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Minnesota conservative steps up as point man in Afghan debate

U.S Marines from Delta Company of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion patrol near the town of Khan Neshin in southern Afghanistan, Sept. 8, 2009.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
U.S Marines from Delta Company of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion patrol Tuesday near the town of Khan Neshin in southern Afghanistan.

With the exceptions of health care and the economy, no other issue preoccupies the nation today more than the question of what to do about Afghanistan.

George F. Will tossed a hand grenade into the discussion last week when he argued in his syndicated Washington Post column that U.S. policy in that Central Asian backwater should be “comprehensively revised” and U.S. troops strength “substantially reduced.”

The column continues to resonate throughout the blogosphere, triggering serious debate among conservatives and providing plenty of ammunition to dovish liberals.

We conservatives generally tend to be hawks, though that sobriquet doesn’t always fit. Libertarians and Pat Buchanan’s tribe have serious qualms with the application of U.S. military power abroad. Yet conservatives by and large traditionally have insisted on a robust national defense and a pro-active military policy that is a judicious blend of diplomacy and lethal force. Our belief is succinct: Mess with the United States and you will pay a very dear price.

Afghanistan learned that lesson firsthand following 9/11. Now, an astonishing eight years later, the country appears to be slipping into the hands once again of the Taliban. In fact, August was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, with 48 combat-related deaths reported.

Will cites a number of problems with current policy, including the strategy that is “clear, hold and build.” Clear? he says incredulously. “Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Bookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.”

Know when to stop
The answer, he argues, is that “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” It’s a compelling argument.

Genius, Will states, sometimes “consists of knowing when to stop.”

Peter Hegseth, 29, of Forest Lake, a rising star in conservative ranks in Minnesota — and nationally — was not the only one who took issue with Will’s column, but he speaks with unique authority. A veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, he is one of the founders of Vets for Freedom, a nonpartisan national organization with a distinctly conservative bent established by Iraq and Afghan combat veterans.

MinnPost caught up with him in Cambridge, Mass., where he is beginning studies for a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“I’m surprised it took this long for a prominent conservative detractor to speak out,” Hegseth said disdainfully of Will, calling him one of the “advocates of defeat.” He labeled Will’s arguments “premature, especially since there will be no decision on what to do until after General Stanley McChrystal’s mission statement” is made public in its entirety and the Obama administration comes to a decision on the Afghan commander’s recommendations.

Peter Hegseth with members of Congress
Courtesy of Vets for Freedom
Peter Hegseth speaking a news conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2007 to support a plan for U.S. troop reinforcements in Iraq. With Hegseth, from left, are Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and John McCain,

“The mission in Afghanistan has been, and for the moment remains, worthy of American blood and treasure,” Hegseth said. “Whether we like it or not, our national-security interests are linked to men with bad intentions who roam Afghanistan’s mountains. Our goals must be to prevent terrorist safe havens, support democracy as an alternative to radicalism, stabilize a nuclear Pakistan, and safeguard the reputation of the United States.”

At this point, that mission is “ill-defined,” Hegseth said, calling the campaign “a mess.” The debate in the Obama administration, as he sees it, is a tug-of-war between proponents of “nation-building and counter-insurgency.” There’s no question where he sits in that discussion.

“Look, loss-of-life can’t be the guiding principle in determining what U.S. policy should be,” he said. “[President George W.] Bush got it right in 2007 when he approved the surge in the face of soaring U.S. casualties and expanding opposition to the war on the home front.

“The fundamentals of counter-insurgency remain the same, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, but Iraq and Afghanistan themselves are not the same. Iraq has a relatively educated populace, and a central government with a long history. Afghanistan has none of that. It is ruled by tribal leaders and warlords. It is like Biblical times, except with AK-47s and suicide-bombers.”

Hegseth is concerned that the “Obama administration doesn’t understand the lesson of the surge, which is to surgically close with and kill the enemy while simultaneously protecting the population. Then you can bring in [electricity, water and other humane] services.

“Will Barack Obama sell what has to be done in Afghanistan to the American people? Will he own this war? Those are the questions.”

Real test for Obama
Referring to Will’s recommendations, Hegseth said “we can’t airstrike our way out of this. We must have eyes and ears on the ground. It is wishful thinking to believe otherwise.”

“The real test of the Obama administration’s commitment will be its decision about additional troops in Afghanistan,” he said. “Should Obama commit the number of troops that General McChrystal is expected to say he needs — as many as nine brigades, or roughly 45,000 — he will demonstrate the firmness of his intention to turn the tide. That would, in my opinion, be a reason to support the ongoing mission fully. But if we see instead that the administration’s tough talk is accompanied by a tepid increase in resources, say 15,000 troops or so, Will’s argument will become more compelling.”

Peter Hegseth on patrol in Iraq.
Courtesy of Peter Hegseth
Peter Hegseth on patrol in Iraq.

