First Impressions

19 July 2011

Kabul, Afghanistan

First Impressions

By CPT Pete Hegseth

It’s been six weeks since we arrived in Afghanistan. Mission orientation has been busy; but I’ve also been intentionally deliberate in wrapping my arms around the big, bad, beast known as Afghanistan. This country—and this ten-year-old conflict—contains umpteen layers, complexities, contradictions, and unknowns. The minute I think I know something, I realize I don’t. Most actions here seem to mask a hidden agenda and/or induce unintended consequences. Official accounts sometimes bear only superficial semblance to reality, and external perceptions rarely align neatly with internal motivations.

As a counterinsurgency instructor, I’ll be focusing the bulk of my efforts—at least initially—on teaching/promoting sustainable governance in counterinsurgency operations, which includes training Afghan ministerial advisors, Afghan Army/Police leaders, Afghan officials, “reintegrated” former Taliban/mujahideen, incoming U.S. units/enablers, and others. We’re also charged with aggregating “best practices” and infusing them into training. Much of the training takes place in Kabul, but thankfully some will include supporting units in the field.

The Strategy and the Surge. Laying aside the President’s recent withdrawal announcement (which is a huge qualifier), the civil-military counterinsurgency strategy being applied across Afghanistan is the right approach; with the surge of 30,000 troops, our forces have been able to clear enemy havens, disrupt enemy networks, and expand the influence of local government and security forces. In the past year, U.S. forces have pushed back the Taliban in the south, expanded the Kabul security bubble, and protected key districts across the country.  Eastern Afghanistan remains fairly restive, however the plan is to shift forces soon (if prematurely) to improve the security situation there before transitioning to Afghan responsibility.

Village Stability Operations. The primary goal of counterinsurgency is to separate the population from the insurgency—physically and psychologically—and alongside sustainable and capable local forces, create an environment inhospitable to insurgent return. Our nation-wide strategy has many components attempting to accomplish this, and one specific village-level program is showing particular promise. Similar to the successful “Combined Action Platoons” in Vietnam, Village Stability Operations (VSO) insert small U.S. elements (mostly Special Forces) into key villages to protect the population. While our conventional infantry brigades focus on the large cities and population centers, these small units clear more remote areas, train Afghan Local Police, and empower local leaders to provide basic services for the people that connect them to their government. It’s a high-risk/high-reward initiative that is intended to squeeze insurgents in their backyard.

Afghan National Army. With each day, the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Army (and to a lesser extent the Afghan National Police) grows stronger.  In the past year, over 80 infantry battalions have been added to the Army alone; recruiting is up, desertion down, literacy growing, and some units are starting to operate independently (although no Army or Police units are yet fully independent of U.S. support).  The Army is 164,000 strong—with plans to grow to 260,000 by 2015. Significant problems persist (like an Afghan military fixated on conventional warfare, obsessed with Pakistan, and always demanding “more equipment!”), but on balance, we are doing everything possible to build an Afghan Army that will outlast us. The Afghan police are less capable and battling serious corruption and training deficiencies, but American trainers are working to right that ship.

Insurgent groups are ruthlessly attacking (and attempting to infiltrate) this growing source of government strength—as they know the future balance of power will be dictated by the capacity and capability of Afghan security forces, especially the Army.  We are countering with more training, more partnering, more vetting, more equipment, and more technology for our Afghan partners.  The financial investment is high, but is cost efficient; especially when you consider the fact that while it costs over $1 million a year to sustain a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, it costs only $12,000 to train, place, and maintain an Afghan soldier for that same year. Our taxes pay for either option, and based on what I’ve seen so far, the Afghan Army is an investment worth making.

Strike (counter-terrorism) Operations. It is incredible how many bad guys (Taliban, Haqqani, Hezb-e Islami, Al Qaeda, etc.) we kill/capture each day and night. America’s special operators are literally rolling up dozens of insurgency commanders, sub-commanders, and facilitators every 24 hours.  Each operation garners intelligence that builds on the next, and our special forces—partnered with increasingly capable Afghan Commandos—have shown an incredible ability to target dangerous insurgent leaders with minimal civilian casualties.  (Even though, when we cause an unfortunate—and rare—civilian casualty, the insurgents exploit the heck out of it).  These operations are decimating insurgent leadership in some areas, and are fundamental to bringing the enemy to its knees, thereby forcing them to crawl—bloodied and battered—to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. It’s not clear we’ve reached that point yet, but these operations are an important part of getting there.

Thank you again for all the prayers and support—especially for my wife Samantha and son Gunner. They are the best…and a proud husband and father can’t resist sending a quick picture of my two favorite people on the 4th of July.

Finally, as I write this from the comfort of my base in Kabul, I urge you to remember the guy—dirty, tired, sweaty, and hungry—on patrol somewhere in no-man’s-land Afghanistan. He is fighting as I type this. We must always remember that, and remember him in our prayers.  He is the linchpin of this effort, and the one who bears the brunt of all the policies we execute.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to forward this email to others. Anyone can sign up for email updates at

Godspeed my friends,

Pete Hegseth

P.S. Many of you have graciously asked for my mailing address, which is below. I will share anything received; except, of course, Dunkin Donuts coffeewhich, for my money, is liquid gold.

CPT Pete Hegseth
Counterinsurgency Training Center—Afghanistan
Camp Julien, Kabul
APO, AE  09320

Note from  Captain Pete Hegseth is currently deployed to Afghanistan, where he is an instructor at the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul. Pete holds the Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman’s Badge for his time in Iraq, and served as Executive Director for Vets for Freedom from 2007-2010, growing the organization to over 95,000 members.