Vets for Freedom is a nonpartisan organization established by combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our mission is to educate the American public about the importance of achieving success in these conflicts by applying our first-hand knowledge to issues of American strategy and tactics—namely "the surge" in Iraq. We support policymakers from both sides of the aisle who have stood behind our great generation of American warriors on the battlefield, and who have put long-term national security before short-term partisan political gain.
Pete Hegseth, Executive Director
First Lieutenant Pete Hegseth served in Iraq with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division for their deployment to Iraq from 2005-2006. Lt. Hegseth served as an infantry Platoon Leader in Baghdad during the nationwide elections in October and December 2005, and as a Civil-Military Operations officer in Samarra. Lt. Hegseth also served in Guantanamo Bay for a year on a security mission with his National Guard unit and currently serves in the 1-69 Infantry, New York Army National Guard. He holds the Bronze Star for his time in Iraq. Pete is a graduate of Princeton University and plans to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton in the fall. Lt. Hegseth originally hails from Minnesota, but now lives in New York City with his wife.
The Washington Times has published some key excerpts to this 25 minute interview with Mr. Hegseth, so please head over and read those excerpts dealing with, what the Vets For Freedom does and why, as well as giving a “face” to the Iraqi people and their hopes and desires for their country, what he is hearing from the soldiers and interpreters still on the ground in Iraq and he speaks to why Victory in Iraq is so important to America.
The transcript of the rest of this fascinating interview, via the phone, with Mr. Hegseth is posted below.
SD: I appreciate all the emails you send me with the weeks to testimony and I try to get them out. I see that you will be there September 18th , there is also anti-war protesters that will be there. You are going to be there to basically counter them?
Hegseth: That’s part of it, our message has mostly been pro-active and less reactive, so we schedule, I guess we knew, but without regard to who else will be there, but at the same time, I think we have also given ourselves an opportunity to counter what a lot of the anti-war groups will be doing. There is also a large pro mission rally on the 15th with a couple other organizations and while we are not specifically going to have lots of guys there, we will be partnered with them. So we hope to really be involved for a couple weeks in September, it is just that 18th dates that we will bring all our guys, and if the other side wants to try, try to muster as many vets, Iraq and Afghanistan vets, as we do, I’d be surprised if they could.
SD: What is the difference that you see in General Petraeus’s strategy now, the counterinsurgency, than what you saw when you were there in 2005-2006?
Hegseth: That’s the million dollar question and what makes what we’re doing, so important, is that people don’t realize what a drastic change in strategy this really is. It’s not just throwing 30,000 more troops at a problem, it’s throwing 30,000 more troops with a new strategy and then reallocating the existing troops, more efficiently. So you are actually getting much more bang for your buck than just 30,000 troops. Your getting double that if not more in actual combat power and the troops are doing a different kind of mission, what we were doing in 2005-2206, while with the best intentions, was trying to hand over swathes of land and cities to the Iraqi people as fast as we could, irregardless of whether or not the security conditions merited it. We also handed over swathes of land to the Iraqi security forces and to tribal leaders and others without having a real understanding of what was going to happen.
Then we had elections and other things that were good on paper, but didn’t really bring about any changes on the ground for the Iraqi people, so we were actually fighting an unconventional asymmetrical war with large conventional tactics, but what General Petraeus has done, what we’ve done now, is totally reverse the course, and focus on the population centrals and we said, “we need to secure the areas for the Iraqi people first” and when we do that it will bring about the kind of security conditions where we can have economic and political stability and progress.
The biggest example of that is Anbar province, where the people hear about the “awakening” and these Tribal Sheiks, standing up and taking on al-Qaeda, and they have, but the reason they did that is because Americans cleared Anbar province and Ramadi, specifically, and then they held it, with 65 patrol bases throughout the city, troops bringing violence way down, to the point where the Sheiks kind of looked and said, wow, we have a strategic opportunity here to take on al-Qaeda, and they did and that’s what is allowing for the lasting peace there. As far as tactically, for the Americans, what we’ve done is we taken troops out of the big bases, with McDonald and burger King on them and we have pushed them out into the neighborhoods, into smaller, what is called joint security stations, and at these joint security stations you have a small number of Americans and a small number of Iraqi’s, working side by side, day by day, to provide local security in a local neighborhoods, persistently, day by day and that’s what is different, we used to be on big bases and we would drive out on patrols every once in a while to different areas and try to take care of problems, but it was all patchwork and what we are doing now is we are really committing to the population, committing to neighborhoods, we are clearing and we are holding and when you do that you start to gain the confidence of the locals.
