Thursday, December 11, 2014

Heard, Listened, Read: "The Outpost" by Jake Tapper

Heard, Listened, Read:The Outpost: an untold story of American valor by Jake Tapper, 2012, 9780316185394.

I was listening to this on my Overdrive app and the damn title expired. I put it on hold, waited a while, and got the title back. Then the damn thing expired again. I reserved the book and read the last 80 pages or so.

Over 600 pages long. Tapper covers the foolhardy establishment of Camp Kamdesh in 2006 to it's renaming as Combat Outpost Keating, and the massive Taliban attack on Keating in October, 2009.

Tapper's Epilogue includes this sentence, "I did not write this book to convey lessons to be learned, I wrote it so that you as a reader (and I as a reporter) might better understand what it is that our troops go through, why they go through it, and their experience has been like in Afghanistan." Service members will have their own views on Tapper's success but I think he did a very good job.

By necessity Tapper has to cover larger issues because those topics effected the units that served at Keating. The lack of manpower and helicopters in Afghanistan. Poor planning and unrealistic expectations from the White House and Pentagon. But, Tapper focuses on the men who lived and fought at Keating and the surrounding bases and he interviewed over 200 servicemen and family members.

Here is the short form: The Army wanted to expand operations with a base in Nuristan Province. The spot they found was at the base of three mountains and bordered by two rivers and a dirt road. For three years the Army tried to form relationships with the small villages in the area. They tried to build a road to Keating but were constantly ambushed. The road effort was stopped and they had to rely on (too few) helicopters to move people and supplies to the base. Pretty soon the helicopter pilots refused to fly to Keating during the day because they had to pass below insurgents on the mountains and were sitting ducks on the landing zone. Heck, the landing zone was already a dangerous area to land in because of obstacles.  One soldier described Keating as being at the base of Dixie cup with enemy all around the rim.  The Army decided to abandon the base in 2009 and the Taliban organized an attack using several hundred fighters against 40 or so soldiers at Keating.The enemy attacked before the base was abandoned and eight soldiers were killed with 27 wounded.

So many parallels to Vietnam and other guerrilla wars.  Army units stuck in isolated bases trying to make friends with the locals. The enemy are already the friends, neighbors, and relatives of the locals.  The enemy are willing to murder locals who assist the US units.  Soldiers and Marines who spend 6-15 months there and then go home. The new Soldiers and Marines have to learn everything over again. The locals take advantage of the changes in command by saying "we were promised a bridge...a school...a well...a road" and asking for cash payoffs to ensure local security. Local troops with little motivation to fight and resistance to training. Enemy that slip back and forth over a national border with refuge in the neighboring territory.

The location was always awful and everyone knew it. The location was supposed to be temporary.
Soldiers could not go anywhere without getting shot at. The roads were crap and vehicles larger than Humvees would not physically fit and heavier vehicles would collapse the road's edges and slide downhill.  Helicopter resupply was tough because there were not enough helicopters and the insurgents would shoot at them.

Different Army units had different philosophies on how to fight the war. Some would be super aggressive and search the towns for enemy. Others would work to establish a local council of elders to start relationships through personal interaction and money.  Construction projects were a source of cash in a dirt poor area and the Army officers would withhold payment if the enemy attacked - they expected the locals to help keep the bad guys away.

"War on the cheap." Everything went to Iraq. I agree with one soldier's comments that you could argue about the legitimacy of invading Iraq but that Afghanistan was a valid war meant to go after Al Queda and Bin Laden. But, all the men and helicopters went to Iraq. One guy took over an outpost with less men then the unit before and his unit was still listed as "overstrength". When asking the administration to increase the number of troops - they needed 30,000 more - the response was to ask NATO allies to send more people. The allies were much more pragmatic and recognized that the current situation was fucked up.

Who was right, who was wrong? Who planned well, who fucked up? Tapper seems to do well showing different views of what happened for the time the Outpost was there. The tactics of local commanders to sway the local Afghans, ideas on how to fight and where to fight. How Army units differed in temperament and philosophy. Each new unit wanted to do things their way. Each new unit was dedicated to the work but, heck, they were there for a such a relatively short time, however much they accomplished could be abandoned by the next unit that wanted to do things a different way.

Heck, I'm sitting at home, staring at a screen, petting the dog and my children are safe in their bedrooms. I wasn't there. I can pontificate about plenty of things but I'll stop here.

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