Casualties in the 17-year US war effort in Afghanistan is higher now than any time since 2009. Former marine and state department official Matthew Hoh says that there still is no end in sight.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us today.
Seventeen years ago, the war started in Afghanistan. Seems like this is a war with no end. I remember interviewing Hamid Karzai as he was hiding in a cave just crossing the border back into Afghanistan. So many thought it was just, a war that we needed; it was a just war because Americans were revenging the 3000 deaths of 9/11. But doing so completely unaware of why the Taliban was in power in the first place, and how the United States was complicit in their coming to power in many ways, and in creating the likes of, yes, bin Laden.
Now, this week three Americans were killed, more in one day than any time this year. In retaliation, American and allied forces bombed a village they said was Taliban controlled. And later, when they learned that 30 civilians were killed, said they didn’t realize civilians were living there. Among the dead were 16 children. Then a British office was bombed in retaliation, and others were killed, one Brit and five Afghans. The UN reported that the number of civilian casualties from air attacks was higher in the first nine months of this year than any year since 2009.
It’s been a year since the Trump buildup of forces to Afghanistan and more money being spent. So what are we actually fighting for? What Is this war about? When will it end? How do we know where this war is taking us? These are questions many people are to ask themselves. The war’s cost 105,000 Afghan deaths, 7,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands wounded, and even more affected by the war. All this and the Taliban’s still strong enough to be on the verge of seizing power.
To help us wade through the latest news and what lies ahead is Matthew Hoh. A senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, former director of the Afghan Study Group, who was a Marine Corps officer in the Iraq war. And he 2009 he publicly resigned his position in the State Department in Afghanistan in opposition to the escalation of that war then, in 2009. He’s also a member of Veterans for Peace. And Matthew, welcome. Good to have you with us.
MATTHEW HOH: Hi, Marc. Thank you for having me on.
MARC STEINER: So I’m just curious about your reaction to the latest series of events, to start with, what’s at the top of the news. The killing of the American soldiers, the death of American soldiers, the retaliation to the bombing that killed 30 civilians, 16 children; then the next attack that took place at a British office. So I mean, every time we hear this news it seems like greater escalation, more deaths. What was your initial reaction to all this?
MATTHEW HOH: Well it’s the cycle of violence. I mean, this is, this is what’s occurred there in Afghanistan, not since 9/11, but since the 1970s. Something, as you mentioned in your introduction, we’ve been complicit in. I mean, we were–the United States–was funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. I mean, this has been going on for nearly 40 years now. And it is, it is a tragedy. It’s immense suffering. The numbers of casualties are undercounted. When an airstrike occurs like what we saw this week in Helmand and kills 30 people, we are aware of it. But smaller airstrikes, I could tell you this from my experience being there, smaller airstrikes, or airstrikes where the locals don’t alert the media, or the Afghan government doesn’t alert the media, go underreported, or undercounted.
So the idea that this is the most amount of civilians killed by air strikes since ’09 is certainly true. But I would hesitate to believe that that’s the actual number. The number is probably a much greater. And you see with this war a continual pattern, a continual pattern now of talks, a continual pattern of money and foreign troops being put into Afghanistan, a continual escalation of the war by the West and the Afghan government. And, of course, the response by the insurgency, most prominent among them what we call the Taliban, in a complete [an] appropriate response. Again, you’re in a cycle of violence here that, unless it’s broken–and when I mean broken, I mean the funding is cut off, the support is cut off for all parties so that the violence simply can’t occur anymore–it’s just going to continue to go on.
So we’re all kidding ourselves if we’re thinking that these talks, like this five-year plan which is the latest thing that’s coming out the Afghan government, peace will come in five years, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s going to make any real difference for the lives of the Afghan people.
