WASHINGTON -- Following a decade of war in Afghanistan, the United States is negotiating a deal with the government of that country to maintain a 10,000-troop presence following the formal end of combat in 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. While the purpose of the lingering footprint is to protect security gains and continue the training of Afghan forces, the long-term agreement also marks a moment for reflection on what America has actually accomplished in its longest military campaign.
In answering that question, ABC's Jake Tapper has written a new book, which uses the story of Combat Outpost Keating to illuminate the ambitions, failures and, perhaps, underlying futility of the Afghan enterprise.
The Outpost is a heartbreaking chronicle of the rotation of soldiers asked to oversee an underfunded, often thankless mission. The goal was to expand the U.S. Army's reach into the remote northeastern Nuristan Province, where insurgents were streaming in from the Pakistan border. But even at the onset, it was clear to those involved that the outpost was one step short of a death trap, situated at the bottom of a valley with difficult access by air and road.
As attacks on the outpost mounted and counterinsurgency successes occurred in only fits and starts, two daunting realities became clear. The first was that civilian leaders weren't giving the troops the resources they needed to pull off such a thorny mission. The second was that military commanders were reluctant to simply retreat, either because of the possible political ripple effects or out of fear that the security situation would worsen. Eventually, a large, dangerous disconnect developed between forces on the ground and those higher up in the ranks.
Among the items that Tapper reports:
- Col. John "Mick" Nicholson, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade, "was aware that it took an average of fourteen years for a counterinsurgency program to succeed. After five years of war, the United States had just started to expand its presence in this part of Afghanistan. And though he would never say it out loud, Nicholson knew that the whole country was being shortchanged on troops and resources."
Cultural understanding was next to impossible.
- Upon entering a village in the region, U.S. soldiers were asked by residents whether they were Soviets. The soldiers "spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes going over everything from the Soviets' withdrawal from Afghanistan [in the late 1980s] to the 9/11 attacks to the Northern Alliance to the new Kabul government."
- Meanwhile, "Nuristanis spoke five different languages in all, and within those five, there were a number of discrete dialects."
Even the unit leaders saw the mission as futile.
- First Lt. Ben Keating (to whom the outpost would be dedicated posthumously) "spent time with his fellow soldiers, telling them to stop feeling sorry for themselves, urging them to brainstorm more inventive ways of killing the insurgents. He pushed them to figure out how to defeat the enemy even as he thought to himself, You can't! You can't defeat this enemy! Yet he was willing to let them continue risking life and limb to try. It was his job, but he felt like a liar."
The Bush administration ignored the unit's needs.
- Paul Monti, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, felt the troops had been short-changed by the Bush administration.
- After President George W. Bush got thumped in the 2006 midterm elections, he reassessed the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit's tour was extended 120 additional days "so that the overlap with the incoming brigade would create a mini-surge of troops." One soldier wrote friends back home about the devastation he felt over the policy: "God help the man who made this decision when we lose another soldier ... All I can say is that I'm sorry for what we're putting you through. I'll be home one day, and if no one else is hiring in the market, I know a few guys here who would make outstanding Bush administration Protestors for a living."
No one in a position of high authority was willing to take responsibility for pulling out Combat Outpost Keating.
- "[Gen. Stanley] McChrystal politely told [officials on the ground] that he agreed with their logic and, in principle, their tactical assessment [to shut down the outpost]. But there were larger strategic issues involved, McChrystal explained. First, the Afghan presidential election, scheduled for August 20, [2009,] was fast approaching, and President [Hamid] Karzai and the provincial governors were opposed to any withdrawal of American forces before that; Karzai feared that such a pullout might be taken as a sign of a lack of support for the Afghan government, which could deter turnout, especially among his supporters."
Counterinsurgency did work on occasion, but at an astronomical cost.
- In 2006, the unit at Combat Outpost Keating approved $1.33 million worth of projects in the Kamdesh District to help with safe drinking water.
- Meanwhile, $50,000 of a $407,000 road project was paid before the project was canceled. A project to build a pipe system had a price tag of $27,522, of which $17,000 had been paid, but no one had heard from the contractor. A similar project at the same cost had lost $11,000. A micro-hydroelectric plant had been canceled, but not before $35,000 of the $67,500 contract had been paid out. A girls school in Kamdesh was going to cost $25,200. Of that, $9,200 had been paid out, but no one was even sure if the girls in the region went to school.
In the end, the mix of caution and mismanagement meant money and lives were lost for an increasingly unidentifiable purpose. Before the camp was finally closed down, it was nearly overrun by insurgents in the fall of 2009. Eight U.S. soldiers died and 22 were wounded. U.S. forces bombed the camp after leaving it. But later, a predator drone picked up footage of insurgents removing ammunition from the supply point.
"I do not see evidence that the men of Camp Keating, throughout the lifespan of the outpost, ever got that level of support," Tapper concluded. "From the outset, President Bush and Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld did not send enough troops or resources -- not even close -- to succeed at the counterinsurgency, the 'nation building,' that was becoming the goal in the Afghanistan war. ... Then, when President [Barack] Obama and Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates finally did surge troops and increase resources in Afghanistan, General McChrystal was still forced to ration critical assets."