There are presently about 68,000 U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Of that number, approximately 32,000 are combat troops; the rest are support and services, with a significant number tasked with training the Afghan army and police.

Hegseth pointed to 2006, when the debate raged in Washington about what to do in an Iraq that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. He cited Sen. John McCain’s statement supporting a surge, in which the Arizona Republican said “we have a moral obligation to the troops on the ground. We should resource them properly with the right strategy and give them a chance to win in Iraq. But if the White House and Congress don’t, and insist on fighting the war on the cheap, then we have an obligation to bring them home and risk no additional lives for an ill-defined, under-resourced fight.”

That, in a nutshell, is how we should view the Afghan campaign, Hegseth said. “We owe it to the troops on the ground to get this right. If we do, they’ll fight, they’ll persevere, and they’ll win. If we don’t, we are setting them up for failure.

“Afghanistan is a war worth winning, but not a war worth fighting indefinitely. We can accomplish the former, but mustn’t tolerate the later.”

For an expanded version of Hegseth’s thoughts on Afghanistan, check out the column he wrote for National Review Online following the MinnPost interview.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 09/09/2009 - 10:04 am.

    Pete Hegseth continues to be the darling of the right in Minnesota and, no doubt, will be a candidate for federal office from his home state in the near future. I wish him luck. But to describe Hegseth’s Vets for Freedom as a nonpartisan group is part of an on-going effort to disguise the group’s origins as a Bush Administration stalking horse, intended to pump up public support for the Iraq War in the waning months of Dick Cheney’s hold on foreign policy. I give props to the service of all vets, including ones like Hegseth who never saw a photo opp they didn’t like. But this group is knee-deep in a right-wing political agenda, as was demonstrated when it bought TV ads thanking Norm Coleman for supporting the war, and after it tried to turn a veterans appearance into a pro-war propaganda visit at the high school and right-wing talking heads poured contempt on the principal when the school rejected the visit.


    Old soldiers, MacArthur said after his rebellious insubordination to President Truman, are supposed to fade away. Hegseth should run for office if he likes. But he also should be honest about his political objectives, without dressing them up as representative of the views of all “veterans for freedom.”

    They ain’t. That’s an insult to ALL Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, who are decidedly NOT a united bloc, and who include many soldiers who are opposed to the wars, and to the lies that led to Iraq. For a true “nonpartisan” veterans group attempting to represent the interests of ALL vets, please see Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/09/2009 - 11:11 am.

    From the article: “The debate in the Obama administration, as he sees it, is a tug-of-war between proponents of ‘nation-building and counter-insurgency.’ There’s no question where he sits in that discussion.”

    From his comments that follow, he’s apparently for counter-insurgency. But then Hegseth states “Then you can bring in [electricity, water and other humane] services.”

    What is that, if not nation-building?

    Where does he stand? Is he for both? Can we as a nation try to do both (and pay the price in “blood and treasure” to try to do that)?

    And finally, Hegseth says that the “Obama administration doesn’t understand the lesson of the surge …” But does Hegseth understand the lesson of history? Namely, that YOU CAN’T WIN A WAR IN AFGHANISTAN (just ask the Soviets).

    And finally, finally: What Nick Coleman said. Michael B., the evidence is pretty strong that this is NOT a non-partisan group. Can you find a better way to describe it the next time you write about it?

  3. Submitted by John Roach on 09/09/2009 - 11:19 am.

    Mr. Hegseth seems to have the idea that we can simultaneously accomplish a massive troop buildup in Afghanistan while at the same time giving lots more resources and manpower to the troops in Iraq. Right.

    The fact is that our military personnel, their equipment and their support systems are currently stretched to the breaking point. We have been fighting a two front war for over seven years.

    President Obama has already set US troop levels in Afghanistan at more than double what Vice President Cheney allocated during his time as shadow CinC. General McChrystal will not “ask for” 45,000 additional combat troops because he knows that they do not currently exist. He will say that we “need” them in order to have a chance to win.

    This is Gen McChrystal’s way of saying that it is game over unless we either pull out of Iraq or raise taxes to pay for a much larger military. Like most of our senior military, the General is familiar with the lessons of Vietnam in a way that Mr. Hegseth apparently is not. The article at the link should be very educational:

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/09/2009 - 12:02 pm.

    What Will’s column showed me is that Republicans have become so partisan, they would abandon a war they started for political gain.

    Personally, I think war is essentially obsolete. Most civilized countries in the world realize there is little or nothing to be gained from it. I credit the Marshall Plan for this. However, there are piles of these adolescent countries – countries for whatever reason have not realized this and think blowing up and shooting people will actually accomplish something. For its part, the U.S. has fanned some of these conflicts, like the Iraq/Iran war.