MARC STEINER: This is a slight digression. I’m very curious, as you were speaking about this. I mean, so whether you were in Vietnam, whether you were in Afghanistan or Iraq, if you are a soldier fighting or whether you are a civilian working in that war, you get jaundiced pretty quickly about what’s going on around you. So the question is, I’m curious, from your time both as a soldier in Iraq–as a Marine, excuse me. Don’t want to insult you. [crosstalk]
MATTHEW HOH: I don’t, I’m not the guy that does the whole [inaudible]. I can’t do nearly the number of pullups I used to be able to do. I don’t [inaudible] get too concerned if people don’t get the right title.
MARC STEINER: OK, just checking. Just–I know how it is. But given your time in Afghanistan working with the State Department, I’m curious what is the tenor of the men and women working there, working on the, in the American sphere, about what we’re doing, what we’re really accomplishing, or not. And how you have to hide the reality from yourself, almost, to continue the work that you’re doing.
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah. I mean, I can–one thing I can tell you is that it has been nine years since I publicly resigned, and it was on the front page of the Washington Post, the Today Show, and everything. So it wasn’t–my resignation was pretty prominent. And you know, no reason of my own, really Forrest Gumped myself into that. But in the last nine years, the number of negative responses I’ve received from service members who are folks who served in Afghanistan I can count on my one hand. I have received hundreds, if not thousands, of positive responses from men and women who have been with the military, or with our civilian agencies in Afghanistan.
What you’re seeing is within the military, guys get the golden handcuffs. They get locked into their careers. They get locked into the fact that pay and benefits and everything in the military is pretty good right now. They get into the notion that I’m a professional soldier, or a professional Marine, or sailor, or airman. And so I don’t make the policy, I just enforce it. A lot of us would say, hey, that’s … You’re surrendering your soul and your conscience that way. So this zombie-like adherence to what’s occurring there, and looking for excuses, looking for ways to lie to yourself, looking for other metrics to determine whether or not what you’re doing is successful. I took my Marines to Iraq, or I took my Marines to Afghanistan, and only a couple were killed, or none were killed, or only a few were wounded, or–you know, trying to find ways to justify your actions. And that’s certainly what I did. I went three times to war, twice for Iraq and in Afghanistan. And it was–you become numb to that.
But when you get to a position, I think, where you’ve seen the realities of the policymaking, you’ve seen the realities of what we’re doing there, you’ve seen both conflicts–in my case both Iraq and Afghanistan–you see that neither is different. The only thing that matters is that the U.S. is occupying both countries. You’re going to have the same outcomes. In my case, where in Afghanistan I was meeting with the interlocutors, or actually Taliban themselves, and reporting back to the embassy and being told we’re not interested in negotiating, we’re not interested in finding peace, we’re interested in victory, we’re interested in winning, you realize, like, well, I can no longer go home and meet somebody who lost a son or a husband in these wars and tell them it was worthwhile. At the same time too, you see enough dead children, you see enough dead kids, you see enough grieving women in these countries, many of it from our actions, and you start to break, as I was doing.
So part of it is the constant cycling of people into Iraq and Afghanistan, or into Syria, into into these positions, so that they’re coming back out and then going back in, they’re not continuously getting burned out or overwhelmed by it. But it is a question, because–and I think now you start to get into issues of like, why did we get rid of the draft? We have not seen anything like what we saw in Vietnam, where by the early ’70s the U.S. Army, in particular, was completely broken. Where the U.S. Army was experiencing mutinies nearly every week, where units were refusing to fight. By the Army’s own estimate, a quarter of its officers who were killed in Vietnam were killed by their own soldiers. And that’s a conservative estimate. I mean, so we have seen nothing like that in these wars. And that’s, that’s, part of it is why they created this volunteer army, or in many ways like a mercenary army.
MARC STEINER: So–I’m sorry, go ahead. Americans are deeply disconnected from this war. It is very different in Vietnam, or even–especially World War II. People are disconnected because people don’t have a, aren’t in this fight personally at any level, for the most part, in this country.