You have relationships and relationships lead to the intelligence that you need to sift through friend and foe. I think one of the great metrics right now is “tips” and tips for , sort of information lines for Iraqi and American security forces are four times higher than they were, at this point last year, which is an incredible indicator of how much the Iraqi people have said the security environment is changing and it is time to call in my buddy next door, who is putting in IED’S. I think those are, in addition to the lower violence, are great signs.
SD: Excellent answer. Do you think the most recent good news that’s been coming out of Iraq that the media is finally acknowledging; do you think that is responsible for some of the most recent polls, New York Times/CBS poll and then the USA Today Gallup poll, both showing that public support is starting to rise for the war effort?
Hegseth: Yes, well I think so. Sort of traditional outlets that support Petraeus and the strategy, they can talk about it all they want, but when you have got a New York Times, when you have got an editorial there and you have got Democrats having to admit that progress is happening and I was there and I have seen it and it is incredible, the military progress we are making, Americans hear that and they know that if someone like that, who has been against the war for a long time, is now admitting progress, then something good must be happening.
That’s part of it, the other part of it is that the good news is getting out, it’s undeniable, you can’t keep the lid on it and when you have got so many people and so many outlets and Americans and Iraqi’s talking about how progress is happening and strategy is working and morale of American troops is high, that’s eventually going to seep through to the population and that’s what you are seeing, I think that this strategy is going to continue to work and we will continue to see those numbers go up, because the American people do not want to be defeated in Iraq. They, we want to win, we always have and I hope we always will want to win, but we haven’t been seeing a winning strategy in Iraq. We see one now and I think the American people don’t want to support a war they saw as just treading water and frankly when I was there in ’05 and ’06, it felt like we were just treading water, so I think the temperament of the American people is, in some ways, a good indicator and they recognize a winning strategy and I think they are ready to stand behind it and as more and more good evidence comes out, I think we can see those numbers continue to go up.
SD: Now, I see your organization, Vets for Freedom is non-partisan, is that correct?
SD: You just simply stand behind the troops and their mission because you believe it’s important and imperative to see victory in Iraq?
Hegseth: Yes and we will stand with anybody who stands with us. Anybody that stands with the successful completion in Iraq, if that’s primarily Republicans now, that’s fine. If its Democrats, that’s fine. That’s where we draw our line. If you want to complete the mission like we do, we will stand with you.
SD: Okay then, what was your reaction, did you agree with Eric Edelman when he made the statement that words, not so much disagreement but complete criticism and asking for withdrawal plans, and doing this in the public eye where everyone in the world can see it, did you agree with him when he said that it encourages the enemy?
Hegseth: It certainly undermines our mission. It certainly creates an environment in which our government is questioning whether, what these soldiers are fighting and dying for, is even worthwhile. Another thing to remember is, and I think in some ways, it does embolden the enemy because they follow our domestic politics, probably closer than most Americans do. It’s amazing, I saw when I walked into these living rooms and watched the TV’s and saw what was talked about. They know what our Congress is doing. They know what our leaders are saying. I am talking about the Iraqi people, do. In addition to, especially our enemies, they pay particular attention to the tides, domestically. So if they are hearing the Senate Majority leader thinks that the war is lost and that General Petraeus is out of touch and incompetent, they view that and they spin that and that is part of their strategy of showing that the Americans are not going to win and they will be leaving soon, and when the enemy is saying that, then Iraqi’s in Iraq say “oh no, I don’t know if I can step up” and “I don’t know if I should do this because the Americans might be leaving soon”. So, it is definitely not helpful.
Now there is room, obviously for a loyal opposition, if you don’t feel like the strategy we are using is the right one, then there is the moral imperative to stand up and say we need to change strategy to be successful, in order to win.
