Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jake Tapper's "The Outpost" : A Must Read

Jake Tapper graduated from Dartmouth College with an A.B. in History.  This grounding in history and his story telling skills serve the reader well in his meticulously researched, compelling book, "The Outpost." At its core, the book is about scores of brave, disciplined, creative, resourceful, and committed soldiers whose lives were ended or irrevocably changed by their experiences in Afghanistan.  The fulcrum of the story is the creation, defense and ultimate destruction of Combat Outpost Keating in the remote Kamdesh district of Afghanistan.

Several American administrations have fostered continuing illusions about Afghanistan. Academics have similarly fallen under the same spell, and they still talk about defining "success" in Afghanistan.
The last paragraph of Tapper's 673 page book sums it up perfectly,
"All that I can tell you with certitude is the the men and women of 3-71 Cav, the 1-91 Cav, 6-4 Cav, and especially 3-61 Cav deserved better.  They are heroes, and they have my appreciation and eternal gratitude.  I wish they had a command structure and a civilian leadership that were always worthy of their efforts." 
The story begins with the sentence, "It was madness."  Somehow, undefined levels of the U.S. military command structure decide that they want to build outposts in the province of Nuristan in order to stem the flow of insurgents crossing over the Pakistan border.  The previous brigade commander in the region didn't think Nuristan was of any strategic value, and nothing was known about the ethnic Nuristanis, who stood removed from even the ethnic power structure in Kabul. The command decision was to place the outpost at the bottom of a bowl, surrounded by 10-12,000 foot mountain peaks.  When the sentry post was designed for the outpost, it didn't have a clear, full view of the outpost itself.

Soldiers described the experience of COP Keating as hunting deer from a deer stand---except that our soldiers were the deer.  Supplying the outpost was problematical, except by helicopter transport and even then the landing pad was dangerous.  "Sir, this is a really bad idea. A. Really. Bad. Idea. Anyone we drop off here is going to die."  (Jacob Whittaker, intelligence analyst to his superior officer in the summer of 2006)  Slowly and inexorably, the small contingent at COP Keating was overrun some five years later. 

The command structure in Vietnam and in Afghanistan proved to be remote, uniformed, capricious, subject to political whims on the part of the General staff, and their ideas were not vetted by senior officers who had some first-hand knowledge of the territory.  The Generals are supported by a foreign policy apparatus which is itself out-of-touch and dominated by NGO-types, State Department lifers and consultants. Thus, the role of Pakistan's ISI in supplying men and materiel, including sheltering them over the winter, was ignored until it was too late.  This command structure learned nothing from our war in Vietnam.  As Tapper says, our soldiers deserve better.

Our celebrity Generals like Petraeus and McChrystal are really politicians, except they wear uniforms rather than suits.  Like egomaniacal CEOs, they eventually believe their own press releases. They are too remote from their troops, and they spend their time using the media and trying to manage a President, his National Security Council, and Senators on Capitol Hill.  Seeing people with acres of medals on their chests makes the American public feel....confident that our conflicts are in good hands.  They are not. 

Even when it became clear that COP Keating should be closed, it remained open for political reasons and for the conclusion of the Afghan Presidential election.  

At some point, the Afghanistan strategy changed over to "counterinsurgency," which meant that our troops were to win hearts and minds over to the notion that an American presence was more in the economic and cultural interest of the local population.  The carrots included local development projects which were approved by the Karzai government in Kabul, like bringing mountain waters down to the villages for cooking and drinking.  Local councils, or shura, would guide and oversee the projects.  This all sounds good and is straight out of the NGO and academic playbooks.  Unfortunately, the real specifics of how counterinsurgency was to be carried out were not obvious.

In the case of Kamdesh certain commanders figured out, through their own awareness, emotional intelligence and moxie, how to make counterinsurgency work.  The stories of Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, Captain Joey Hutto and 1-91 Cav are inspiring. They were succeeded by Captain Rob Yllescas who created the "Hundred Man Shura," and convinced his superiors that spending money to support this organization would provide returns in goodwill and safety for the locals and our soldiers. Yllescas forged great relationships with the locals. As a result, he was targeted for assassination by Taliban insurgents and their foreign sponsors. Why?  Because the opposition knew if an American soldier was succeeding in breaking down the propaganda walls about American motives and methods in Afghanistan, then the village elders would become effective partners in an alliance against outside Taliban interests.  

After the death of Captain Yllescas, both the Afghan National Army and the shuras were co-opted and compromised by insurgent infiltration.  The Taliban proposals were simple.  "The Americans will be gone soon.  After their departure, when we return we will remember those who cooperated with them and we will exact a price from you and from your families."  The way out for the locals was to look the other way when strangers infiltrated the village and when insurgents took up new positions on the mountainsides.  The book captures the fact that the fifty odd soldiers assigned to the outpost were intuitively aware of these developments.  As much as they tried to ferret out the truth directly from the ANA and the shura, they were inevitably told lies.  

After the collapse of  COP Keating, the Army inevitably called for an investigation in which it totally absolved its own highest leadership, who were not in the terms of reference of the report.  Instead, several soldiers were to be publicly reprimanded for not taking adequate measures to shore up the outpost's defenses as the threats increased.  Never mind that they didn't have the soldiers, material or time to do this, as they were under steadily increasing attacks.  The bureaucracy always moves to cover itself in its Kafkaesque world.  

In 2006, at the beginning of the book, when soldiers are entering villages introducing themselves as working in partnership with the Karzai government in Kabul, the villagers ask, "Who is Karzai?"  Time in the remote provinces of Afghanistan has stood still.  Villagers were unaware of World War II. They had never seen or felt any influence of a central government in Kabul, except around the time of the Presidential election, in which both sides wantonly stuffed ballot boxes.  

Jake Tapper has recently been elevated into the pantheon of emerging media pundits, taking a high position at CNN as Chief Washington correspondent and taking the time slot of the insufferable Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room.  It's good for Mr. Tapper and his professional career, and well deserved.  However, in this situation, it's not likely that he will be able to do the independent, in-depth work produced in this fine book.  

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