Jake Tapper's 'The Outpost' Raises Vital Questions on U.S. Afghanistan Strategy
The Army uses the term “BLUF” – bottom line up front. The BLUF on Jake Tapper’s new book on Afghanistan, The Outpost, is that you need to read it.
If you are a civilian, you need to do so to see and understand something of what you ask America’s warriors to do in your name. If you are one of those warriors, especially if you presume to lead American soldiers, you need to do so for the sake of your fellow troops.
Jake Tapper is an unusual mainstream journalist, one who movement conservatives respect. That’s not because he’s a conservative himself – he’s not – but because he seems to embody the kind of objectivity that the mainstream media has almost completely abandoned in favor of outright partisanship. And he’s a stickler for accuracy – I once clashed with him over some long-forgotten article in Big Journalism where he took offense over my questioning of his reporting. His stubborn dedication shows here; the lawyer in me appreciates the thorough documentation at the back of the book.
The subtitle of The Outpost is An Untold Story of American Valor, and it’s a crime that this is true. You don’t know the story. America doesn’t know the story. That is something of the point. This is the story of the tactics that derive from a strategy that, if more Americans understood it, might not be the strategy at all. We just had an election and the only discussion of Afghanistan focused on who would pull out fastest. That’s not strategy.
The focus of The Outpost is not the men who fight the engagements over the several years that the ill-fated Combat Outpost (“COP”) Keating existed in a remote corner of Afghanistan but COP Keating itself. This is significant. The book orients on terrain, just like classic warfare. When you talk about conventional fighting, you are necessarily talking terrain, or (less frequently) the enemy itself. But the war in Afghanistan is not traditional warfare.
Tapper’s story is really one of men at the unit level – the troopers in various Infantry Brigade Combat Teams’ (“IBCT”) reconnaissance (i.e., cavalry) squadrons – trying to come up with effective tactics in support of a non-traditional strategy, counter-insurgency (“COIN”). COIN doesn’t try to dominate particular key terrain or destroy the enemy (though these things play a supporting part). Rather, the decisive effort is oriented at the populace. COIN assumes that if you win over the populace – the people's “hearts and minds” – the insurgency is defeated.
COP Keating – named after a lieutenant killed in an painfully unnecessary vehicle accident – lay at the base of towering mountains near a road and a village that the IBCT command was determined to engage and convert to the government’s cause. Tactically, the location was a disaster waiting to happen – as various soldiers rotate into COP Keating over the years, Tapper records, to a man, they are baffled at the decision to locate the post there.
In a traditional war, it would be insane. But in COIN, it makes a kind of twisted sense. You have to be where the people are, and the people don’t choose to locate their villages based on the teachings of Fort Benning’s Infantry School.
This is a story of the consequences of America’s choice of strategies. Strategy, the Army War College teaches the senior officers selected for that coveted course, consists of a symmetry between the means available (resources) and the possible ways (courses of action) and the desired ends. The Outpost illustrates a strategy out of sync. The ends are vague – there is a lot of talk about supporting the central government and “development” but the end really seems to be just keeping the locals from fighting the allies. Moreover, the ways are very constrained; the awesome firepower of the American forces is limited by restrictive rules of engagement.
The means are limited as well – a single IBCT for several provinces. An IBCT is about 4000 soldiers. What struck me is the lack of troops for the mission – the job is just too big for the number of troops dedicated to it. As a result, it’s a stalemate.
We see, graphically, the effect on our troops. We, of course, have the power to completely pulverize any target in Afghanistan. We could, if we chose, clear the villages and place the populace in “protective custody” then proceed to wipe out everyone else, who would presumably be the enemy. But we won’t do that because we aren’t savages.
Yet by constraining ourselves, we ensure that the fighting is roughly even – that is, units of insurgents with small arms engaging often smaller units of Americans with small arms. The equation changes when air power and artillery are available – when either is actually in range and when it can be used without killing innocents – but the bottom line is that COIN forces Americans to do something no soldier ever wants to do: give the enemy a fighting chance. In Desert Storm, the last conventional war, we annihilated the Iraqi forces before they saw us by air, by artillery, and by tank guns that outranged them. We had the initiative. It was utterly lopsided – and therefore better for all involved.
