The Battle over the Battle for Hearts and Minds

By Bernard, John | Newsweek, November 30, 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Battle over the Battle for Hearts and Minds


Bernard, John, Newsweek


Byline: John Bernard

Almost four years after I retired from the Marines, our son, Joshua, decided to join the corps. That was December 2006. It was about two and a half years later, on Aug. 14, 2009, when the casualty-assistance officer met my wife and me in our driveway. Josh, 21, had been killed in the town of Dahaneh, in Afghanistan's Helmand province. His unit had been tasked with incorporating about 100 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops into their "attack element." On his third day there, he was point man on a patrol being guided by an Afghan civilian who promised to help them find evidence of the Taliban's presence in the area. But they were led into an ambush. Several rocket-propelled grenades were fired, and one hit Josh. An RPG killed my son--but it's the stubborn, failing vision of U.S. political and military leaders that put him in position to lose his life.

No Marine wants to be saddled, as Josh was, with Afghan soldiers when a potential enemy is in his midst. There's too great a chance for what we call an "operational security" breach, which is exactly what happened. But the Afghans were pushed on the Marines from the command as part of the broader counterinsurgency doctrine being applied in Afghanistan. That scheme aims to train the ANA to take over the job of securing the country as soon as possible, while safeguarding the Afghan population at all costs. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, believes this is accomplished by reining in firepower and reducing the number of civilian casualties.

General McChrystal is too enamored with "hearts and minds"; hearts and minds is not a strategy. To be clear: I don't say this solely because my son was killed implementing this idea. Weeks before Josh's death, I sent a letter to the office of my congressman, Mike Michaud, outlining my worries about counterinsurgency strategy and the rules of engagement.

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