Sometimes Only the Good Resign

People unhappy with their work can cause all sorts of trouble in the office, or whatever the job site is. They might grumble and pull others aside and say what’s being done is just nonsense, which makes everyone uncomfortable, especially those who have no particular views on whether the work is useful or not, and who need the paycheck – they mutter something like, well, we’re not curing cancer here, and scurry away. But the atmosphere is poisoned. If you’ve ever been a manager you know what you have to do – pull the complainer aside, listen carefully to his or her issues, and then offer counsel (there may be another way to look at what they have to do day in and day out) or suggest reassignment (hardly ever possible as, if you’re any good as a manager, you’ve pared down your staff to only the specific people you need) or suggest they come to talk to you, not buttonhole every Tom, Dick and Harry in the office and bitch about things. But you usually end up issuing a warning, or a formal reprimand, even if that’s dangerous. Those of us who have managed systems shops know these unhappy folks can sometimes plant an untraceable logic bomb in just the right place and, ten months later, after the troubled employee is long gone, the billing system crashes and all the records are gone, so you have no accounts receivables, and you have no way to ask for the payments from anyone. That’s no fun.

Of course there are lots of people unhappy with their job. Maybe everyone hates their job. But rather than muttering under their breath that all this is just bullshit, then grabbing coworkers and ranting, and seething in rage eight hours a day, most people bury their anger and outrage and let it morph into persistent low-grade depression and self-loathing. They just do the damned job – and drink heavily on the weekends. One can get used to a life of quiet desperation. It pays the bills.

But sometimes an unhappy employee does the honorable thing and resigns. If you have a real problem with your work and see it as existentially pointless, or immoral, or dangerous in some way, you don’t bitch and whine and make others miserable. You man-up and do the right thing. A brief resignation letter does the trick. You don’t even have to explain anything. You move on.

Of course people do explain why they’re leaving. Many large organizations conduct an exit-interview, for the record. You do want to know why people are quitting. Replacing key employees takes a whole lot of time and money, and you don’t want these things to keep happening. You want to hire the right people in the future, people who not only have just the right skills-set and experience, but who think the work is worth doing. You don’t want to keep getting burned. And oddly, if you’re honest, you too wonder if the work is worth doing. You might just get some valuable information from the worker who’s leaving, a bit of uncomfortable insight. Insight is generally a good thing, even if it too can be dangerous.

And that brings up the news that was reported on Tuesday, October 27, of the curious resignation of Matthew Hoh.

As reported by the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, Matthew Hoh, a former Marine captain with combat experience in Iraq, resigned last month from his position with the Foreign Service. He was the senior US civilian in Southern Afghanistan province of Zabul, which the Talban dominate. It seems that he became convinced that our war in that country will not only inevitably fail, but is obviously fueling the insurgency we are trying to defeat. One way to look at this is that his resignation was sort of “career sacrifice in the name of principle” or something like that. He hadn’t been complaining. He did his job. And then he decided he just could not in good conscience do it any longer.

And because he knew his superiors would want to know why one of their best guys was leaving, he explained to them what was going on in a detailed four-page letter (PDF format). This was not intended for the Washington Post, but someone with an agenda leaked it to them. Who leaked to the Post and why is an interesting question, but that’s how things work, or how they’ve worked since Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers through Dick Cheney having Scooter Libby selectively leak to the New York Times’ Judith Miller and others that Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson’s wife, worked at the CIA, and anything Joe Wilson said about Dickey Cheney being wrong about Saddam and yellowcake uranium and Africa must be bogus, because she just wanted to get her hubby a free trip or two on the taxpayers dime. With leaks, everyone has an agenda. But they are how the public learns what’s going on. It’s a tradition.

But with the Matthew Hoh resignation letter, no one was denying anything. He resigned, for quite specific reasons. He opened by noting that “next fall, the United States’ occupation will equal in length the Soviet Union’s own physical involvement in Afghanistan” and argues that our unwanted occupation, combined with our support for what is obviously an absurdly corrupt government “reminds [him] horribly of our involvement in South Vietnam.” Then he explains that most of the people we are fighting are not loyal to the Taliban, or drug kingpins, or just plain nasty folks. They are driven, almost entirely, by resistance to the presence of foreign troops in their provinces and villages. This is not rocket science, as they say.

In fact, it’s nothing new. Back in 2004 the Pentagon commissioned its own report that said just that:

Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security. … Direct American intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for Islamic radicals.

And the Post’s DeYoung did her legwork. She interviewed Hoh, who proudly said that he’s “not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love” and that he believes “there are plenty of dudes who need to be killed.” He’s just not that sort – “I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys.”

Glenn Greenwald assesses this odd turn of events this way:

Plainly, there’s nothing ideological about his conclusions; they’re just the by-product of an honest assessment, based on first-hand experiences, of how our ongoing occupation of that country is worsening the very problem we’re allegedly there to solve.

