Jake Tapper, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (Little Brown and Company, New York 2012), 673pp. $29.99.
On October 3, 2009, an assembled impromptu force of hundreds of Afghans overran a deeply vulnerable U.S. outpost, killing eight American soldiers. In retracing this tragic battle and the events that led to it, Jake Tapper has written perhaps the best book set in Afghanistan to date.
This deeply researched book covers the four successive cavalry squadrons -- reconnaissance units of about 300 soldiers, mostly men -- who serve in what will become known as Combat Outpost (or COP) Keating. Albeit written without ever visiting the small outpost of the title, Tapper traces its three-year (plus) history from its establishment in the summer of 2006 through the major attack on the base in October 2009. The COP would be destroyed by American airpower just days later, denying its use to local Afghans. Tapper's narrative arc clearly lays out the human drama, which, in full disclosure, involves friends and acquaintances of mine from my previous military service. I know these men well enough to know that Tapper has accurately captured them.
At one level, this book is simply a piece of tightly crafted narrative non-fiction. Divided into three sections, with a very helpful list of the shifting cast of characters, Tapper chronicles life in this desolate piece of remote, and majestically beautiful, Eastern Afghanistan. The work depicts the all-too-human struggles encountered, from the physical challenges of the soldiers on the ground, to those more strategic and moral with which the more senior officers wrestle.
While Tapper clearly admires his subjects, this book is no whitewash. With the possible exception of then-Lieutenant Andrew Bunderman who finds himself unexpectedly in command during the attack, there are no unambiguous heroes. But Bunderman is a rare under-developed character. Elsewhere, compromised situations force compromised decisions, from the seniors leaders to the privates on the ground. Perhaps because Tapper never embedded with these units, instead reconstructing events post hoc, he maintains an admirable detachment, highlighting flaws even in those men he most clearly admires. This narrative alone is more than worth the price of admission.
Tapper is equally effective at capturing the Army's socio-economic breadth and depth, adding nuance and texture to the oft-depicted cliché of a divide between officers and grunts. Upper middle class officers such as Michael Howard, Chris Kolenda and Brad Brown, who despite having command responsibility for Keating (and numerous other bases), did not live there or share its hardships, come to life in the narrative. So do Keating's more humble denizens, such as both the newly married, recently orphaned Ryan Fritsche, who dies on a hillside near the outpost under the tenure of the second occupying squadron, and the Army mechanic and de facto bigamist Vernon Martin, who perishes in the final battle some years later.
However, the book works most powerfully as a metaphor for the entire Afghanistan project. In the cycle of four units relieving each other over the course of three years, the mood comes full circle. The first squadron shows great enthusiasm, ignoring the clear tactical vulnerability of an outpost in a valley in order to be near to the Afghan villagers. Three years later, this inherent vulnerability and ineffectiveness can no longer be ignored, but the last unit cannot marshal the resources necessary to close the base before it is over-run. While the commanders of the last unit will shoulder much of the official blame, it is not clear that they could have done any more than the final commanders of a similarly indefensible valley fortress, at Dien Bien Phu-the infamously mis-sited French base in Vietnam, whose similar, if larger scale, vulnerability put an end to the French campaign in IndoChina. Tapper's prologue deals with the incredulous analyst who details the laundry list of reasons why Keating should not be positioned where it was-base of a peak, rivers on two sides, no good road, far away even by helicopter. While the analyst does not use the words "rice bowl" as Viet Mihn General Giap famously did the soon-to-be-surrendered Dien Bien Phu, the sentiment is clearly the same.
In these four units we see the complete cycle that characterizes most encounters with Afghanistan-naïve idealism, then modest success, then decline, then concern....and finally disaster. Perversely, it is the modest successes that encourage continued investment in the campaign. Afghanistan seems to have become a "baited ambush" at all levels of war, with just enough enticement to keep investing. The limited tactical successes of Chris Kolenda (the second squadron commander) give the illusion of military and political progress, though they quickly fade. And at the grand strategic level, the 2009 elections that return President Karzai to power are lauded despite being widely considered fraudulent-because they are. But at both levels, being able to "check the box" on an accomplishment seems to justify more effort. The ability to convince one's self that things are improving, or at least that improvement is "just around the corner," has been instrumental to this decade-long debacle.
The irony, of course, is that the Army, like most American institutions, uses a short-term rewards system. Therefore, the officers (and their civilian advisors) who conceptualized the fatally placed base continue to progress through the ranks, based on their glowing "report cards" for establishing COP Keating. Meanwhile, the commanders who were flabbergasted and scandalized by the placement of the inherited outpost are forever tainted by it being destroyed under their watch.
Tapper has done a two-fold service with this book. First, he lays out a highly engaging narrative that fully engages the reader across three years in one desolate corner of Afghanistan-albeit via the American viewpoint. But more importantly, he provides a window into the false hopes and visions that enabled this failed experiment, an attempt to create government in spaces that had actively avoided such. Tapper shows-without telling-that the United States had, and has, no national interest remaining in Afghanistan, other than eliminating Al Qaeda safe havens. The U.S. presence in general was misguided and the "outposting" push into the remote valleys of Nuristan and Kunar particularly inane. Tapper's characters show the price that was paid-in blood, in careers, in broken relationships, in damaged psyches, not to mention in money.
Tapper's book is not anti-war by any means. But it is anti-stupid war. And he clearly shows that, while there was a clear justification for the overthrow of the Taliban regime, by the time of the events he narrates, this was a war of choice.
A bad choice.
Douglas A. Ollivant, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and a retired Army officer. He spent 12 months in 2010-2011 as the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to the Commander, Regional Command East, Afghanistan. He is on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.