But, we need to withdraw and declare defeat, to me, doesn’t seem to be a loyal opposition, it is more an attempt to undermine the mission.
SD: To me it seems more a way to follow the polls than to do what is best for America, but that is besides the point.
You mentioned Harry Reid. When you first saw that they confirmed General Petraeus unanimously, what was your initial reaction when you first heard Harry Reid say the words, Iraq is lost”?
Hegseth: (Laughter) Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised and that is just because I know he has said things like that in the past, but it is moral outrage, its how can you, after having voted, in an 81-0 vote, unanimously confirm and Harry Reid was one of those that voted yes, so he was not a non voter, how can you vote for this General and this strategy that he openly talked about using, and then three months later before he is able to implement it, declare his strategy lost and the war lost?
It’s irresponsible. I don’t understand it and like you said, it reeks of politics and it reeks of the way that some think that they will benefit politically from our failure in Iraq and you heard it from the majority whip, most recently, he said, you know, “if success comes out of Iraq, then that is really going to hurt us and fracture our base”, so it shows you how invested they are in defeat.
(Then we have the excerpt from the Washington Times from this interview with why Victory in Iraq is important to America and he tells us what the troops and interpreters in Iraq are telling him)
Q: In your words, why do you see that it is important for America to see victory in Iraq?
A: I think the most compelling case is that it is important for America. Our strategic interests are directly linked to the outcome of what the Iraqi people do there and what we allow them to do, because if we don't, if we don't bring about a successful outcome, we will leave behind a haven for al Qaeda and those affiliated with them. We will leave behind a region that is unstable, where Iran thinks it can impose its will. Where outside state actors become involved in the outcome in Iraq because of the power void, and it is unstable.
Our interests are directly linked, and it is incredibly important, the largest, I think the more overarching argument to why it is important to America is victory or defeat in the eyes of al Qaeda. If al Qaeda thinks they have won in Iraq, that will be a propaganda bonanza for them and embolden them for years and years to come.
People tell me all the time, "American soldiers are creating more terrorists." In some ways, sure, our president aggravates a lot of insurgents in Iraq. But you don't think our defeat would embolden them even more and create even more of a problem?
So, that, for me, is the big prize in this. It is a war of perception, and how would this war be perceived by our enemies and by our public. Because ... history will judge us, not on when we leave, but on what we leave behind. ...
Q: Are you still in contact with the soldiers that are in Iraq right now?
A: Oh, absolutely, I am in touch with soldiers in Iraq and in touch with Iraqi interpreters ... that we had, and I get fairly regular updates and, actually, because of the position I am in now, I get a lot of unsolicited e-mails from troops over there, saying, "Thanks for what you guys are doing" and "Here is my experience that backs up what you are saying 100 percent." So I have heard more and more from the troops than I would have otherwise, and it has all been encouraging, and it all reinforces the principle that we have been talking about and shows that, in fact, things are improving. So we see our work as nothing but an extension of our service and nothing but our opportunity to have the backs of the guys that are still there. ...
What we want to do is set the conditions for a fair reception for what [Gen. Petraeus] reports, and that is what we are trying to do. And then beyond that, we are going to continue to make sure that our voice is heard in the debate.
SD: Why is it important for the Iraqi people that we see victory there now?
Hegseth: For basic humanity as we talked about before, the mass bloodshed that would ensue if we left before that country was stable, I don’t know if we have ever seen the likes, I mean I know we have in world history, but I don’t think Americans would be accustomed to seeing the kind of bloodshed that American soldiers would have to step back and watch. Our allies, people that stepped up, innocent families, women and children, we have already seen at a low level, no, at a high level, what that violence looks like, but if we pull back before the Iraqi government could protect itself both within and without, the bloodshed would be, would be, unimaginable.
So, there is a responsibility there, plus, I think they have been given a great opportunity, in these last months, to stand up and create a stable government, so I think Iraq would have lost an opportunity to really become one of the more stable governments, in the future, obviously it is a long term consideration, but, a consideration nonetheless.
SD: That just about it, I wanted to get enough of the Ten Weeks to Testimony, is there anything we haven’t covered that you feel is important to say?
