Vets for Freedom Hope to Impact Media and Political Class

War veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been touring the country over the past few weeks in an effort to focus public attention on recent strategic gains in the war against terrorism. Vets for Freedom(VFF) is a non-partisan organization with 20,000 members and 44 chapters. Captain Pete Hegseth, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2005 and part of 2006, serves as the executive director.

The VFF's "National Heroes Tour" was launched aboard the U.S.S. Midway in San Diego, California in mid-March and included stops in Los Angeles; Phoenix, Ariz.; San Antonio, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Columbia, S.C. and Virginia Beach, Va. Today the Vets are visiting Capitol Hill where they are working to persuade members of Congress to fully support the military mission in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The tour continues up to New York City tomorrow.

In wide ranging interview Hegseth discussed some of the tactical changes that have enabled the U.S. military to forge new alliances and to go on the offensive against Al Qaeda. The U.S. is now better equipped for the purpose of counter-insurgency as a result of some the lessons learned in Iraq Hegseth explains. Moreover, with momentum shifting decisively away from the terrorists over 90,000 "Sons of Iraq" are now standing up in partnership with the U.S. to help secure the country, he points out.

Nevertheless, the strategic gains are fragile and can be reversed if policymakers withdraw U.S. forces before the mission is complete, Hegseth warns.

NewsBusters: Can you describe some the key factors responsible for the U.S. military's recent success in Iraq, what has been from previous missteps, and how Al Qaeda's mistreatment of the population helped to forge new alliances?

HEGSETH: Yes, I think for sure Al Qaeda in its destructive nature overplayed its hand and so that is part of sowing those seeds of success. They thought it would be a tactical victory to blow up a Shia mosque and trigger a civil war - instead what they did is they reared their ugly head and showed their true self - with the Iraqi people not being a population prone to radicalism rejected - they don't want to live under sharia law - they don't want to be told they can't smoke and that they're women must be completely covered. So when Al Qaeda came in and tried to impose its world view on the population - and was blowing up houses of worship and killing innocents in the markets and cutting off heads and putting them in the street the Iraqi people said enough is enough.

HEGSETH: And in addition to our strategy I think Al Qaeda in a sick and twisted way that I would never call fortunate -- we benefited from our previous failures and our inability to protect the population because Al Qaeda did impose itself and the population said we don't want this. We don't like the Americans but I sure as heck don't like Al Qaeda and I'm willing to temporarily side with Americans so they Al Qaeda don't have the chance to set up an Islamic state.

NB: What has past year in 2007 taught us about counter-insurgency strategy? In what ways has the U.S. military been retooled. Is it fair to say we are better prepared now for some of the challenges that we might face in the years ahead because of some of the growing pains?

HEGSETH- I think we are more well prepared now then we were two or three years ago. We now have a doctrine, that's how we prepare, how we train. It's how we prepare junior leaders. We didn't have this in 2005. So if you were an infantry platoon leader that wants to conduct counter-insurgency, what manual do you go to -- You're looking at an old dusty manual from the 1980s that talks about Soviet guerillas - you're not looking at real dynamics that we are facing today.

HEGSETH: And so we have that -but I think it was more of a leadership issue. Some of those officers who have been in Iraq are now in leadership positions -- these are the folks who really understand the dynamics on the ground. Because if you are going to institute counter-insurgency on the fly it takes leaders that understand it and are willing to hold people accountable underneath to enforce counter-insurgency. Because as an infantryman that's not taught or trained to do - not taught to protect population or to police the streets you are taught to kill and capture and close with the enemy.

HEGSETH: It's a new concept to tell a young platoon leader or staff sergeant you're going to be out there and sometimes not a good idea to fire back when you're shot at because the targets you hit are the unintended consequence of that fire and could have more damage, then whether or not you kill one insurgent in process because every time you incorrectly kill civilian you're creating more enemies. Creating that understanding within the army is not an easy thing.

