ABC’s White House correspondent, Jake Tapper, is known in some circles as a contentious or even difficult reporter. In others, he’s hailed as perhaps the most objective journalist covering the president, more willing than most of his colleagues to push Obama and his aides with questions that are likely to make the administration uncomfortable. His new book is far from the White House, situated in a U.S. military base in a deep valley in Afghanistan close to the Pakistani border where American troops have been dispatched—or as it appears, stranded—to take on the Taliban.
On the morning of October 9, 2009, the 53 soldiers of Combat Outpost Keating were attacked by 400 Taliban fighters, leading to one of the deadliest battles in America’s longest war. The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor is the story of those men—including the eight killed and more than 20 wounded—and their families.
Tapper’s book has been widely praised as, in the words of Powerline, “a remarkably sustained piece of excellent writing.” The book, Powerline continues, “is more than a labor of love, it is a labor—and I do mean labor, as the book required an almost unimaginable amount of work—of patriotism. The Outpost is a magnificent tribute to men who do more than most of us can imagine to fulfill what they regard as their duty.”
Recently I spoke with Tapper about the book.
TWS: Your last book, Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency, came out back in the Spring of 2001, and it’s been a long time since you’ve been filing stories for print publications, like Salon, Talk Magazine, Washington City Paper, as well as THE WEEKLY STANDARD. You’ve been doing almost exclusively TV—starting with VH-1 in 2002 and then moving over to ABC in 2003—for more than a decade now. What was it like to put your energy into a big writing project again?
Tapper: I love TV news, but the reports are ephemeral, by definition. And you can’t go as deep as you can in long-form writing. So this was very rewarding—the writing, the research, and just working on a project for this amount of time, which was more than two years.
TWS: What was it that got you interested in this particular story?
Tapper: It started when I was in the hospital with my newborn son three years ago. I first heard the story in the recovery room when I saw the report on TV that Combat Outpost Keating had been attacked. The coverage explained that the outpost was in a vulnerable place, at the bottom of three steep mountains. I wanted to know why it was put in that place, why these men were there, and why they were so outnumbered 53 U.S. troops, taking on 400 Taliban. Holding my newborn son, I wanted to know why these other American sons had been killed.
Also, when I started to think about it, I was unsatisfied with my coverage of the war in Afghanistan. I had been covering it from the north lawn of the White House. So, I was covering, among other things, Obama’s feud with the Pentagon. But I didn’t have the kind of knowledge I wanted to have. So partly it was my curiosity that sent me on this project. If someone else had written this book I’d have read it.
TWS: How did you manage to write a book about Afghanistan from Washington?
Tapper: I’ve been to Afghanistan twice now, once very briefly with the president in 2010, and then I embedded for a week at Forward Operating Base Bostick. I interviewed more than 225 people, and when I was in Afghanistan, I talked to troops on the ground. But most of the interviews were with troops back in the U.S. With the advent of social media, it is a lot easier to get in touch with people. And then with technology, it’s a lot easier to do different kinds of research. With the help of a fixer on the ground in Afghanistan, I interviewed a former insurgent via Skype. Another time, I was asking this one soldier a question about the terrain. He was in Afghanistan and I was in my study in Washington, writing. It was only about one sentence but I wanted to make sure I got it right, and he sent me the Google earth coordinates.
TWS: Did writing this book change or otherwise shape your ideas about the administration’s Afghanistan policy?