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.
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.