Greenwald puts it plainly:

We invade and occupy a country – and then label as “insurgents” or even “terrorists” the people in that country who fight against our invasion and occupation. With the most circular logic imaginable, we then insist that we must remain in order to defeat the “insurgents” and “terrorists” – largely composed of people whose only cause for fighting is our presence in their country.

All the while, we clearly exacerbate the very problem we are allegedly attempting to address – Terrorism – by predictably and inevitably increasing anti-American anger and hatred through our occupation, which, no matter the strategy, inevitably entails our killing innocent civilians. Indeed, does Hoh’s description of what drives the insurgency – anger “against the presence of foreign soldiers” – permit the conclusion that that’s all going to be placated with a shift to a kind and gentle counter-insurgency strategy?

Matthew Yglesias is with Greenwald:

There’s always going to be distrust of a foreign army roaming through your country. In part you can dispel that distrust through good works. But in part you can dispel that through showing people what a post-American Afghanistan would be like and how we’re going to get there. I don’t know if that means a chronologically-bound timetable or a political checklist or what, but it’s got to be something. What you don’t want is to get in the situation of saying, basically, that we can’t leave Afghanistan until first we kill everyone who wants us to leave Afghanistan. For a while our Iraq policy was stuck in that loop, and I worry that our Afghanistan policy may veer in that direction.

Well, McChrystal is suggesting a kind and gentle counter-insurgency strategy – offer the locals some real safety and stability and basic services and things will be fine – although Andrew Sullivan wonders about that:

A question: if we hadn’t invaded for legitimate reasons eight years’ ago, would anyone be proposing this kind of commitment now?

And that’s a big commitment, of forty thousand more troops and decades of work, and the whole thing puts Obama on the spot, as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson explains:

Barack Obama didn’t set out to be a “war president,” but that’s what history compels him to be. The nation and the world are fortunate that he doesn’t have the reckless, ready-fire-aim mentality of George W. Bush. But Afghanistan doesn’t present the kind of “false choices” that Obama, by nature, habitually rejects. The choices are real and awful, and no amount of reframing and rephrasing will make them go away.

Obama can go with the McChrystal COIN strategy, build stability, or with far fewer troops, as Joe Biden has suggested, just continue killing the bad guys. But Obama’s usual MO may be of no use to him here:

His basic method has been to avoid drawing bright lines between mutually exclusive positions. He looks for ways to reframe issues so that what once was an either-or proposition can be transformed into a both-and scenario. On health care, for example, he set out to provide both universal coverage and long-term cost control. The legislation that now seems likely to emerge doesn’t quite do either, but it does some of each – and Obama, by splitting the difference, has managed to bring us closer to meaningful, though imperfect, health-care reform than we’ve ever been.

But the decisions on Afghanistan truly are either-or. Obama can decide to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy or a counterterrorism strategy. He can do one or the other – not both. If he chooses counterinsurgency, he has to send enough troops to make that strategy work. If he doesn’t want to send all those troops, he needs to pursue counterterrorism or do something else.

It comes down to this:

We invaded Afghanistan to ensure that the country could never again be used to launch attacks against the United States. That mission is accomplished, and our only goal should be making sure it stays accomplished – whether the place is run by Hamid Karzai or the Taliban. The counterinsurgency campaign that Obama is contemplating looks like a step onto the slipperiest slope imaginable. It doesn’t matter whether the step is tentative or bold.

And there was this odd item. The ratio of our troops to insurgents in Afghanistan is twelve to one, our way, to which Andrew Sullivan responds:

And we’re still losing. Maybe it’s because there is no way to win. And no way to know if we have.

And there’s the current local context, which Andrew Exum shows us:

When passing through Zabul Province this past summer, I got a brief from a smart U.S. Army officer with whom I had served in the 10th Mountain Division. Over the course of the briefing, he told the group I was with that “rural” is too urban a description for Zabul. What he meant was that the province was almost Biblical in terms of its development. The people of Zabul are isolated, remote, and enjoy no known natural resources. The literacy rate is around 11% – 1% for women. It’s all subsistence agriculture, and making matters worse is the fact that the U.S./NATO mission in the province is under-resourced and thus dedicated almost entirely toward keeping Route 1 open. (The population is spread out over the province, too, making population-centric counterinsurgency difficult if not impossible.)

All of this is worth keeping in mind when you read the resignation letter of the senior U.S. civilian official in Zabul Province… These are the words of a man beaten down by the realities of the mission.

I’m a pretty optimistic, cheerful guy, but even I would have a tough, tough time pulling a year’s duty in Zabul. I salute those who do, including the young intelligence officer (and reader of this blog) who stuffed a PowerPoint presentation of how we can do the mission in Zabul better into my cargo pocket as I was getting on a helicopter. Guys like that just make you shake your head in wonder, which is why even in this mournful letter, the author takes the time to praise the amazing men and women in our armed services in Afghanistan.

Our guys are good – the best – but the job at hand seems absurd.

In fact, see The Onion:

According to sources at the Pentagon, American quagmire-building efforts continued apace in Afghanistan this week, as the geographically rugged, politically unstable region remained ungovernable, death tolls continued to rise, and the grim military campaign persisted as hopelessly as ever.