So the question becomes if we are now in this war that is being escalated by the Trump administration, where more people are being killed then were in the previous years, and in the last years, here, of Obama–not saying it was great under Obama, but nonetheless was of Obama. And I just spoke just the other day with people who had just come back from Helmand province who were saying that, you know, the Taliban is in complete control of the rural areas. You cannot go out at night. Even in the cities you can’t go out at night. So if that’s the case, I mean, what is the endgame here? I mean, how do you get out of this war? How do you stop it? And if the Taliban is really that strong, and you know, for years you’ve seen people some people in the Karzai government and others were trying to negotiate with what they call the good Taliban, to try make some peace, headway. And the Americans didn’t like–kind of opposed them doing that, as well. So in any sense, what is the endgame here? I mean, what–how do you see it?
MATTHEW HOH: The Trump administration has brought about a new era in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. militarism. The Trump administration is different than the Bush and Obama administrations. While both Bush and Obama with the wars in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, were completely wrong-headed, criminal, they honestly thought they could find a way out. They honestly thought that they could bring about some type of political change. They believed that with elections, by building schools and healthcare centers, that we could bring about a change in political structure in these countries that favored the United States.
You have to understand, this is something that goes back decades now. I won’t get into prior to World War II, but certainly we had our imperial ambitions, right, for in this country before World War II. Simply ask the Native Americans, ask Hawaiians, ask Filipinos, et cetera. But after World War II what you see is the United States gets put in this position that is summarized best by George Kennan, who was the American diplomat who came up with the containment strategy of the Soviet Union. So a famed American diplomat. In 1948 he says, you know, he says, the United States now has 50 percent, more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth. We’re only 6 percent the world’s population. That’s a disparity that’s going to prove really hard to keep. But it’s our purpose to keep that disparity, and we have to do whatever it takes.
And from that point, I mean, you can trace when he says that to seeing what we did in Italy and Greece, right into Korea, into Vietnam. The dictatorships we supported in Indonesia, the Philippines, what we did in South America, and especially what we’ve done in the Middle East. Now, the idea of the Bush and Obama administration was that somehow we would do these military actions that would bring about political change in these countries that would make Iraq be the same color on the map that the United States is, right. It’s like this is one big game of Risk, basically. Or Afghanistan was going to be the same color as the United States.
Under the Trump administration, because I really believe of the significant influence that the generals like General Mattis and General Kelly, who are the secretary of defense and White House chief of staff, as well as other officials and other theorists who have gone into this Trump administration, you have a Trump administration that doesn’t see any purpose in trying to have such political change in these countries to create a new political order. What they believe is that you can just subjugate, and that’s the best way to go about it. You’ve tried elections, you’ve tried building healthcare centers, you tried building schools, you’ve tried to win hearts and minds. It didn’t work. So what we do is basically we subjugate those parts of those countries, and in this way keep our proxies in power.
So we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that already, say, like in Iraq, where rather than trying to do any type of political change with the Sunnis, we basically backed Shia armies and Kurdish armies with massive airpower, flattened every Sunni city in Iraq. I mean, the cities along the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys are completely flattened. Tens and tens of thousands killed; tens and tens of thousands are still missing. Millions displaced. And that’s the way they’re going to do it from now on. So basically–yeah.
MARC STEINER: I’m curious about–so what you’re describing here, though, as we conclude, just describing here is a strategy in the Trump administration that in some ways, even though the other strategies have been wrong-headed, flawed, and this war is insanely wrong. But this is–we’re escalating in a dangerous new way, here, in which rather than finding a way to pull out and end it, we’re actually escalating this in a way that is detrimental to Afghanistan and to us.
MATTHEW HOH: Yes, exactly. And this is what you expect from a cycle of violence, right. Cycles of violence continue to escalate. We engage in these wars in the Middle East, we occupy these countries. We tried by using religious sects against one another, by using ethnicities against one another. You’re seeing that right now in Afghanistan, the ethnic splits really occurring, with the Taliban attacking the Hazara minority. And this is this goes back–again, this goes back 40-some odd years. That goes back to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ideas in the Carter administration to use ethnic and religious differences in the Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia, to light the Soviet Union afire; to cause them problems, right.