HEGSETH: But I think the year of 2007 will be seen as the year of counterinsurgency it will be the year the Americans figured out Iraq and protected the population. I think it will be seen as tipping point in this war. I think 06 was year of Al Qaeda when they really triggered a civil war. They created an unprecedented amount of violence in Iraq. In 07 we finally got our hands around it and responded to it and dampened that violence. And in 08 it's a window of opportunity. It's a year where we can either maintain that stability and capitalize on it with political success or allow precipitous withdraw that allows some of gains to be ceded.

NB: We are dealing with what has been described as asymmetrical challenges to the U.S. but are there ways that we can go asymmetrical on Al Qaeda

HEGSETH: In Iraq?

NB: In Iraq but anywhere the principle can be applied. Some of our policymakers have suggested that Iraq is more properly viewed as just one field out of many in this larger war.

HEGSETH: Yes, that's how I see it - it's one part of the larger war.

I think we go asymmetrical with Al Qaeda when we take away the human and physical terrain that the normally need to survive in - Al Qaeda benefits because they think we are bull in a china shop - if they needle us we are going to respond with overwhelming firepower the population does not like - and therefore they will look to Al Qaeda for protection because they don't trust us -what Al Qaeda didn't expect was for us to move into the neighborhoods, go into every single household - sit down with our helmets and talk to the people -- what do you need, how can we help you - how can we protect you - and by doing that we earn their strategic sympathies and we go totally asymmetrical on them because now Al Qaeda is the one that's afraid.

HEGSETH: It's not the Americans driving around in the neighborhood afraid to get blown up - it's not the civilians waiting for Al Qaeda to knock on their door and take the son who they think is helping the Americans. Instead Al Qaeda is fearful because they don't know who is snitching on them -- because in the middle of night we're now driving into their neighborhoods -- pulling them out of bed and knowing exactly who Al Qaeda is.

HEGSETH: And there are asking themselves well who told, I use to walk this market and I was the top dog and everyone was afraid to rat on me - well now the Americans and Iraqi forces are coming into neighborhoods plucking us out of bed and my friends in the middle of the night. Somebody is talking but don't know who it is. And the beauty of that is now the fear has been turned onto them and now they're forced to react to what we're doing and that's been the fundamental tipping point in the neighborhoods with the population, their sympathies shifed and that's a completely asymmetrical aspect of warfare because we use to think we could kill and capture these guys -and now we're instead using the human intelligence we should have been tapping into the whole time.

NB: There's a phenomenon at work here among Iraqis, this movement has been described as the Sons of Iraq, sometimes called concerned local citizens. There are apparently 80,000 or so. Are they former insurgents, is the purely Sunni or is this a broader movement?

HEGSETH: - I understand it's actually as high as 91,000 and I call it a grassroots Iraqi surge. I think that's really what it is and first of all people don't understand that 25 percent of these guys are Shia, which is important because everyone believes it is all Sunni, and that's not accurate. Certainly this movement started in Anbar and is for the most part a Sunni movement. But these guys when they stand up to defend their neighborhood - we fingerprint, we retinal scan them, we run them through both American and Iraqi databases, both national and local. So what you've probably got are the guys that were putting in IEDs or trafficking in munitions or moving weapons - or maybe even shooting at Americans. You probably have some of these guys in the Sons of Iraq.

HEGSETH: Gen. [David] Petraeus puts them in 2 categories - you have the reconcilables and you have the radicals that need to be killed or captured and there is a certain segment of male population that will go whichever way the power balance is moving. And so now they t see the power balance going back in our direction and we're able to give them paycheck and give them dignity to stand on corner and defend neighborhood - it was not that they hated Americans, they just thought Al Qaeda was legitimately defending their neighborhood, now we've given them an alternative.

