Over the weekend we posted a long message from Lt. Peter Hegseth. Lt. Hegseth, originally from Forest Lake, Minnesota, is a graduate of Princeton University now serving in Iraq with the New Jersey Army National Guard. We pulled our original post of Lt. Hegseth’s message based on OPSEC (Operational Security) concerns of readers and the author. Nevertheless, Lt. Hegseth wants to get word out about the work in which he is engaged and his belief in the mission. We are proud to have his confidence in posting this edited version of his message:
Family & Friends,
I hope and pray that this message finds you all well. I think about you all often, looking forward to the next time I’ll see everyone in Minnesota, New York, California and beyond. Ah, just thinking of our blessed country makes me smile. We are so fortunate, so blessed. Hard work, courage, and the hand of Providence have brought us peace and prosperity from sea to shining sea. Daily life in the States distorts our perspective, we get petty and particular; but from Iraq, America shines on the horizon, her flaws minimized by distance and her virtues magnified by comparison. Wise men built our country on timeless ideals and she still stands strong today. Now, more than a world away, Iraq must find her own “wise men”…
…I’ve waited patiently to send this email because recently I’ve spent many nights sitting at my computer, mixed emotions brewing inside of me, poised to fire off an “Iraq is doomed” email. There is no doubt that the situation in Samarra and throughout Iraq is full of problems. Corruption is rampant, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still under-manned and under-equipped, the insurgents continue to attack and sectarian violence brews beneath the surface (but not in 95% Sunni Samarra). In Samarra, the city still suffers from decrepit infrastructure, no judicial system (cowardly judge) and insufficient health facilities. And yesterday my patrol was two blocks away when an officer from the local police was gunned down in cold blood while leaving his mosque after evening prayers. Admittedly, there are more nights that I go to bed shaking my head horizontally than vertically. However, this is not the entire picture – and is a dangerously narrow one.
Rather, days like today – and many other that I distinctly remember – are better indicators of progress in Samarra. In a fury of activity that reeked of civility, today the leaders of Samarra took huge steps forward. The Mayor of Samarra met with the Police Chief and local gas station owners to develop a plan to end black market fuel. He also tasked many different city directorates to improve services with new incoming Iraqi funding. The City Council President met with the leaders of the Iraqi Army and MOI Commandos to seek consensus on security objectives in the city. Lastly – and probably most telling – in the former hot spot of Samarra, insurgents have failed to mount a single significant attack in the city for almost two weeks (yesterday’s murder excluded). May not sound like much to the casual observer, but when placed in context it reveals incredible institutional progress. This place used to be an insurgent haven and Baathist cesspool. But after thirty year of tyrannical rule in which Saddam controlled absolutely everything – the leaders in Samarra are finally grasping the power of political, economic and social initiative. Entrepreneurialism and ambition were deadly attributes to possess under Saddam, but not so today.
After cutting through the sensationalized violence, the overall picture in Samarra and Iraq is getting better. The Samarra Police are conducting daily patrols in the city – not so four months ago. The Iraqi Army has conducted numerous dismounted patrols throughout the city, stopping to engage local citizens and give toys to children – not so four months ago. The Mayor and City Council President have both made trips to Tikrit (Provincial Capital) to engage the Governor and Provincial Council on funding for Samarra – not even conceivable four months ago. The City Council President just released a U.S. quality newspaper for the city which condemns the actions of insurgents and advocates rebuilding efforts and recruiting for Iraqi Security Forces – the previous paper was shut down due to insurgent influence. Lastly, our Battalion has killed the “who’s who” of insurgents in Samarra – something two previous units were unable to do. Progress is everywhere, it just gets lost in the daily frustrations of counterinsurgency.
I can say this without hesitation – things are getting better in Samarra. You wouldn’t know it driving through the city (or visiting for a week) because the place is still a dump. But the people in the city see the progress in the national and local government, as well as the local Police (hence yesterday’s act of intimidation). And in a counterinsurgency fight, gaining the strategic sympathies of the people is fundamental to achieving victory. The people are coming around; the grip of fear is loosening. Insurgents are fleeing and people are coming out of survival mode; locals are once again willing to bid on projects, more roadside bombs are being reported than detonating on soldiers, and young men are signing up for the ISF in bunches. I only pray that we maintain the pace of progress. The lack of insurgent attacks has created a power void in the city – and courageous men are stepping up. When the history of this city is written, their names will stand atop the list of true “freedom fighters.” As one of them said recently, “we are the true Mujahadeen (Holy Warriors) in Samarra.”
