Courage and malfeasance in Afghanistan: “Anyone we drop off will die”

Officers ordered an Afghanistan outpost built knowing it was vulnerable. Then the Taliban arrived and soldiers died

Topics: Books, Afghanistan, Outpost, Jake Tapper,

Courage and malfeasance in Afghanistan: "Anyone we drop off will die"

It was madness.

At Jalalabad Airfield, in eastern Afghanistan in the summer of 2006, a young intelligence analyst named Jacob Whittaker tried with great difficulty to understand exactly what he was hearing.

The 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army wanted to do what?

Whittaker had to choose his words carefully. He was just a low-ranking specialist with the Idaho National Guard, a very low man on a very tall totem pole. A round-faced twenty-six-year-old, Whittaker had simple tastes — Boise State football, comic books — and a reputation for mulishness belied by his innocent appearance.

Whittaker stared at his superior officer, Second Lieutenant Ryan Lockner, who was running this briefing for him and Sergeant Aaron Ives. Lockner headed intelligence for Task Force Talon, the Army’s aviation component at Jalalabad Airfield, in Nangarhar Province, adjacent to the Pakistan border. Military leaders considered this area, officially designated Regional Command East, the most dangerous part of an increasingly dangerous country.

Lockner had an assignment. Soldiers from the 10th Mountain — a light infantry division designed for quick deployment and fighting in harsh conditions — had recently come to this hot corner of Afghanistan and would soon be spreading throughout the region, setting up outposts and bases. More specifically, they would be establishing a camp in Nuristan Province.

The members of the intelligence team led by Lockner didn’t know much about Nuristan, as U.S. forces had generally been focusing their efforts on Kunar Province, which had become a haven for Taliban insurgents and foreign fighters sneaking in from Pakistan to oppose the American “infidels.” During one operation in Kunar the previous summer, in 2005, nineteen U.S. troops — Special Forces — had been killed by such insurgents, and since then, the United States had increased its presence there. Helicopters flying in and out of Kunar Province were fired upon at least twice a week, every week, with small arms and/or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Nuristan was farther north, a province so mythically untamed that one of the greatest writers of the English language, Rudyard Kipling, had chosen it as the setting for his 1888 novella “The Man Who Would Be King.” One of Kipling’s British adventurers, Daniel Dravot, describes Nuristan as a place where “no one has gone … and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King.” “You’ll be cut to pieces before you’re fifty miles across the Border,” warns Kipling’s narrator. “The people are utter brutes, and even if you reached them you couldn’t do anything.”

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The region’s previous brigade commander, Colonel Pat Donahue, hadn’t thought Nuristan had much strategic value, so conventional forces hadn’t been posted there, and no one had troubled to find out much about the native people, the Nuristanis, a distinct and outlying ethnic group within Afghanistan. In a departure from his predecessor’s policy, Donahue’s replacement — Colonel John “Mick” Nicholson, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade, known as the Spartan Brigade — ordered the establishment of small outposts throughout the area in the summer of 2006, in an attempt not only to stop the Taliban fighters who were streaming in from Pakistan, often with bushels of weapons, but also to win over the locals, who were predisposed to a suspicion of outsiders.

Lockner had just returned from Forward Operating Base Naray, in Kunar Province, where he’d met with officers of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, or “3‑71 Cav.” They’d told him of their plan to set up an outpost in the Kamdesh District of Nuristan Province, for which he would be in charge of identifying suitable helicopter landing zones. The new base would sit adjacent to the Nuristan hamlet of Urmul. A small settlement missing from most maps, Urmul was home to fewer than forty families of Nuristanis, or roughly two hundred people, who lived in houses made of wood and rock and mud sealant. The residents were primarily subsistence farmers trying to eke out a living through both crops and livestock, but the U.S. Army knew little more than that about them. Coalition forces likewise had next to no intelligence about the enemy in Nuristan — its numbers, its location, its intentions, or, most important, its capabilities — which was one of the reasons the brass was pushing to build a base there. This was the essential difficulty of the task at hand: the higher-ups in the U.S. Army needed to know about the enemy in this unexplored province, so in order to learn as much as they could, they were going to stick a small group of troops in its midst. For all Lockner knew when he flew over Urmul to reconnoiter, the hamlet might have been Osama bin Laden’s secret compound.

“They’re going to build another outpost,” Lockner told Whittaker and Ives back at Jalalabad Airfield. “So I need you to take this terrain analysis I started, finish it, and make it pretty so I can brief it in the morning.”

Many troops were far more proficient in PowerPoint than they were with firearms, so Whittaker understood just what Lockner meant by “make it pretty”: the slides for the presentation needed to look crisp and to make a compelling case.

“Where are they going?” Whittaker asked.

