was the problem. It was — the problem was that we were in the wrong place with the wrong tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question and McNamara’s comments to Matthew Hoh, former State Department official in Afghanistan.

MATTHEW HOH: Very haunting comments. As you look at these two wars and compare them, and you see the nature of the government, you see the nature of the countries, the way the population lives, the differences among the population, the natural schisms that are in the population, and the history of those countries, the modern history of those countries, there are a lot of comparisons. I mean, I don’t want — I’m hesitant to say it is Vietnam over again, but there are some good comparisons, particularly in the fact that we’re backing a corrupt and illegitimate government that is opposed by a good portion of the population, particularly in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The rural Pashtun population is excluded from that Afghan central government, and there’s a rebellion against it. And so, that’s where you do see those similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’ll also say that you referenced Dan Ellsberg earlier, and if your audience has not seen the Dan Ellsberg documentary, I recommend it. But he talks about being on an airplane in Vietnam with Secretary McNamara and briefing him that they’ve gone, they visited all the different provinces, and they have not seen anything good or anything positive. And as soon as they get off the airplane, McNamara tells the press corps that things are going well in Vietnam. And you have those same experiences here. I was aghast, I heard Senator McCain when he was — in his opening statement to General Petraeus the other day, saying that it’s going well in Helmand province, that the military has cleared Marjah of Taliban, which is completely untrue. So you see some of those parallels, too, with our political leadership, in terms of whether or not what they’re saying actually reflects the reality of the situation in Afghanistan.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Amy, could I add that —-

AMY GOODMAN: Chairman Conyers.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: —- my work and experience and relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. leads me to one inescapable conclusion about his work and his legacy — jobs, justice and peace. And justice, he meant economic and political justice, and that both of these were a requirement to get to peace. And it was over when he finally broke his silence on Vietnam, and he understood what he was doing and where that might lead him and what it might do to his career. I’ve been an admirer. I worked with, I loved the man. He’s impressed me more than any other. And this understanding of peace, even to the extent of starting a Department of Peace — we’ve got a Department of War, and it’s led us into great trouble and difficulty and caused a lot of suffering and prevented us from doing all of the beneficial things, not only in America, but around the world, that we could be accomplishing if we weren’t in this narrow focus of destruction and death and power and empire.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Congressman Conyers, I’d like to ask you whether — the Republicans are constantly talking these days, your colleagues in Congress, about the need to cut the deficit. Do you see any awakening on any part of your Republican colleagues about the enormous costs of the continued wars, and that as a way of being able to reduce the American deficit?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Yes, sir, I do. And, you know, these discussions beneath the public level are very informative that we have. Sometimes — I had a Republican yesterday say, “John, I wish I could join your caucus, but I’m with you, anyway.” Of course, I’ve had Democrats say that, as well. But more and more are realizing that if you really are a fiscal conservative, how on earth can you continue to allow this incredible cost of the surge in Afghanistan, and with a straight face still talk about your trying to save money and make the government smaller? It doesn’t even add up.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Conyers, maybe you can coin a new term. There are the deficit hawks. Maybe you can be a deficit dove. And you can ask, where are the deficit doves?


AMY GOODMAN: Chairman John Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee and Matthew Hoh, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Matthew Hoh, we have four seconds. Should we get out of Afghanistan now?

MATTHEW HOH: We need to have a ceasefire that leads to political reconciliation, that leads to a reform of the Afghan government.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, the ceasefire. Thanks for joining us.

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