By Paul McNamee — Captain, Frontier Partisans New England Ranging Company
Nuristan province in northern Afghanistan is historically some of the most difficult terrain in which to conduct warfare. It is the land of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. The mountains chewed up the forces of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviets. In the early 2000s, it was the United States turn.
Jake Tapper’s The Outpost is a thick volume, detailing specifically the life and death of Command Outpost Keating, near the villages of Kamdesh and Urmul. The history of the outpost involves the entire province. Summarizing the book isn’t easy but in the end, the book constantly highlights American valor — more often than not in the face of terror, tragedy, anger, and frustration.
Any photograph of Combat Post Keating quickly exposes the issue — the base was at the foot of mountains. Regardless of 21st century military tech, basic combat adages do not change. The failure to secure the high ground was going to be a problem from day one. Everyone knew it. The hard-headed brass pushed on anyway. The initial focus was to monitor roads and passes into Pakistan, where insurgents could come and go with impunity. Any base to monitor roads meant something would be built along the road, at the bottom of a valley somewhere.
The base was named for Ben Keating — killed when the vehicle he was driving went off the road. Vehicle wrecks, helicopter crashes and botched medivacs made it clear early on that Americans were at war with the terrain long before the insurgents started firing RGPs and AKs in their direction.
The combat was harrowing. Nearly every day men would be under harassment fire. From a headline distance, it doesn’t seem like much. But Tapper gives us a closeup view of wounds and pain and horror — RPG shrapnel, limbs obliterated. WIA doesn’t not mean KIA but neither does it mean the quality of your life will be anywhere near the same when you are mustered home with PTSD and missing limbs.
As with so many combat theaters, it came down the the boots on the ground carrying on, doing their job, and watching out for each other. They certainly weren’t about to trust their esteemed leaders in Washington, D.C.
At the end, Obama’s desire for a wind-down did not ingratiate him to troops already undersupplied and overworked. But it’s clear no one in Afghanistan thought too highly of Bush and Cheney from the start, either. As soon as the Iraq War was underway, the Bush White House clearly favored the Iraqi theater of operations. Afghanistan received a pittance of airpower and equipment in comparison.
The military brass weren’t doing the grunts any favors. Tapper’s book left me with the feeling that for all the talk of plans and intelligence, the brass were throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. Officers on the ground were making their own calls – leading to oscillation anytime some was replace or rotated. Some favored counter-insurgency only to be replaced by others who preferred a straight ahead combat stance. And Special Forces were roaming far and wide — answerable to no one.
The Afghans themselves ran the gamut from brave to cowardice, from altruistic to a weakness for graft. Many of the infrastructure projects resulted in nothing more than village elders jockeying for money, influence, and power. The Afghan National Army served up some of the best troops and some of the worst.
The American soldier in Afghanistan was most often left to their own devices.
In October 2009, everything came to the worst possible head. The insurgents launched a coordinated attack with hundreds men. They knew the base was being decommissioned. It was their best chance to take the base and kill Americans, and they took it.
The Outpost should be required reading to understand what our troops have gone through – were put through. Their valor cannot be forgotten. The lessons must be learned and applied or we are doomed to continue to waste talented military lives in the Afghan theater. The service men and women deserve more – much more – from their superiors and civilian government commanders.