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“This is Crazy”: Ex-State Dept. Official Matthew Hoh Blasts Obama’s Doubling of U.S. Troops in Iraq

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As the nation prepares to commemorate Veterans Day, President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. The plan will more than double the current U.S. force in Iraq and will reportedly cost $5.6 billion. In a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State, military advisers will reportedly establish training sites across Iraq. The funding request will reportedly be presented to Congress during the lame-duck session that begins this week. In an interview on “Face the Nation” CBS broadcast on Sunday, Obama said the increased troop deployment to Iraq marks a “new phase” against ISIS militants — an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The timing of the announcement has raised questions about whether the Obama administration waited until after the midterm elections in order to shield Democratic candidates from war-weary voters. We are joined by Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department official who once served in Iraq. In 2009, he became the first known U.S. official to resign in protest over the Afghan War.

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

AMY GOODMAN: As the nation prepares to commemorate Veterans Day, President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. The plan will more than double the current U.S. force in Iraq and will reportedly cost $5.6 billion. At a news conference Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby announced the decision.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: The commander-in-chief has authorized Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional U.S. personnel over the coming months, in a noncombat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces. Secretary Hagel made this recommendation to the president based on the request of the government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command’s assessment of Iraqi units, the progress Iraqi security forces have made in the field, and in concert with the development of a coalition campaign plan to defend key areas and go on the offensive against ISIL.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby. In a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign against ISIS, military advisers will reportedly establish training sites across Iraq. The request for $5.6 billion will reportedly be presented to Congress during the lame-duck session that begins this week. In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation broadcast Sunday, President Obama said the increased troop deployment to Iraq marks a “new phase” against Islamic State militants—an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.

AMY GOODMAN: The timing of the announcement has raised questions about whether the Obama administration waited until after the midterm elections in order to shield Democratic candidates from war-weary voters. The antiwar group CodePink has criticized Obama for sending more troops to Iraq, saying in a statement, quote, “For months we’ve been hearing 'no boots on the ground' over and over from the administration … When will we learn from our mistakes and stop repeating history?” they wrote.

Well, for more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Matthew Hoh, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, former State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over the U.S. policy there in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh served in Iraq. From 2004 to ’05, he worked with a State Department reconstruction and governance team in Salah ad-Din province. And from 2006 to ’07, he worked as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province.

Matthew Hoh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you share your response to the increased boots on the ground?

MATTHEW HOH: Hi, good morning, and thank you for having me on. My response is, as many people, I think, in the United States, scratching their head and wondering: What are we doing? What does the United States government really think it’s going to accomplish by putting more American troops into the middle of the Iraqi civil war and into the middle of the Syrian civil war, particularly coming off of 13 years of war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Somalia, in Yemen, etc.? So, my response, Amy, is more or less the same as most people’s, of a—very concerned and, you know, lack of a better phrase, this is crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, President Obama insisted U.S. troops will focus on training Iraqis to fight ISIS and coordinating airstrikes, rather than engaging in active combat.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What hasn’t changed is, our troops are not engaged in combat. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers, with coalition members, that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics. We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense against ISIL. But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama refused to rule out further increases in U.S. troops in Iraq.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As commander-in-chief, I’m never going to say never, but what, you know, the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time, because now we’re seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training and assist effort.

AMY GOODMAN: That is President Obama on CBS’s Face the Nation. Matthew Hoh, do you believe what he’s saying?

MATTHEW HOH: No, I don’t. And I think it’s very easy for us to revisit this in a few months’ time, just as now we’re revisiting this from several months ago, and see the increase, the graduation of entry of American forces back into the conflict. But I think it’s a slippery slope—excuse me—and that very quickly this will spin out of control for the United States. What happens when American troops are killed? What happens when we lose several young men to a suicide bomber? How is the president going to react to that? How is the United States going to react when our troops are in combat and we only have 3,000? And the president, who can’t seem to face down the same critics in Congress who are always demanding for war, the John McCains and Lindsey Graham, how is he going to face them down then, if he can’t face them down now? So, I don’t believe his words, and I think that this is going to be the beginning of an unfortunate and tragic re-entry of America back into this civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the fate of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Iraqi officials claim he was wounded in an airstrike on ISIS leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province, Anbar province where you were, Matthew Hoh.

