When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was
exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was
looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.
A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq,
Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in
Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S.
civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.
But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the
White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in
protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled
"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic
purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept.
10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "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."
The reaction to Hoh's letter was immediate. Senior U.S. officials,
concerned that they would lose an outstanding officer and perhaps gain
a prominent critic, appealed to him to stay.
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered
him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was
flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the
administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,"
Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious
his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track
record, we should pay close attention to him."
While he did not share Hoh's view that the war "wasn't worth the
fight," Holbrooke said, "I agreed with much of his analysis." He asked
Hoh to join his team in Washington, saying that "if he really wanted to
affect policy and help reduce the cost of the war on lives and
treasure," why not be "inside the building, rather than outside, where
you can get a lot of attention but you won't have the same political
Hoh accepted the argument and the job, but changed his mind a week
later. "I recognize the career implications, but it wasn't the right
thing to do," he said in an interview Friday, two days after his
resignation became final.
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be
in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the
"second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the
Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.
"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of
al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq
team whacked a bunch of guys."
But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting
the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing
military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including
other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed
national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign
presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said,
the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what
is essentially a far-off civil war.
As the White House deliberates over whether to deploy more troops,
Hoh said he decided to speak out publicly because "I want people in
Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman
and say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right.' "
"I realize what I'm getting into . . . what people are going to say about me," he said. "I never thought I would be doing this."
Hoh's journey -- from Marine, reconstruction expert and diplomat to
war protester -- was not an easy one. Over the weeks he spent thinking
about and drafting his resignation letter, he said, "I felt physically
nauseous at times."
His first ambition in life was to become a firefighter, like his
father. Instead, after graduation from Tufts University and a desk job
at a publishing firm, he joined the Marines in 1998. After five years
and at the Pentagon -- and at a point early in the Iraq war when it
appeared to many in the military that the conflict was all but over --
he left the Marines to join the private sector, only to be recruited as
a Defense Department civilian in Iraq. A trained combat engineer, he
was sent to manage reconstruction efforts in Saddam Hussein's home town
"At one point," Hoh said, "I employed up to 5,000 Iraqis" handing
out tens of millions of dollars in cash to construct roads and mosques.
His program was one of the few later praised as a success by the U.S.
special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
In 2005, Hoh took a job with BearingPoint, a major technology and
management contractor at the State Department, and was sent to the Iraq
desk in Foggy Bottom. When the U.S. effort in Iraq began to turn south
in early 2006, he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. He
assumed command of a company in Anbar province, where Marines were
dying by the dozens.
Hoh came home in the spring of 2007 with citations for what one
Marine evaluator called "uncommon bravery," a recommendation for
promotion, and what he later recognized was post-traumatic stress
disorder. Of all the deaths he witnessed, the one that weighed most
heavily on him happened in a helicopter crash in Anbar in December
2006. He and a friend, Maj. Joseph T. McCloud, were aboard when the
aircraft fell into the rushing waters below Haditha dam. Hoh swam to
shore, dropped his 90 pounds of gear and dived back in to try to save
McCloud and three others he could hear calling for help.
He was a strong swimmer, he said, but by the time he reached them, "they were gone."
'You can't sleep'
It wasn't until his third month home, in an apartment in Arlington,
that it hit him like a wave. "All the things you hear about how it
comes over you, it really did. . . . You have dreams, you can't sleep.
You're just, 'Why did I fail? Why didn't I save that man? Why are his
kids growing up without a father?' "
Like many Marines in similar situations, he didn't seek help. "The only thing I did," Hoh said, "was drink myself blind."
What finally began to bring him back, he said, was a television show
-- "Rescue Me" on the FX cable network -- about a fictional New York
firefighter who descended into "survivor guilt" and alcoholism after
losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks.
He began talking to friends and researching the subject online. He
visited McCloud's family and "apologized to his wife . . . because I
didn't do enough to save them," even though his rational side knew he
had done everything he could.
Hoh represented the service at the funeral of a Marine from his
company who committed suicide after returning from Iraq. "My God, I was
so afraid they were going to be angry," he said of the man's family.
