Two Fathers Remember Sons Killed in Afghanistan

My son first Lt. Jonathan Brostrom was killed in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008. More than 200 insurgents attacked him and his troops as they were constructing a combat outpost in the village of Wanat, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Jonathan, 24, was only two weeks away from returning home, but his superiors wanted the outpost ready for the incoming unit. Eight soldiers died alongside him, and 27 others were wounded, making the battle one of the war's deadliest. During the fighting, American air and artillery support leveled the village, and two days later the U.S. abandoned Wanat.

Jonathan's chain of command had deemed the village critical to accomplishing U.S. counterinsurgency objectives. Given the terrain, and the heavy concentration of insurgents in the Waygal Valley, a company- or battalion-size force was needed. But Jonathan was given only additional weapons and a small contingent of Afghan National Army soldiers who were not well trained. During his five days there, he reported increasing enemy forces observing his location and a critical lack of defensive matériel, concerns that were met with indifference by his superiors. An Afghan construction firm that was key to the success of the outpost endeavor didn't think the drive was safe to make. Jonathan's platoon ran low on water while trying to work in 100-degree heat; their ability to dig and complete fighting positions was compromised. A Predator surveillance drone covering Jon's platoon was redirected on day two.

I talked to my son at length during his midtour break two months before the battle of Wanat. I was concerned that his unit had never received the appropriate cultural and environmental training before deploying (trained for operations in Iraq, Jonathan's 173rd Airborne Brigade was sent to Afghanistan at the last minute). One night he showed me combat videos; one was of an airstrike on an insurgent who was occupying a house, holding a family hostage. The attack destroyed the home—and damaged others nearby. I told Jonathan that he had just lost the village. But he told me that I didn't get it.

Jonathan's unit had a steep learning curve—Afghanistan is much more complex and dangerous than Iraq. He explained that there was minimal constructive engagement with the local population. His battalion was grossly overextended, causing his platoon to be often put in isolated, high-risk situations. In many cases, there were no Special Forces or Provincial Reconstruction Teams to aid in working with local Afghans. In some instances, he operated without critical air or artillery support. Other efforts were marred by "kinetic diplomacy," which just antagonized the population. Trying to win hearts and minds is the right thing to do, but it's impossible without the required training and appropriate resources once troops are on the ground.

Wanat, and a host of similar incidents in Afghanistan, are grim reminders that you can't fight a counterinsurgency war on the cheap. When a four-star Army general called to offer his condolences, I asked him about our strategy's shortcomings. He conveyed that the Army was not about to "knee jerk" more troops into a place like Afghanistan and upset the "dwell time" the Army had worked hard to schedule. He said that, unfortunately, Afghanistan had become an "economy of force" with no clear "end-state." But the goal shouldn't be to achieve success with less. Months before Wanat, Gen. David McKiernan requested that 30,000 more troops be sent to Afghanistan. The Bush administration shunned him. It shouldn't have—and the current administration should not second-guess Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for about 40,000 troops. As the president weighs his options, more soldiers and Marines die fighting without the resources and strategic vision they need.

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. The approach denies our men artillery and airstrikes when they need support. (For example, the day before Josh's death, his unit was fired on from a nearby cave. But an airstrike was denied because the rules of engagement were not met; the pilot couldn't see the enemy.) It encourages the Taliban to take up offensive positions in populated areas and attack from points off-limits to U.S. forces. And the Taliban are free to plant IEDs—or pay locals to plant them—in areas where they know Americans will be patrolling. Most fundamentally, the McChrystal strategy turns over control of the battle space to the enemy by virtue of the fact that we have chosen not to control it ourselves. If we're not bringing our entire force to bear against the enemy, then what sort of protection are we providing? We're already at a disadvantage: we are the infidels--foreign occupiers who know nothing of the local language, faith, or familial structures--and offering us assistance is akin to aligning with the Devil.

The president said the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity—the "good" war. But the military command is making bad choices: General McChrystal's rules of engagement have led to mounting and unnecessary casualties. His strategy is pie in the sky; it assumes that, if we hold our fire, we can somehow mold the Afghan people into our image. That's ignorant and arrogant—it assumes the Afghan people want our way of life. And it's wrongheaded. We are Americans—the focus needs to be on preserving American lives first. My son's life was taken. I want to know that other sons and daughters are given a chance to win.

Read Bernard's blog.