October 28, 2009

Putting Matthew Hoh in Context ... and Asking Hard Questions of the Washington Post

A great American, sure, but a reader noticed this important comment posted by "gadstian" on the Washington Post's website at 11:50 yesterday morning.

I am very disturbed by the journalistic standards of this article and strongly encourage Washington Post readers to contact the paper directly.

First, I am currently serving in a PRT in Iraq. I trained with Matt in northern Virginia in April of this past year before we both moved on to our respective assignments. Matt is a smart young man who has honorably served his country, but by no means was or is he an expert on counterinsurgency, Afghan tribal culture, or U.S. strategic policy.

Second-- this article is riddled with inaccuracies to an extent that almost shocks me, and really makes me question its intent and veracity, coming as it does at a critical time in the debate over Afghan policy.

Matt Hoh is NOT a Foreign Service Officer. This basic fact, central to the article and its headline, is wrong, despite the wording in his letter.

Matt is a "3161" State Department employee, a special category of temporary appointments brought on for 12 month assignments in certain areas of expertise-- engineering, ag, business, rule of law, etc. Some may sign on for a second 12-month tour.

This is a very different thing than being an FSO-- a commissioned, career diplomat who is a generalist and is appointed not as a result of an online job application and single interview (sometimes over the phone), but after a series of competitive oral, written, and physical exams.

Referring to Matt as a "U.S. Official" is about as accurate as referring to a postal employee as a U.S. official.

I am not trying to denigrate 3161s or postal employees! But this article gets such basic facts wrong about Matt that I am astounded, and either bespeaks very poor journalism or, worse, an article produced primarily to push a specific political agenda and that knowingly uses false facts to give a certain impression.

There are hundreds, perhaps over 1000, 3161s in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many, many of them are ex-military (having done multiple tours in Iraq and/or Afghanistan), and have also faced combat, death, etc., just like Matt bravely did. In my own PRT, we are rocketed frequently, have small arms fire, IEDs, etc., hit our movement teams, you name it.

My point is that as compelling as Matt's story sounds to civilians, it is a fairly typical story here in theater, and by no means gives one any special insight.

There are so many people here with the same experience--or much more experience--that would passionately disagree with Matt's assessment.

Maybe Matt is right; maybe not. But to present his memo and resignation as a significant event of a "U.S. official" with special insight is, with all due respect to Matt, patently absurd. He is a de factor contractor that was on the ground in his PRT about 4 months! On that, one assesses strategic counterinsurgency??

And I absolutely guarantee the only reason Matt warranted an audience with Holbrooke and sudden offers of a Kabul job on the Embassy's front office was that the State Department was well aware of plans to go very public at a critical time-- plans for articles like this splashed over front pages, offers from detractors of Afghan policy to meet and speak, etc. I don't know Matt well and will not impugn his motivations, I believe he is no doubt sincere. But there is nothing special about him that's not special about hundreds of others still in theater, and I cannot believe that he has simply stumbled into the current publicity without discussions with many people about how to use this situation for maximum effect.

I wish Matt luck, and don't doubt that he will do well, with a career jump-started by the current affair. Again, maybe he's right.

But I challenge the Washington Post to explain what I note above-- How and why do you assert Matt is a Foreign Service Officer? Did you not confirm that with him, or did he present himself as such? How did he come to your attention? Why did you not interview other 3161s or FSOs with different views? And, finally, WHY does someone on the ground for a few months warrant such front page coverage?

I'm a fan of the Washington Post, but as I told a family friend in Tennessee this past weekend who was asking me for good news sources on Afghanistan, the "down-range" reporting the Times, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal produces on Afghanistan is worlds better than anything produced from Washington. Datelines, in other words, matter. I have a little less respect for the Washington Post after this article.