Small Wars Journal

The Outpost

I’m offering this blog comment after recent news updates about the Benghazi affair reminded me of Jake Tapper’s The Outpost and how it hadn’t gotten the traction in Army conversations that I thought it would get.  I entered Tapper into the SWJ search engine and the first hit was to a 13 January SWJ editors’ roundup link to Paul Szoldra’s article (Business Insider, January 14, 2014) titled,  “Jake Tapper Is Getting Attacked For Saying What Many Are Thinking About Afghanistan.”  The second hit was to an SWJ book review article by Martin Kuz.  Kuz’ review was thoughtful and thorough.  He covers a number of points, but Tapper’s story makes an especially important accusation that Kuz didn’t highlight.  Tapper put his finger on a failure by American military leaders to respect the principles of operational art.  To me, that was the big take-away, the key contribution of the book to our professional conversation – and what the profession didn’t want to talk about.  Below is a quickie book review I submitted to Military Review not long after The Outpost hit bookstore shelves.  I then forgot I had sent it.  Military Review did not run the piece.  That happens, no big thing, and when I recently asked why, the reviews editor was kind enough to give me an answer.  The MR editorial board felt that my review “needed analysis, relevance to today's leaders, and recommendations for readers.”  Ouch.  Well, it was a while ago and they have to cull a lot of stuff that’s better than mine.  On the other hand, I thought, SWJ might publish this schlock.  (I did change a word or two for syntactical reasons, but nothing of the substance.)  I think Tapper’s book deserves to be on the short list of what SWJers would want to read.

The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, Jake Tapper, Little Brown, 2012, 673 pages, $29.99

For the student of things military, this is a five star read.  You may have a hard time concentrating on much else until you have finished the book, even knowing the outcomes, even disliking the author’s political and ideological tendencies.  Some of its long-dwelling on medical challenges or personal lives of the wounded may off-put some readers who have experienced enough of that, but to me the author creates an appropriate environment within which to place the larger points he wishes to make.  The Outpost could become a favorite instructors’ prompt for conversations at Ft. Leavenworth, especially.  The book encapsulates a question of operational art -- about the relationship among military theory, application, and ethical leadership.  As the sub-title confesses, the story cheerleads American military honor.  Unabashed and un-equivocating, it admires our soldiers’ spirit.  The main title, however, bespeaks the principal subject of the book: the birth, life, and death of a US military encampment in Nuristan, Afghanistan.  Moreover, Mr. Tapper makes an elaborate, compelling argument about the decision-making that made Outpost Keating a tragic place.  His argument isn’t about something atmospheric, ideological, theological or philosophical.  The string of errors he exposes is mundane institutional and vocational, and the single greatest error in that string was the initial selection of the outpost’s location.  If you believe, as I do, that the four main categories of military operational questions are who to fight, where to do battle with them, how to win that battle, and how to win the ensuing pursuit, then The Outpost might make you wonder if the US military is educating its officers well enough to decide who to fight.  Worse (and this Mr. Tapper treats in spades), you might wonder if we are preparing leaders to decide where to do battle, a question directly associated with ‘operational art.’  In fact, so poor might have become our education in determining where, that our chances of winning pursuits are all but forfeited.  That the poor selection of an outpost’s location was as much the product of doctrinal precept, of theoretical notion (one at odds with patently relevant and more traditional military wisdom) is at the center of Mr. Tapper’s observation.  The Outpost exposes for us something we must address, and it does so far better than our increasingly edgeless doctrinal literature.

Regards,

Geoffrey Demarest

Comments

Move Forward

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 4:45am

I agree that Jake Tapper's book is exceptional. At 673 pages it is intimidating. However, it took me only about a week to read as it keeps your interest. It also is a great summary of Afghanistan's ISAF history in the vicinity of northeast Afghanistan and how things changed from year-to-year and unit-to-unit.

JTCOIC has a simulation reenactment of the October 2009 battle that really would give you limited clues as to the heroic actions and deaths of many in COP Keating to include two surviving Medal of Honor recipients. Tapper's book fills in the gaps which I will leave to the reader. Keating was named after a lieutenant who died attempting to return a medium truck to its home FOB along the sole MSR California valley route along the Landay-Sin river. Other upper routes existed leading to Kamdesh and OP Fritsche which both were located atop mountains south of COP Keating. Given the emphasis on population-centric COIN it is puzzling that COP Keating was not initially located in 2006 in OP Fritsche's location near the town of Kamdesh...some 3+ years before the final Taliban assault on the vulnerable canyon COP location located near only small villages.