COIN gives the enemy the ability to hold its own because, in a macro sense, we have to hold our heaviest fire and largely duke it out man to man. And they have the initiative because we only have the strength to hold the ground we stand on while they can range through the rest of the battlespace – therefore giving them the initiative since they can start (and end) combat when and where they choose.
The Outpost therefore chronicles a series of inconclusive firefights set against a backdrop of desperate attempts to convert the wary locals to our cause – locals who, as Tapper points out, have seen invaders come and go over the ages and see Americans as just another one that will eventually depart. The enemy initiates the fights and chooses when to end them. The Americans, contrary to everything they have even been taught, are left to react.
The valor of these cavalrymen is unquestioned, and their skill and courage in battle against a brave and cunning foe is ably depicted in Tapper’s lean, clear prose. Tapper has a rare sense for what’s important, probably as much as one can expect from a civilian. There are a couple minor technical errors military folks will pick out, but they are of no import. Tapper gets it.
He draws the real-life characters vividly; we get to know them as people, not just grades and military occupational specialties. I wish Tapper had talked a little about the unique cavalry culture – no mention of Stetsons, spurs or Garry Owen? Also worth mentioning is that, except for a cav squadron’s C Troop, which is infantry (as Tapper points out), cavalry troopers are not infantrymen yet they were fighting that way.
My authenticity test for military books is whether I recognize the characters from my own career, albeit with different names. I did, starting with the military intelligence specialist right at the beginning who thinks he knows more than his officers – and may, in fact, be right, at least in a non-COIN war. There’s always a bright E4 in every S2 shop who thinks he’s got it all figured out. Always.
Tapper’s interest is in the cavalry troopers, with only a few mentions of the full colonels and generals in the first half of the book. More come later as distant figures, seemingly disconnected to the reality on the ground. That’s a challenge for the reader, because from where the rubber meets the road things look very different from the driver’s seat.
I get that; in some form, I’ve held many of the officer leadership positions described in the book. A commander’s action that looks to a lieutenant as callous indifference may well be the result of a battalion commander having to make tough calls. Your platoon doesn’t get priority of fire during a mission? It’s probably not because the commander doesn’t care but because he does; he just thinks he can better support the mission and protect soldiers’ lives by making the tough choice to give priority to someone else. I wish I knew as an angry lieutenant what I know today as a former cavalry squadron commander.
The civilian reader is exposed to a completely new world which, for various reasons, the mainstream media has utterly failed to make familiar. For military readers, there are practical takeaways. You get an idea of enemy tactics, the challenges of COIN, and the nature of Afghans and the Afghan forces. Not (yet) having been to Afghanistan, I found myself taking copious mental notes.
The last part of the book chronicles a massive, coordinated enemy assault on COP Keating and the courageous actions of the 50-some soldiers who held out against all odds. You swell with pride at our warriors, then wonder how the men could have ever been put there.
But under the strategy we as citizens have validated, COP Keating was bound to happen. It’s not merely a result of commanders trying to do their already nearly-impossible job with far too few troops. Of course their decisions put soldiers at greater risk – COIN is all about risking (hopefully wisely) soldiers’ lives to achieve victory by deemphasizing kinetic effects (firepower) in favor of engaging the population. COIN is America’s strategy, and that strategy is validated by our elected representatives. For better or worse, it is America’s strategy – though Tapper raises the question of whether what was happening there at the end was still COIN at all and not just bureaucratic inertia. Regardless, if you want to know who is to “blame” for Afghanistan, find a mirror.
The Outpost is a worthy addition to any bookshelf next to the two gold standard texts of modern war – Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day To Die. But it won’t be on mine. A number of my friends who I served with over the last two decades on deployment and in natural disasters will soon depart for Afghanistan. I’m passing on my copy of The Outpost to them in the hope it will help them win the fight and bring their people back.
Kurt Schlichter commanded a National Guard IBCT cavalry squadron in the United States from 2006 to 2008. The views expressed here are solely his own.