HEGSETH: But because of the vetting process - we do not have the hard core insurgents, they are not born fighters or insurgent leaders. They are your rank and file 18 to 19 year olds that were caught up in the struggle. And part of any counter-insurgency is ensuring the folks who were pointing their weapons at you are no longer pointing their weapons at you and are siding within you -- because you need a trusted indigenous force to take over for that foreign element temporarily providing security, which is what we've done.

HEGSETH: The Sons of Iraq serve as that stop gap between - because we are not ready to go immediately from American to Iraqi security forces - so that extra layer are these local folks who are willing to stand on their own corner with their own weapons - they're paid by us now - but goal is to integrate into Iraqi security forces. So I think they are best kept secret about why this has turned.

NB: As a result of the databases you are building in these neighborhoods you know who belongs, if there is someone there who is not fingerprinted, your thought is well who is this guy.

HEGSETH: Yes, that's the other part. To be with the Sons of Iraq and to be a concerned local citizen you have to stand a post in the neighborhood, in which you live, so these guys know whose an insider and whose an outsider - and then we've gone out and finally done census on the population and so we know who lives on what streets and what house and so if we show up and find well this use to be a family now it's five military age males and we must ask what are you doing and where did you come from - show me your papers - and then they run their papers against these databases - and we find for instance okay these guys are actually from Syria, from Falljuah and now they've recently moved into Doura and Baghdad and there are five of them and they've got bruises. There are easy ways to narrow down who should and shouldn't be there.

NB: That's something you're doing in tandem with the Iraqis?

HEGSETH: That's something initially the Americans were doing - but now it's in tandem with the Iraqis. I think ultimately most Americans want to turn it over to Iraqis as quickly as possible.

NB: Now you also have a statement here - our ability to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the police force and to help them find jobs, upward mobility - this will determine whether or not these gains translate into long term stability, how accommodating, the Iraqi government has been toward that process.

HEGSETH: Well --that is the question -we have a window of opportunity - Not all of these Sons of Iraq will be integrated into police force - you've got a Shia government that inherently doesn't trust them [the Sunnis]- They look at this sort of Sunni grassroots surge and ask well are these just militas that are biding their time to then eventually take on the government, so there is a level of fear there and not all of these guys are going to get jobs - so what happens when A - there are not paid and B they are not treated the way they should by the central government.

NB: But is this not a golden opportunity for the central government.

HEGSETH: Oh absolutely I think we are starting to see the central government come to understand that the Sunnis are not going away and they are going to defend their neighborhood. We've got them in a pretty good spot where they put down their weapons and they just want a job. They want a stake in the future of Iraq - and when I was in Iraq I started to see the national health minister finally visited Doura, a prominent Sunni neighborhood, to make a commitment to the hospitals there - to say we are going to send you supplies you deserve to have -- it's incremental steps like that, none of which you can have unless you have a secure environment.

HEGSETH: In the past we've been trying to hold elections, train security and go all these great things, B,C and D, without ever doing step A, which is to protect the population and to bring the violence down - because if don't bring the violence down, won't get anyone to reconcile - if you are more afraid of going from house to parliament - then you are about making political compromise, nothing is ever doing to get done - now these guys are not afraid to move around the capital and do different things, that's why you're seeing national legislation get passed - and you're starting to see some of these ministers move into local areas - I only think we've the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the potential for the reconciliation.

HEGSETH: That's why I get impatient with domestic debate -where we hear about how there hasn't been able political progress. Well they've really only set their weapons down for a full month -- lets give them a little time in a country that doesn't really understand democracy. You've got a society that was built for dictatorship and is now trying to learn democracy.

NB: Do the Iraqis have nationalistic inclinations, do they think of themselves as one country

HEGSETH: There's a lot of mistrust - but they do have is a fierce pride for a non-sectarian past. When you talk to individuals on the street - they will say there is no Sunni, there is no Shia before Saddam, even during Saddam they will say Shia were marrying Sunni, Shia were working for Sunni

HEGSETH: Some of this might be rhetorical and overblown -- but at the same this sectarian clash that we've seen is not by nature the way Sunni, Shia and Kurds have gone at eachother in Iraq. You had radical elements exacerbate the situation. Al Qaeda came in and exploited the Sunni population by using them to take on the Shia elements.