Hegseth: No, I think we are very focused on these ten weeks and affecting the debate and certainly we will be involved after that in different ways, maybe in a less specific and campaign driven way because the debate won’t end with Petraeus, it will just start.
What we want to do is set the conditions for a fair reception for what he reports and that is what we are trying to do and then beyond that we are going to continue to make sure that our voice is heard in the debate.
SD: The last time you were in the Capitol, I remember seeing some disappointment expressed that it was only the Republican politicians that would meet with you and the Democratic politicians sent their aides but none of them would actually meet with you. Do you expect that to be different this time?
Hegseth: We hope so. We are going to give, we are going to ask for meetings with Republicans and Democrats alike, with the same amount of advance notice and we would expect and hope that the Democrats would meet with us as well.
I think they were able to hide behind the fact that it was short notice last time, and say well, the Senators have other meetings and other things and this is very short notice, yet, if you want to make it happen, you can and a lot of Republican Senators did, we hope this time with plenty of advance notice, that we will be received fairly on that side as well.
SD: I have one last question that just got written out and put in front of me. If you were in charge, if you were in General Petraeus’s position or President Bush’s, what would you do to get our troops home, as soon as possible and end the war?
Hegseth: In order to get our folks home as soon as possible, which is what we all want, and to end the war as soon as possible, which is what we all want, I would add another 50,000 troops and I would implement what we are doing more quickly and in more places throughout the country, because it is proven effective, it is effective, 50,000, I’d make it 100,00 and I would say this is a mission worth winning, we are going to commit to winning it, and I know that we need additional resources to do so on a larger scale, because what we are doing right now with the Baghdad security plan and its important, the center of gravity and the focus and I agree with it wholeheartedly, but I think we could do it with more troops elsewhere in quicker succession and really show the Iraqi’s that we mean it.
In doing so it would save American lives, shorten the time line of how long we are in Iraq, and bring about a successful outcome.
SD: To follow up on that, we hear a lot of rhetoric saying we don’t have enough troops. Do we have enough troops to do as you just suggested?
Hegseth: I believe we do and I think it is going to take more time, so if our battle is against time, that’s why I would say, lets add more, people say we don’t have them, we do, it would take an initiative and an effort to call up guys like myself and others that were still in the Guard and have only done one tour and say, hey you’re going again, and we are going to get this done and I think you would get a strong response from troops saying we want to complete the mission. We do have enough, we are going to do it, we have enough, its fine on a longer time line and if we focus first on Baghdad and then move elsewhere, it is doable.
SD: Pete, I can’t thank you enough for taking time, everything you have done in the past, everything you are doing right now. I have taken much more time than you probably have. Thank you very much.
Hegseth: Thank you for what you are doing to spread the word, without folks like yourself, your sticking your neck out too, promoting and talking about this stuff. Without what you do, no one would know about who we are and what we are trying to do, so I really appreciate it. Sorry it took this long to chat, but if you ever need anything in the future, just call me flat out and I am good with my voicemails and everything and I will get right back to you.
End of Interview
(NOTE: Anti war group MoveOn.org is launching a media campaign as we were told in the Vets For Freedom email alert, so it is important to counter that. Below I will list the first 5 weeks of the Ten Weeks to Testimony, please visit them and see what you can do to counter the retreat in defeat efforts)
[Update] 8/16/07- Vets for Freedom reminds us that today is important, there is work to do to counter groups like MoveOn.org:
Just a quick reminder - today is our "Cost of Defeat" Call-in Campaign day. Don't forget to call your members of Congress and remind them what the "cost of defeat" would be if they vote to undercut General Petraeus and the mission in Iraq in September.
You should have received an email on Tuesday explaining the "Call-in Campaign." You can read more about the Call-in campaign here. This page outlines who to call first (your two Senators and one Representative), who to call next (10 additional Senators), and provides phone numbers, talking points, and call scripts.
Please take 20 minutes today to make these phone calls. Help us support General Petraeus and the mission in Iraq. Help us allow our troops to defeat America's enemies. And help us counter the messages of MoveOn.org and other anti-war groups.
Don't forget to email us at email@example.com when you've completed the calls so we can monitor the size of our impact!
(spelling corrections made to this post)