In fact, many government officials now believe that the United States and its allies could be as little as six months away from their ultimate goal: the total quagmirification of Afghanistan.

It goes on, but this paragraph stands out:

A number of Pentagon officials said they were proudly holding on to their false glimmer of hope for a victory that remains forever out of reach, and explained that waging a war that can only end in sorrow has validated all their efforts.

No wonder Hoh resigned.

And see Spencer Ackerman:

Matthew Hoh’s departure was considered so damaging – probably more politically damaging than substantively damaging – that both U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and even Special Representative Richard Holbrooke offered him jobs to keep him on board, offering him the chance to incorporate his critiques into policymaking.

Good managers don’t want to lose good employees, but Hoh said he couldn’t do it. And Ackerman sees why:

The concern about the U.S. presence fueling the insurgency – not for what the U.S. does, but merely for the fact of its existence – was raised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, but it has not yet seemed to penetrate most discourse about the war. Gates himself backed away from the critique in September, saying that Gen. Stanley McChrystal convinced him that the U.S. military could mitigate the danger by actively providing for the Afghan people’s well-being. And indeed, McChrystal has tacitly paid respect to the critique, saying in his much-derided London address that jobs programs could do much to deprive the Taliban of foot soldiers who fight because their lack of economic alternatives accelerate their antipathy to the U.S. presence. That approach won the support yesterday of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in his uneasy embrace of a modified version of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

But if Hoh is right, then it’s simply too late for that strategy, as the mere presence of the U.S. military will have reached the “tipping point” that Gates warned about in January.

And Holbrooke told the Post that he shares some of Hoh’s analysis, but just not his conclusions. It was time for Hoh to leave. This was going nowhere.

And all the time Obama dithers, if this is dithering:

In his meetings with his war council, the president is insisting on knowing what are achievable goals and what are the actual abilities of US troops – and most especially the Afghan government – to achieve those goals.

Some may miss George Bush – quick decisions based on gut-feeling, on what instinctively feels right. But this is what we have – thinking things through, carefully, based on resources for what can logically be achieved. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste, of course. But we elected the careful, thoughtful guy. Deal with it.

As for the Afghan government and the joke of the election and now the upcoming redo (actually a run-off) see Tony Karon:

It is fanciful to imagine that a run-off election, or even forcing Mr Karzai to share power with his former foreign minister, will substantially improve the prospects for victory in Afghanistan. From a security perspective if nothing else, trying to avoid the run-off seems more sensible.

The Economist is just as pessimistic:

The outlook for a successful second round is so bleak that most analysts believe it will in fact not take place at all. Some still cling to the hope that Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah will make peace and form a coalition government, though both men have ruled this out. Or Dr Abdullah might withdraw in return for promises from Mr Karzai about enacting the constitutional reforms he wants, which would take power away from the presidency. That might indeed warrant praise as a piece of statesmanship.

That isn’t going to happen, and the Australian journalist who has been on the case for years, Paul McGeogh, sees McChrystal’s proposed strategy, while wonderfully logical, is thus doomed:

McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late – for Afghanistan and for Washington… The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty.

We dropped Afghanistan for Iraq, and then had no strategy for Afghanistan, when we needed one, and now we have to come up with one, or as Sullivan puts it:

What Bush and Cheney threw away Obama cannot recapture. Knowing what cannot be done is the first rule of conservative statesmanship. Here’s hoping Obama is more conservative than Bush and Cheney.

And here’s hoping someone pays attention to those exit interviews. And sometimes only the good resign, damn it.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Sometimes Only the Good Resign

  1. M. Bouffant says:

    Gen. Stanley McChrystal convinced him that the U.S. military could mitigate the danger by actively providing for the Afghan people’s well-being.

    Right. 10% (“official”) unemployment, harder than pulling teeth to get minimal health care reform going (What about the American people’s well-being?) & now we’re supposed to provide jobs for mostly illiterate subsistence farmers on the other side of the world?

    What is wrong w/ these people?

  2. Rick says:

    Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson explains:

    “We invaded Afghanistan to ensure that the country could never again be used to launch attacks against the United States. That mission is accomplished, and our only goal should be making sure it stays accomplished…”

    I agree that this is what our invasion was all about, and what the mission now is, but if that mission were truly “accomplished,” there would, by definition, be no need to make sure “it stays accomplished.”

    In fact, I don’t agree the mission ever was accomplished, which is why we need to stay there.

    I hate painting myself as a hard-ass here, but I don’t, as Matthew Hoh does, see our presence in Afghanistan as a full “occupation,” because we don’t have full sovereignty over the country, given that it has its own elected president. (In fact, sometimes I wish we hadn’t relinquished the occupation so soon.)

    Be that as it may, I’m sure there are many Afghans, especially in Hoh’s province of Zabul, who shoot at us simply because we’re there, but this does not mean we should leave their country before it stops being a threat to ours.

    In fact, if they really want to hasten our departure, they should help us defeat the folks who attacked us in 2001, and just might do it again if they regained control of Afghanistan.


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