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Catch-22 at COP Keating

Anand Sankar 

This book should aptly be titled “The Untold Story Of American Failure”. But then, it would hardly fly off Christmas shopping shelves in America. The Outpost: The Untold Story of American Valour, by ABC News’ senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, is perhaps the seminal work of documentary journalism to emerge out of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. It comes at a time when the countdown has begun for America to start drawing down its presence in Afghanistan and writers are summing up the conflict for history to record.

It takes some time to wrap your head around the setting of this book. While most conflict narratives look at the battle through the eyes of a single soldier or unit – painting an intense portrait through them – or the perspective of the battle is from that of a sand table, Mr Tapper takes you through the story of a single combat outpost from its inception to ultimately its ignominious downfall.

If you haven’t heard of Nuristan before, you can’t be blamed. While regions such as Panjshir Valley, Kandahar, Herat, Kunar and Helmand have found wide fame due to conflict reportage by embedded journalists, Nuristan remains a remote cul-de-sac in eastern Afghanistan. Mr Tapper begins when the US army’s 10th Mountain Division decided to set up outposts there in the summer of 2006. Five years after the war began, the US chain of command decided to reach out and secure remote regions of Afghanistan, whether the resources to accomplish such a task were at hand or not. And what better example to choose than the Kamdesh valley, north of the restive Kunar province and right next to the Pakistan border, and thus assumed to be the conduit for insurgents to get to Kunar. The 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division was tasked with setting up base for a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) so that development money and projects could be used to “win over” the residents of the Kamdesh valley.

From this point on, Mr Tapper’s narrative can only be described as unputdownable. The very first contact with the insurgents in Nuristan in the effort to set up in Kamdesh resulted in a Medal Of Honour (America’s highest gallantry award) action. Such was the ferocity of the battles, and Mr Tapper has painfully reconstructed each one of these battles through countless interviews with the soldiers from various units who were a part of them. PRT Kamdesh, as it was initially called, was created at great cost but in a hurry to attain goals set by generals sitting in Kabul and Florida. The 3-71 sited in a deep valley flanked on three sides by towering mountains, a fundamental mistake that violated the basic tenets of mountain warfare.

As a result, from the start the defenders of PRT Kamdesh found themselves outgunned, and the outpost’s tenuous road supply route was bloodied by regular insurgent attacks. Even helicopters supplying were not spared; pilots soon refused to fly missions unless it was on moonless nights. Casualties mounted, and outposts strung out along Nuristan were renamed after fallen soldiers. PRT Kamdesh was renamed Combat Outpost (COP) Keating. While basic military wisdom soon confirmed the tactical follies committed in Nuristan, Mr Tapper observes that, ironically, by naming temporary outposts after fallen soldiers, the US army put itself in a Catch-22 situation.

The story of COP Keating then moves along. Mr Tapper blames the George Bush administration unequivocally for taking its eye off Afghanistan to “settle” Iraq. The troops at Keating suffered along, manning posts in platoon strength when it should have been battalion strength. Supplies and helicopters were hard to find. Lacking intelligence, commanders were unable to pick their way through an alien culture and fickle tribal conflicts. The Afghan troops that entered to take responsibility were soon found to be woefully ill-equipped and under-trained. In the meanwhile, very little “reconstruction and development” happened and it was discovered that aid money might actually be making its way to arm insurgents.

The coup-de-grace was administered in the autumn of 2009, when the order was given to withdraw from Keating. The Taliban, which got wind of the order, pre-empted it with a huge attack to throw the US army out and gloat over their success. The Battle of Kamdesh, as it is known now, is worth a Hollywood climax.

Mr Tapper’s work is not groundbreaking, in that the war in Afghanistan has been documented for its failings. But his choice, COP Keating, perhaps best represents those failings. Mr Tapper notes that it takes 14 years for a counter-insurgency effort to bear positive fruit. The US will be withdrawing military personnel from active operations in Afghanistan one year short of that number. While Barack Obama takes credit for taking down Osama bin Laden, Mr Tapper leaves it unsaid that the fate of Combat Outpost Keating has cast the dice for a very nervous withdrawal ahead for the US military in 2014.

Jake Tapper
Little, Brown and Company
608 pages; Rs 1,395

First Published: Fri, November 30 2012. 00:52 IST