So this is why it’s important that we don’t talk about Afghanistan in the sense that it began on 9/11, because this goes back decades. And what we’re seeing right now is the culmination of this type of imperial militarist policies that have by necessity morphed into–look, if you’re looking to see how Secretary Mattis talks about himself, he speaks of himself as if he’s like a legionnaire. He speaks about defending the republic. He describes the United States as being the apex of civilization. Basically, the idea that they are defending the United States and other parts of the empire, Europe and such, against the barbarians, and that we’re always going to be fighting in these borderlands, basically. And you’re going to look and you see John Kelly, the chief of staff of the White House, he said the same types of things.
And so that’s what you’re seeing with this Trump administration, basically. Subjugate those who won’t fall in line. Keep in power our proxies. Use other proxies. So that’s why you’re, that’s why this year you’ve only seen 12 Americans killed in Afghanistan. We’ve killed more Afghans than any other year since 2009. But we’ve only lost 12 Americans. That keeps it out of the papers, right. That keeps it off of CNN. You know, so let the Afghans kill the Afghans. Use the ethnic differences to really help subjugate one another. Use the Shia and Kurds to keep the Sunnis in line in Iraq. Use the Sunni Saudis and UAE forces to keep control in Yemen. So on and so on.
And so where this goes to–my God. I mean, it leads towards genocide. It leads to displacement, and it leads to further horrors and suffering that, you know, many people have been saying all along will be the consequences of this.
MARC STEINER: So very quickly here, as we conclude now. But I want to go back to where we began and just ask you, when the Americans and allied forces said they did not know there were civilians in this Taliban village, the Taliban-controlled village that they bombed in retaliation for the killing of the Americans, how real is that? I mean, how do you not know that where the Taliban are, civilians–you know, it’s the same stuff in Vietnam.
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah. As a guy–as a guy who did this, as a guy who was part of that stuff, as a guy who had Top Secret clearances, who took part in ground combat, who was involved–I’ve been involved in all kinds of levels. I was in the Secretary of the Navy’s office. Am I allowed to say–it was complete fucking bullshit. Can I say that on The Real News? I mean, like-
MARC STEINER: That describes it succinctly.
MATTHEW HOH: That’s bullshit. How can you not know–that, that’s like bombing a house in the United States and saying you didn’t know that there’d be a family in there. I mean, it’s complete bullshit. It’s complete nonsense. It’s–and what you do–this is what’s interesting. Last year, when the journalist Anand Gopal, and I’m blanking on who his counterpart was, they went into Iraq and they found that the United States was, by a factor of like 37 or 38, miscounting the numbers of civilians that were killed. Basically underreporting civilian deaths in the thousands. And then you look and you see what these Air Force general or Army generals say about it. And what it is, though, is that they basically are able to lie to themselves. And what it comes down to is if all the sources–if your sources in the military, if your intelligence people say they weren’t killed, if your pilots didn’t see them killed, if what the regulations say–if that’s, if that’s what–that’s what’s going. If that’s what it is, then they weren’t killed. That’s how they’re still able to lie to themselves so callously, so cruelly. How they were able to murder these people. And our generals shrug and say, well, now, that’s not the case. Because we didn’t–you know, our people said it didn’t happen. So it’s not the case.
You develop a mentality–it’s a sickness, really. But to be able to have that kind of dissonance with reality … yeah. And these generals who are in charge now, they were junior officers when this war began. So they’ve been brought up on-.
MARC STEINER: On this war.
MATTHEW HOH: Just decades now of lying. And getting away with it. And being promoted because they lie, or lied.
MARC STEINER: That’s an interesting perspective. I never thought about that before.
Matthew Hoh, this has been a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to doing many more conversations. Thank you for the work, and thank you for standing up.
MATTHEW HOH: Thank you, Marc. Appreciate it.
MARC STEINER: We were talking to Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and a Marine Corps veteran of the wars that we seem to be stuck in. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us. Take care.