    What we have in Afghanistan is a country that hasn’t been allowed to grow up. Some other country has been battling on its soil since the days of the Light Brigade. As such it has attracted the criminal warriors and fundamentalists who still mistakenly believe war will accomplish something. And the corrupt election just shows how far it has to go. That’s why were there. It is the only place we should have been. If we would have put our wholehearted attention there in the first place, we’d probably be done.

    The invasion of Iraq will go down in history as the stupidest military leadership blunder in U.S. history, despite the great efforts by the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that fought there

  5. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 09/09/2009 - 01:17 pm.

    With respect for his service, being a ground pounder is not “uniquely authority” to speak on much. After four years in the navy in the 60’s I was not an expert on naval warfare or war in general, although my discourses in the give and take of that era often sounded as if I knew what I was talking about. More power to him for sounding off but let’s not give him more authority than is appropriate.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/09/2009 - 04:12 pm.

    As Jonathan Schell pointed out in his “The Unconquerable World,” history shows that no real change can be imposed from outside but must be a bottom-up struggle for freedom.

    We are wasting not just American lives and treasure, and Afghani lives and treasure and perhaps the future they would choose for themselves if we were not there.

    If there is no political solution (agricultural development of crops other than poppies, education, etc.), there is no solution.

  7. Submitted by Dave Thul on 09/09/2009 - 05:30 pm.

    I was one of those vets with Pete that weren’t allowed to speak at Forest Lake High School. There was no partisan message intended, only the chance for decorated combat veterans to talk to high school kids about the war in Iraq that they hear so much about on TV.

    Serving in combat in Iraq does give one a unique authority on the subject of counter-insurgency and the odds of the US mission being successful given the right mix of troops and civilian support.

    You can certainly criticize Hegseth for his views if they differ from your own, but to think that he shouldn’t act on his beliefs is rather hypocritical, in my opinion.

  8. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/10/2009 - 07:36 am.

    GI JOE is out of the box:

    He’s GI Joe but big as life and his words reverberate…”The mission in Afghanistan has been worthy of American blood and treasure.” He’s prime point man here with his word mantra worthy of future ambitions. He adroitly plays the warrior god for other men to emulate and imitate, as they have done for centuries.

    Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne. Lived it close enough to absorb the diversity of opinion within that military group where being a paratrooper was rarely drama for others to emulate or imitate. But everyone marches to a differant drummer I suppose.

    “Worthy of American blood and treasure…” Blood I can understand for it flows now from many soldiers, ours and theirs…from babies, old women and villagers with shock and awe forever embedded in their faces and minds. Even ‘enduring freedom can’t mean much for local Afghan villagers in the long haul.

    Enduring bloodshed certainly, but the “treasure” part? Hegseth’s talking about oil I assume for that motivational factor is built into the scheme of these wars and it would be dishonest to ignore that primal point.

    “For security reasons”…invasive action in Iraq, in Afghanistan; wars to stop terrorism, yet more terrorism escalates in the process. So where is the victory? Who’s fooling whom? If terrorism is what we went to destroy for security reasons, and terrorism doesn’t end, it only escalates, what then?

    “The mission is ill-defined” That’s true, Hegseth. Even ‘us-or-them’ doesn’t fit here somehow. It’s a round peg in a square hole.

    There are wars that make men poets. There are wars that make men/women paraplegics. There are wars that take away life itself and twirl the mind into a nightmare forever.

    We make them our heroes. We mold them but too often reject them;fail them in the aftermath when they need our help. Instead we turn to Point Man among them who looks like GI Joe from the ol’ toy box but on a grander scale? Makes one feel good about the whole bloody mess we created.

    Put GI Joe back in the box, wound-up prototype with his gung-ho lines…”the mission in Afghanistan is worthy of American blood and treasure…worth of blood…”

  9. Submitted by John Olson on 09/10/2009 - 08:51 am.

    Factions in that part of the world have been in varying states of war since (it would seem) the dawn of time. What makes anyone think that 10,000, 100,000 or 1 million additional troops would cause the various factions to suddenly stop and say, “Gee, we understand. Sorry. You can all go home now.”

    I’m sure there are more than a few aging veterans of the Soviet-era Afghanistan adventure of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s that are snickering to themselves.

  10. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/10/2009 - 11:14 pm.

    The very construct “Afghanistan” is not compelling. There are very strong regional affilations.

    There has been a poor track record for western forces in that part of the world, British, Soviet/Russian, US and NATO allies.

    There is no way we’ll support a force large enough to “occupy” the territory. Can’t stop Taliban and related cousins from hiding in the Pakistan border region without violating Pakistan’s border – and they won’t allow it.

    We wacked the Al Quada we could find – we drove the Taliban to the hills. What else do we think we should do in a country with whom we have so little cultural overlap? What di the different ogroups in “Afghanistan” want?

  11. Submitted by jim hughes on 09/12/2009 - 06:36 pm.

    George Will comes off the bandwagon, but here’s a a much younger guy – with hotter blood and a lot less knowledge of history – to help us stay convinced that it’s all still a good idea…

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