HEGSETH: But once you get rid of those chief accelerants - one of the main points of the surge is to take out Al Qaeda - so that now that Al Qaeda can't perpetrate car bombings and suicide bombings that triggered the retaliations from the Shia, so that violence dropped down - and it wasn't that masses shia and sunni going after each other, it was you had these accelerants, and now we've gotten rid of those accelerants and the population is taking a breath

HEGSETH: As far as overall nationalistic identity, I think there's some of that there - you see it when the Iraq soccer team wins, and everyone celebrates - there is some of that there but it is not going to burst out in cooperation anytime soon - but I do think will start to see non-sectarian past come back and benefit them - it just that everyone needs to take breath so many deep scars and mistrust that any of us would have - imagine if protestants and Catholics started killing each-other here in the U.S. - if you're not immediately going to start embracing and trusting each other - it's going to take time - I think they will get there but it's going to take time.

NB: American casualties from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) have been dramatically reduced at least overall. But they have gone recently in Mosul, does this reflect the fact that the battlefield has moved?

HEGSETH: I think that is the reflection of the battlefield shift. Al Qaeda is making its last stand up in Mosul and I didn't ever realize how large Mosul is - 1.8 million people, it's a substantial population up there - I think its vying to be the second largest city. It has a a substantial Shia, Sunni and Kurdish mix up there - and a AQ has lost its haven in Baghdad, Diayal and even Salahuddin province - and they have moved north into Mosul where they are hoping to make their stand.

HEGSETH: So all the tactics they use and the weapons, and the ways they approach things including IEDs are being transported up to Mosul - I think that's why seeing casualty rates jump there - just like we did at the beginning of the surge - when we pushed into neighborhoods where we hadn't been before - we saw American deaths go up - in April, May, June time fame - it was big spike, it was because we were pushing into places we had never been - I think we are going to see that in Mosul as well, as we try to apply those principles. - I hope we have enough guys up in Mosul. I haven't looked at the whole problem set up there - we do ourselves a disservice if we went this far and then really didn't clamp down on Mosul and not allow a haven elsewhere. These Sons of Iraq have really made it difficult for AQ to find a haven.

NB: So we are preparing an offensive into Mosul?

HEGSETH: Oh yes and I heard a commander say they believe they can have Mosul quiet by JulY. There are many consider who consider Mosul to be Al Qaeda's final urban stronghold. They will always try to find somewhere else to bounce, small amounts - but they are getting smaller and have less places to bounce to.

NB: We have a volunteer force now, now and as a result many Americans do not have that direction connection with the military that we did in previous generations. How does this impact the public's relationship with the military?

HEGSETH: Well the percentages of people that have necessarily invested in the war effort - I think that will be one thing that comes out of this - you will have a small percentage - 0.5 percent - of the population - that feels like have invested and shouldered the burden of the war. President Bush has been a great supporter of the troops but at same time says everyone else goes shopping to support the war and I think there's a level of frustration in the veterans community about that because guys are going on their second and third tour and have really made a sacrifice and don't feel like the country has shared that sacrifice.

HEGSETH: Your current generation of veterans in this conflict will say we did the best we could with what we had and I think everyone is grateful for support back home - whereas in Vietnam the veterans did not feel welcome but that's not happing now. I think collectively our country learned you can't be spitting on the troops when they come home. But I also think this whole I support the troops but not the war is nonsense.

NB: So a receptacle has not been created for getting average Americans involved in the war effort?

HEGSETH: That's probably my largest critique with the war effort and the president because I support what he's doing now and I think he's got the resolve to finish this job. I even sat in the oval office with other vets and that question was asked of him. Why have not asked the country to sacrifice sufficiently and I think he realizes that there may been a window of opportunity that was lost - because it's hard to go back.