Lockner gestured at the topographical map. “Right over here, northwest of Naray,” he said. “Where the Darreh ye Kushtaz and Landay-Sin Rivers meet.”

Whittaker looked at the spot, stunned. “Right there?” he asked.

“Right there,” confirmed Lockner. “Can you do it?”

“I can do it; I have all night,” Whittaker said. “But sir … that is a really awful place for a base.” This new camp in the Kamdesh District would, like the dangerous Korangal outpost that their pilots knew too well, be surrounded by higher ground. But whereas the base in the Korangal was situated about halfway up a mountainside, in a former lumberyard, the one in Kamdesh would sit in a cup within the valley’s deepest cleft, ringed by three steep mountains that formed part of the five-hundred-mile-long Hindu Kush mountain range. Blocked off on its northern, western, and southern sides by rivers and mountains, it would moreover be a mere fourteen miles distant from the official Pakistan border — a porous boundary that meant little to the insurgents who regularly crossed it to kill Americans and Afghan government officials before taking refuge in caves or in the mountains or returning to their haven across the border. The camp would be one of the most remote outposts in this most remote part of a country that was itself cut off from much of the rest of the world, and the area all around it would be filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there.

“So it’s located at the base of a mountain peak?” Whittaker asked. It didn’t take a Powell or a Schwarzkopf to know that as a matter of basic military strategy, it was better to be at the top of a hill than at the bottom of a valley.

“Yes.”

“And it’s flanked by a river on the west and another river to the north?”

Whittaker continued.

“And there’s no good road to get to it — they’re still building that,” Lockner volunteered.

The Army had been coordinating efforts to build up the vulnerable and narrow path from Naray to Kamdesh, but rain, steep cliffs, insurgent threats, and high turnover rates among local construction workers had led to frequent delays. The road, often running along the edge of a cliff that spilled into the Landay-Sin River, was a mere thirteen feet wide at its widest, and in some spots only half that — narrower than many military vehicles. A soldier could be killed just driving on that road, without ever coming into contact with a single enemy fighter.

“And it’s an eternity away by helicopter if something goes wrong,” Whittaker said.

“Yup,” agreed Lockner.

“Sir, this is a really bad idea,” said Whittaker. “A. Really. Bad. Idea. Anyone we drop off there is going to die.” As he said it, he thought he saw Lockner’s eyes glaze over.

Whittaker was known for being inquisitive and sometimes downright melodramatic, but even for him, this was an outsized response to a mission briefing. Those who worked with him understood that he always believed he was the smartest person in the room. He knew it put people off and made them less likely to listen to him when he had something especially important to say, but he was still young and had not yet learned how to check his behavior.

“What’s the point of this base?” Whittaker asked. “It’s on the low ground. It can’t be supported in any meaningful way. The troops there will be horribly outnumbered by potential bad guys in the town next door. They can’t even really go out and do anything because the rivers, the town, and the mountains will block any patrol routes.”

He couldn’t stop himself.

“All they can do is die,” he added.

Lockner, too, had been surprised to learn where the 3‑71 Cav officers wanted to put the camp. He understood their logic, at least in theory: with so few air assets, they’d have to rely on the road as the main way to resupply the outpost. And anyway, the troops couldn’t just sit on the mountaintops; they had to go to the towns and make friends with the locals. But Lockner himself wouldn’t want even to visit there.

Still: it wasn’t their job to question where the 3‑71 Cav officers had decided to put their camp and their men.

“Noted, bitch,” Lockner told Whittaker with a smile. “But do it anyway. We just need to find a place to land the helicopters.”

“But sir—”

The lieutenant stopped smiling.

“Whittaker,” he said, now angered. He mocked the other man’s staccato: “Fucking. Focus. I. Need you. To make me. Some. Slides. We need. A place. To land. The helicopters.”

Lockner had already spotted one location atop the mountain that seemed perfect for landing helicopters, a rarity in the jagged topography of Nuristan. The second landing zone would need to be down nearer to where the outpost itself would be constructed, close to the local headquarters of the Afghan National Police.

The specialist from Idaho spent that hot night carrying out Lockner’s order. The task per se wasn’t particularly difficult; it was just a PowerPoint presentation. But Whittaker kept staring at the map, hoping that the logic behind it would suddenly be revealed to him, as if it were one of those Magic Eye posters containing a hidden image. He thought about what he would do if he were a commander of one of the local insurgent groups. The hours passed as Whittaker war-gamed attacks on the new outpost. His mind played a cinematic loop of the fate of the camp, one that always ended in disaster. In scenario after scenario, positing one defensive strategy after another, every single time he completed an exercise, everyone at the outpost died.

Ives arrived in the morning to relieve him. Even without the all-nighter, Whittaker hadn’t slept well in months; he was the only day-sleeper in a tent that would hit 120 degrees before noon. He looked a mess: razor blades were scarce, and he didn’t entirely trust the on‑base Pakistani barber and his jerky technique. With all of that, on top of the stress and the dust that coated everyone and everything in Jalalabad, he figured he must resemble a mentally ill homeless person.