MATTHEW HOH: It may be true. I mean, certainly it could possibly happen, but I don’t put much stock in that having a great effect on the Islamic State. They’ll just get another leader. Look, Osama bin Laden has been dead for three-and-a-half years, and the administration is citing how dangerous al-Qaeda still is, in order to justify spying on Americans or justify bombing in Syria. The precursor to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist, of course, until we invaded Iraq, but al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State, their leader, al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, and here we are now in 2014 facing an even stronger, more dangerous, more barbaric force in the Islamic State. So, I don’t—if he’s dead, you know, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in the mid or long term in terms of what’s occurring in Iraq, what’s occurring in Syria, because the issues here go well beyond one man or one group. It goes into issues relating to sectarian violence, that has been fostered and pushed by policies from the United States, from the West, from the Gulf nations, that have created this Frankenstein, ISIS, and that have enabled the environment for civil war to flourish.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that, how ISIS was created, its support, and what you feel is the alternative?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. Well, the Islamic State, as I just mentioned, came from the al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was an organization that sprang to life after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the things that—when I was there in Iraq, as well as in the State Department and the Pentagon in D.C., one of the things we always noticed about it and one of the things that we saw was that it was—while it had a number of foreign fighters in it, a number of young men who were coming from other Arab nations to fight against the Americans in Iraq, very often, though, the—or I should say, the majority of the constituency of al-Qaeda in Iraq were Iraqis in 2006, 2007, because so many people were supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq based on sectarian reasons. So, basically, what was occurring in Iraq was you had this civil war, so the Sunnis in Iraq were supporting al-Qaeda because they had no other choice.

In 2006, 2007, we made a deal with the Sunnis. We gave them money. We brought them back into the power structure. We pulled Shia forces out of the Sunni areas. And so, the Sunnis then turned on al-Qaeda. What happened after that was, when the United States left in 2011, the Shia government in Baghdad, which is incredibly corrupt, relentlessly went after the Sunnis. They persecuted them to an extent that I don’t think people realize the violence behind that. This wasn’t just excluding the Sunnis from government, this was actively killing them, actively chasing them from their homes, actively mass arrests—actively arresting them in mass numbers, to the point that the Sunnis have revolted and have thrown their weight behind this group, the Islamic State, which is the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq. So what you see here is this horrible group, Islamic State, that’s very barbaric. They have this extreme religious fanaticism and ideology behind them. But they are receiving the support of many Sunni Arabs in the area, in Iraq and Syria, because of the alternatives to the Islamic State are government forces that the Sunnis see as much worse to them than the Islamic State.

My alternative to the U.S. bombing campaign, to the U.S. military intervention is this. This is the consequence of decades of United States policy in the Middle East that has played one sect against the other. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein of our creation. And as horrible as it is, the purposes behind the United States policy in the Middle East must change to be one of preventing conflict rather than fostering conflict. For decades now, we have supported various regimes in the Middle East that have been despotic, that have been dictatorships, that have oppressed their people, or, in the alternative, we have supported these groups that have then morphed into these organizations like al-Qaeda, like the Islamic State. And it’s now out of control. And so, for me, the alternative in Iraq is to stop supporting a Shia government that is horribly corrupt, that is persecuting its own people, stop buying their oil, stop selling their weapons. Look, Amy, when we—as the United States, when we sell the world 70 percent of its weapons, we have to take responsibility for the havoc that’s going to result from that. So, a lot of this, to me, is not so much what do we do now. What do we do over the next decades to disengage ourself from this policy where we have created these Frankensteins, we have created conditions for civil war, where we have set one group, whether it be by religion, by sect, by ethnicity, against the other? And how do we walk away from that? How do we back out of that and become a much more responsible partner in the world? And how do we seek to actually bring about justice, bring about stability, rather than fostering either war or oppression?

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, can you describe your own transformation, how you came to the position you have? You fought in Iraq. You served in Afghanistan. You quit as a State Department official in protest of the war in Afghanistan. Explain the trajectory you took over the years.

MATTHEW HOH: Well, I think, for me, it begins in 2002 when I’m stationed in the Pentagon. I was put in a very senior position. Just happened—just happened I worked directly for the secretary of the Navy as a Marine Corps captain. And so, in the run-up to the war, the Iraq War, and during the initial phases of the Iraq War, I was very close to the decision making, the policy making. I could see how things were done, how decisions were made, how assessments were conducted. And I could see very quickly, particularly once the war began in Iraq and once we started receiving our communications from our forces in Iraq, our classified communications detailing what was occurring on the ground, the dissonance, the disconnect between what policy was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., what assessments were being made, what statements were being made, and what the reality was on the ground.

Of course, when I got there in 2004, 2005, I saw that firsthand. I saw how our presence was fueling the occupation, how we were setting one group against the other, how we were aiding corrupt and thuggish militias in power in Iraq. The same thing, too—I came back to D.C., worked in the State Department again on the Iraq desk and again, in an inter-agency process, saw that disconnect between what’s occurring in Iraq and what we’re actually saying, and the refusal by people in the administration, by people in the military, in the government, to acknowledge that our policies weren’t just harmful, but they were malignant, that they were causing further violence, they were causing groups like al-Qaeda to gain support.

And so, this continued until finally I was in Afghanistan in 2009 and seeing all the same things again, seeing the narrative that we have the white hats on, that American troops are dying to protect us, to keep us free, seeing that really what we were doing in Afghanistan was taking part in a civil war, our presence was fueling the insurgency, we were propping up a corrupt kleptocracy, and that al-Qaeda had left Afghanistan years before. I decided at that point in 2009 I no longer could take part in it. And, you know, here we are five years later.

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