Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from the State Department in September, saying he had lost confidence in the policy he was helping to implement in Afghanistan, according to an article by Karen DeYoung in this morning's Washington Post (read the article, it's very good work).
Hoh, a former Marine who served in Iraq as part of a reconstruction team, has a personnel file that's full of glowing reports, and the article includes comments from several of his colleagues in Afghanistan that indicate that they hold him in the highest regard. Indeed, when he first sent his letter of resignation, they were so interested in not losing him that both the US ambassador to Afghanistan and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke tried to talk him out of resigning. They offered him a promotion to senior embassy staffer, a job which he initially accepted, and then declined a few days later, as he realized that he wouldn't be able to support the mission in which he no longer believed.
Two things about this turn of events are significant. The first is that when someone of this caliber sacrifices his career and submits a principled resignation, we owe it to them and ourselves to pay close attention to what they're protesting with their resignation. In 2003, a diplomat named John Brady Kiesling resigned from the foreign service over our developing jingoistic fervor about Iraq. Had anyone that resignation the attention it deserved, we might have saved ourselves the loss of tragic amounts of blood, treasure, influence, and national prestige. Unfortunately, Kiesling worked in Athens, not Iraq, and his resignation went unnoticed by the public at the time. At least he did better than Scott Ritter, the UN weapons inspector who protested publicly that there were no significant WMD in Iraq, and was savaged for his trouble by the Bush administration and accused of treason by its Greek chorus in the press.
That the Obama administration isn't attempting any similar slander of Mr. Hoh is encouraging, and I hope they give his protest and its reasons their full attention. (As a side note, if Dick Cheney should decide to unburden himself of any opinion concerning Mr. Hoh that isn't laden with a huge measure of respect for a man who was willing to make sacrifices that Cheney's own "other priorities" prevented him from considering, someone should horsewhip him back to whatever rock he's currently living under.)
The more important aspect of Hoh's resignation, though, is the reason behind it. He's become convinced that the Afghan people have turned against the US troops in their country out of national pride, and that our continued presence there is only inflaming a nationalist resistance that we'll never overcome. His analysis draws on having spent most of this year doing what his superiors recognize as great work at winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, after doing a good deal of the same thing as a Marine in Iraq.
Hoh's resignation letter alludes to the non-existence of any central authority to support in Afghanistan. The largest coherent political unit in much of the country is the local valley's tribe, and in each of these valleys, that tribe's interest in working with NATO troops is losing out to its interest in driving foreign invaders from its territory. Winning them over would be a valley by valley proposition, and Hoh considers it impossible. Apparently it was the failure of the Afghan election that was the straw that broke the camel's back, but even if we had a central government that we could trust, the NATO support that government relies on would deprive it of legitimacy in the eyes of its people.
It's become cliche to say so, but we've seen this movie before. We confused what was essentially a nationalist revolt in Vietnam with a communist conspiracy to overthrow the French colonial government there, and involved ourselves in 15 years of supporting a corrupt government which had no credibility with its people, at the end of which we'd lost over 50,000 lives and gained nothing except our first military defeat as a country. We got into that war in exactly the same way we're getting into this one - slowly, a little bit at a time. If Matthew Hoh's resignation prevents us from repeating that mistake, he will have augmented an already impressive career with a service to his country that few can provide.
If there's any justice, though, this should not be the end of his career in government. I understand he is due to meet with VP Biden's advisers on Afghanistan today, and it would be both just and a wise use of human resources if Hoh were retained as one of those advisers by Biden or some other part of the administration's policy apparatus. John Brady Kiesling's bravery and Scott Ritter's were "rewarded" by wrecking their careers. It would be a great change if we didn't lose Hoh's services as a result of his principled objection to a dangerous policy.