Whittaker’s fears about the new base were intensified by the memory of a previous scouting mission, Operation Tall Mountain, which he hadn’t protested against as aggressively as he now thought he should have. Tipped off by an intelligence report suggesting that a high-value target was using a small trail east of a combat outpost named Ranch House, a team of scouts had gone to a nearby mountain peak to survey the area and try to spot insurgents. At fourteen thousand feet above sea level, the temperature on the peak was just above freezing. Because the helicopters were already overloaded with men, equipment, and supplies, the cold-weather gear and water were scheduled to follow on a second flight — which in fact never left Jalalabad, having been grounded by thunderstorms. The scouts were now trapped on a remote mountain peak without critical supplies. Everyone survived the three-day ordeal, but it was a mess. In the end, even though the scouts saw nothing of note, the mission was believed to have accomplished something — for some officer somewhere, at least. Whittaker — who had offered up a halfhearted argument that the plan didn’t make sense — suspected that the operation had turned into a positive bullet on someone’s officer evaluation report.

Now the whole idea of the Kamdesh outpost seemed to be propelled by the same shallow Army logic: Push forward! Move ’em on! Head ’em out! Achievement was what mattered, even if the achievement itself was worthless, whereas delays or a cancellation could be seen as a failure of leadership, which would look bad on an officer’s record during the next round of promotions. Whittaker told Ives that he felt he should have fought harder against Operation Tall Mountain; he would never be able to live with himself, he said, if they couldn’t find a way to stop the construction of this new base. But by that point he’d learned that in the military mindset, it was usually preferable just to carry out orders and then investigate later, if necessary, rather than to raise questions beforehand about whether a plan might be flawed.

The aviation group named the helicopter pad at the future location of Camp Kamdesh Landing Zone Copenhagen, after the crew members’ favorite brand of chewing tobacco. The one atop the southern mountain was christened Landing Zone Warheit, for Staff Sergeant Dana Warheit, an Air Force staff weather officer who happened to be sitting in the briefing room at that moment and whose surname sounded kind of cool.

Over the next few days, Whittaker would come to call Camp Kamdesh the Custer Combat Outpost. He figured people would ask him what the nickname meant, giving him an opportunity to carefully explain the problems to anyone who would listen; he intended to keep doing that until someone in command finally came around and canceled the mission. Eventually, Lockner had to tell him to knock it off.

*   *   *

Whittaker’s fears would be realized more than three years later. Before dawn on October 3, 2009, hundreds of insurgents scattered throughout the village of Urmul and the mountains surrounding the American outpost.

The U.S. base had been there since 2006, and insurgents had attacked it from day one. The newest company of U.S. troops had arrived less than five months before, and during that period, the enemy had increased his attacks threefold over the number launched against previous units. But this would be the big one.

The enemy fighters faced Mecca and conducted their morning prayers. Then they grabbed their guns and got into position to attack the Kamdesh outpost.

At 5:58 a.m., as the sun started to rise over the valley, the assault began. Five U.S. soldiers manned five guard stations, near the entrance of the camp and on four Humvees. Those spots were obvious targets for the enemy, as were the command center and the various barracks. Strategically, the Taliban fighters focused on the mortar pit, the location of the only guns at the outpost that could return fire with any effectiveness against their positions on the mountainside: one 60‑millimeter and two 120-millimeter mortars, the big guns.

“Allahu Akbar!” the insurgents cried, seemingly with the blast of every rocket and the crash of each mortar fired into the air: “God is great.”

After a short and intense assault, Taliban fighters began spilling down from the southern mountain, through the wire, past the mortar pit, and into the camp.

“Mujahideen have entered the base!” rejoiced one such “holy warrior.”

“The Christianity center is under attack!” another of the Taliban cried.

“Long live the mujahideen!” yelled a third. “No helicopters are here yet! Let’s just hit them!”

He was right about the aircraft. The Americans at the outpost had called for air support — they had little hope of surviving otherwise — but the Apache attack helicopters had not yet arrived, and they wouldn’t get there for more than another hour.

The Americans fought. Over the past three years, U.S. troops had died on their way to construct the outpost; they had died clearing the path to establish the outpost; they had died patrolling the area that surrounded the outpost; they had died driving from the outpost; they had died commanding the outpost; and they had died pursuing the mission of the outpost.

Now, as the enemy burst through into their camp, a small group of just over fifty American soldiers had no alternative but to do whatever they could to stay off that grim list. There was no more time for them to wonder why they were there. It was time to fight — and for some, it would be time to die.

Excerpted from “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” by Jake Tapper. Published by Little, Brown and Co. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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