Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Minnesota conservative steps up as point man in Afghan debate

Should the United States pull most of its troops out of Afghanistan? Peter Hegseth, a rising star in conservative ranks in Minnesota and the leader of a group of Iraq and Afghan combat veterans, says that’s a terrible idea.

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.”

Article continues after advertisement

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.