In line with recent news, this battle was only about two months after Bowe Bergdahl's walk-off. Many assets that otherwise could have supported COP Keating's planned closure were tied up in that search, Karzai's reelection security, and a Taliban attack at nearby Barg-e-Matal. Fort Rucker's DOTD team got a hold of paper maps of the area and this was one of the battles we reenacted interactively in a variety of related scenarios over the same and closely adjacent simulated actual terrain. CENTCOM also declassified some great material that was highly useful in illustrating to students what occurred and allowing them to plan.

This battle and several others in Kunar river valley's vicinity is instructive as to why large land masses require large land forces. The distances involved and height of the mountainous terrain are extreme. If U.S. forces and particular enablers such as artillery and helicopters had only been based out of two locations such as Bagram and Kandahar, it would have been very difficult (and impossible in artillery's case) to support SF/SOF or limited general purpose forces.

At relatively nearby Wanat a year or so earlier, for instance, it took about an hour to launch and fly to reinforce from 50 miles distance to closer FOB Fenty. In contrast, it took the heroic ground quick reaction force (QRF) HMMWVs an hour and a half to travel just 5 miles from nearby Camp Blessing to Wanat. Noteworthy as well is the death of LTC Fenty for whom Jalalabad's base was named. Tapper's book points out that CH-47 pilots out of distant Bagram who were less familiar with the Kunar province terrain crashed trying to evacuate LTC Fenty and others from a mountain LZ. This is something likely to occur in future conflicts if we rely solely on a few helicopter locations far from familiar flying areas.

This battle illustrates the USAF point that you don't require strictly A-10s for close air support (CAS). Two pairs of F-15E pilots (and even B-1s Senator McCain) remained on station orchestrating the CAS stack airpower for much of the battle along with many other diverse aircraft. Tapper's book inadequately covers this aspect while the JTCOIC video and other news reports offer a much better account.

It would have been impossible to provide a ground QRF to COP Keating using vehicles or organic dismounts alone. MSR California along the Landay-Sin river was dangerous and far from FOB Bostick reinforcements. Helicopters were unable to safely land near COP Keating for many hours for either MEDEVAC or air assault due to LZ threats. Instead, helicopters inserted troops at OP Fritsche that was thousands of feet above COP Keating. Dismounts then had to maneuver on foot down to COP Keating. I've walked down this mountain from OP Fritsche in simulation and it took less than half an hour. Due to threats to the QRF force coupled with bounding and CAS calls it took many hours to reach COP Keating.

Those who believe a large tilt rotor could have fit into COP Keating's valley LZ are mistaken from both a LZ size and slow rate of descent to landing aspect. Likewise, I hope everyone noted the risky helicopter landing to pick up Bowe Bergdahl. Any Joint future vertical lift aircraft must be a compromise between speed and rotor/wing diameter for both tighter LZs and ships. Greater range/endurance/payload also will be essential. Smaller underpowered aircraft such as the OH-58D and 160th "little birds" simply could not have flown at these altitudes or brought in necessary firepower or reinforcements. Much was made in the simulation video about multiple Dshks machine guns hitting Apaches. Gunfire detection systems revealed on a Wikipedia unclassified AH-64E video I found would have assisted against that threat.

Tapper's book also points out how the slow trickle of troops allocated to Afghanistan over the years allowed the battlefield to evolve against us. Earlier highly promising 100-man shuras with planned aid under one commander ultimately transitioned into more dangerous relations with locals under follow-on units. Aid from USAID civilians and other contractors was never forthcoming and many projects were dropped after locals pocketed the money with little action. In one instance the local ground commander worried that nearby SF leaders were planning counterproductive strikes into his area that he was somewhat powerless to halt. This illustrates that the SF/SOF/GPF interface has greatly improved but still is threatened by individual personalities and mission command interfaces.

Like book review author Geoffey Demarest, I highly recommend Jake Tapper's book, "The Outpost." Ask your spouse to make it a Father's Day gift which is how I got mine last year.