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 the insurgency.
“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.
As Americans, we live in a country with two distinct ideas on how to deal with problems such as radical Islamicism.
The first is that we must understand our enemy if we are to engage him, and engaging him means that, if we “understand” him, we will be nice to each other and everything will be better. This is the approach of the left. With most enemies, this leads to defeat, because they interpret your actions (rightfully) as a sign of weakness and will move against you accordingly.
The second is that, if we understand our enemy, we will become sympathetic to him and it will weaken us, so we must always do it “our way” and defeat him. This is the approach of the right. This can lead to victory but it will be costly.
In those days, we had the former idea. Now we have the latter. It’s hard to implement effective foreign policy when you’re careening from one extreme to the other.
Barack Obama is pretty skilled politically, but he’s painted himself into a corner on this one. He defined the Afghan war as the “necessary war.” But now he’s stuck. He doesn’t want to really ramp up our efforts, and he really can’t bring himself to bail out. Sooner or later, his dithering and taking his half out of the middle is going to get him (and us) run over.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of motivation. Americans like to think that, if and when they fight wars, they’re for a moral cause. But there are two reasons why we’re operating there that belie that idea.
The first is the war on drugs, a point driven home by the death this week of DEA agents. We’ve made the world miserable by our inability to deal with our insatiable demand for hallucinogenic drugs, an endemic problem since the 1960’s. Since we can’t (or won’t) come up with a way to deal with the demand, we go around the world and camp out in drug-producing countries (like Colombia) and try to solve the problem by eliminating the supply. But this is, if we think about it long enough, ridiculous.
The second is our desire to establish a secure foothold in Central Asia so as to insure an oil supply from that part of the world. This is of a piece with our endless involvement in the Middle East: instead of developing our own resources, we’ve spent the last forty years importing the oil of others, and having to insure those places stay friendly and productive. But our left reels at the horror of domestic oil development, so we’re stuck there. Insisting on a strong presence in Central Asia also guarantees conflict with Russia and China.
There’s no good way out of this, and Obama knows it, which is why he’s taking so much time making a “decision.”