"But they weren't. All they did was tell me how much he loved the
"It's something I'll carry for the rest of my life," he said of his
Iraq experiences. "But it's something I've settled, I've reconciled
Late last year, a friend told Hoh that the State Department was
offering year-long renewable hires for Foreign Service officers in
Afghanistan. It was a chance, he thought, to use the development skills
he had learned in Tikrit under a fresh administration that promised a
In photographs he brought home from Afghanistan, Hoh appears as a
tall young man in civilian clothes, with a neatly trimmed beard and a
pristine flak jacket. He stands with Eikenberry, the ambassador, on
visits to northern Kunar province and Zabul, in the south. He walks
with Zabul Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Naseri, confers with U.S. military
officers and sits at food-laden meeting tables with Afghan tribal
leaders. In one picture, taken on a desolate stretch of desert on the
Pakistani border, he poses next to a hand-painted sign in Pashto
marking the frontier.
The border picture was taken in early summer, after he arrived in
Zabul following two months in a civilian staff job at the military
brigade headquarters in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. It was in
Jalalabad that his doubts started to form.
Hoh was assigned to research the response to a question asked by
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an
April visit. Mullen wanted to know why the U.S. military had been
operating for years in the Korengal Valley, an isolated spot near
Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan where a number of Americans
had been killed. Hoh concluded that there was no good reason. The
people of Korengal didn't want them; the insurgency appeared to have
arrived in strength only after the Americans did, and the battle
between the two forces had achieved only a bloody stalemate.
Korengal and other areas, he said, taught him "how localized the
insurgency was. I didn't realize that a group in this valley here has
no connection with an insurgent group two kilometers away." Hundreds,
maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few
ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign
intruders and maintain their own local power bases.
"That's really what kind of shook me," he said. "I thought it was
more nationalistic. But it's localism. I would call it valley-ism."
'Continued . . . assault'
Zabul is "one of the five or six provinces always vying for the most
difficult and neglected," a State Department official said. Kandahar,
the Taliban homeland, is to the southwest and Pakistan to the south.
Highway 1, the main link between Kandahar and Kabul and the only paved
road in Zabul, bisects the province. Over the past year, the official
said, security has become increasingly difficult.
By the time Hoh arrived at the U.S. military-run provincial
reconstruction team (PRT) in the Zabul capital of Qalat, he said, "I
already had a lot of frustration. But I knew at that point, the new
administration was . . . going to do things differently. So I thought
I'd give it another chance." He read all the books he could get his
hands on, from ancient Afghan history, to the Soviet occupation in the
1980s, through Taliban rule in the 1990s and the eight years of U.S.
Frank Ruggiero, the Kandahar-based regional head of the U.S. PRTs in
the south, considered Hoh "very capable" and appointed him the senior
official among the three U.S. civilians in the province. "I always
thought very highly of Matt," he said in a telephone interview.
In accordance with administration policy of decentralizing power in
Afghanistan, Hoh worked to increase the political capabilities and
clout of Naseri, the provincial governor, and other local officials.
"Materially, I don't think we accomplished much," he said in
retrospect, but "I think I did represent our government well."
Naseri told him that at least 190 local insurgent groups were
fighting in the largely rural province, Hoh said. "It was probably
exaggerated," he said, "but the truth is that the majority" are
residents with "loyalties to their families, villages, valleys and to
their financial supporters."
Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential
election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he
said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and
savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan
against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this
latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."
With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the
insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a
continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land,
culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The
U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as
Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun
soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the
insurgency is justified."
American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be
reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures
lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence
such assurances can be made any more."
'Their problem to solve'
Ruggiero said that he was taken aback by Hoh's resignation but that
he made no effort to dissuade him. "It's Matt's decision, and I
honored, I respected" it, he said. "I didn't agree with his assessment,
but it was his decision."
Eikenberry expressed similar respect, but declined through an aide to discuss "individual personnel matters."
Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., Eikenberry's deputy, said he met with
Hoh in Kabul but spoke to him "in confidence. I respect him as a
thoughtful man who has rendered selfless service to our country, and I
expect most of Matt's colleagues would share this positive estimation
of him, whatever may be our differences of policy or program
This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden's foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken's invitation.
If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.
He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better
U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda,
and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up
government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House
"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some
obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to
draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."