Inevitably, that brings me to the topic of America’s timeline in Iraq. The progress made in this country – and in Samarra – has not come without significant sacrifice in blood, swear & treasure. But as I’ve said before, we must see this thing through. The battle for the future of Iraq (and stability in the Middle East) is messy, but we are progressing. Most of the country is relatively quiet, minus a few localized hot spots like Ramadi and sections of Baghdad. Most people go about their daily activities, striving for a better life. Institutions are growing and maturing and hope for the national government is growing. Most Sunnis I’ve spoken with have high hopes for the new (Shia) Prime Minister and his government, but you wouldn’t gather any of this from the daily papers.
A recent quote from a former member of the White House emphasizes the necessary historical perspective. “One might hope our own [U.S.] democratic development — which included the Articles of Confederation and a “fiery trial” that cost more than 600,000 American lives — would remind critics that we must sometimes be patient with others. We are engaged in an enterprise of enormous importance: helping a traumatized Arab nation become stable, free and self-governing. Success isn’t foreordained — and neither is failure… The process of democratic reform has begun, and now would be precisely the wrong time to lose our nerve and turn our back on the freedom agenda. It would be a geopolitical disaster and a moral calamity.” Regardless of pre-war opinions, we have a duty to finish what we’ve started. Have we brought daily violence to Iraq? Yes. Have we made costly strategic and tactical errors? Yes. But can we still “win” peace, stability and freedom for the men, women and children of Iraq? Yes. And for that reason, we must press on. We must keep a long view.
Above my little work area, I have one sign posted front and center. It reads “They want to believe…” and my time in Samarra has confirmed this maxim. The Iraqi people will never love us, nor will they overtly praise our efforts. However, despite the violence and our tragic missteps, the silent majority of Samarrans want to believe. They want to believe in the legend that is America. They want to believe that we can do anything. They want to believe that we came to rebuild their city and to rid their streets of “terrorists.” Now, the pressure is on us to deliver. Now is not the time for a troop draw-down, it is time to deliver. Bring the American GIs in by the boatloads; we have the insurgents on the ropes in Samarra and if our fair city is any indication of greater-Iraq, then send even more troops so we can finish them off! Now is the time to prove our message of progress and hope, to fulfill the promises we have offered.
Admittedly, this is an optimistic perspective, but it is based in reality. I walk the streets of Samarra frequently and talking to her citizens every time. We’ve spent the past month executing an ongoing mission called Operation Broken Windows (named after the policing approach made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in NYC). We saturate certain neighborhoods with basic projects – painting over graffiti, picking up trash, providing medical care and talking to locals. After getting over the initial unfamiliarity, the people are always happy to see us, with one man emphatically asking me “Where have you been!?” Due to the violence of the past two years, the large projects are slow in coming, but they will come; and in the meantime, showing immediate, tangible assistance is extremely important. The people are receptive, especially as we kill the insurgents, train the Police and grow the government.
That said, could the situation in Samarra go south? Yes, in a heartbeat. If the certain city leaders are killed, the ISF crumbles, or the insurgents are able to regain strength, all the progress we’ve made could be erased. [Notice that all three of those scenarios are more likely with a drawback in U.S. troops]. It is always easier to destroy than to build and the insurgents exploit this fact with cowardly attacks on infrastructure and innocents. At this juncture in Samarra, the worse case scenario would be if the problems of other areas in Iraq seeped into our city. The Shia militias remain a huge problem in other parts of the country and eventually something is going to give. Politics 101: Within its borders, a government must possess the exclusive right to the use of violence. Coalition Forces and Iraqi Security Forces are not yet ‘exclusive’ and until we are, lawlessness will prevail. But we grow closer every day…
[F]eel free to pass this email to anyone – the more the word gets out the better. I wish I could stand on a rooftop and tell everyone the truth about Iraq (good and bad), but this list must suffice for now. When I get back, I hope to get the opportunity to share my experience in various forums and mediums…’Inshallah’ (God willing).
With that I sign off. Please do not hesitate to say hello – I’d love to hear the latest.
God bless you and God bless the United States of America,
Peter Hegseth, 1LT
Civil-Military Operations (S5)
3-187 IN, 101st Airborne Div.
1LT Peter Hegseth
HHC/3-187 IN, 3 BCT
101st Airborne Division
APO, AE 09393
Lt. Hegseth adds that he enjoys following up on questions readers may have concerning his message.