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?
Tapper: I tried to write and report it in terms of not having a position—which is either a blessing or curse. The reality is that there is no shortage of blame to go around for what happened at this outpost, with both the Bush and the Obama administrations at fault for various decisions. President Obama surged troops in 2009, which still did not answer larger strategic questions about whether this particular outpost had everything it needed or whether it should have even been there as of Summer 2009.
One obvious conclusion the book draws is that if you are going to send troops to places like Combat Outpost Keating, you should make sure that they have everything they need. However, from 2006-2009, they did not have everything they needed. There were not enough helicopters, troops or officers. When the outpost ceased to be of use, Col. Randy George and Lt. Col. Brad Brown tried to shut it down, but General McChrystal, who was then in charge of ISAF, didn’t heed their recommendations until it was too late. He did so for any number of reasons, including a few that had to do with allowing President Karzai to dictate timing for his own political reasons.
On a more personal level, it made me pay more attention to some individual soldiers and their families in a way that has proven to be very meaningful to me. It’s such a forgotten war in so many ways. It’s what we really haven’t been paying very much attention to, and this book was an effort to correct that, at least for myself. Three years ago, the media wasn’t for the most part talking about Combat Outpost Keating. We were talking about Balloon Boy and David Letterman’s sex life.
The point of the book is simply to tell the stories of these troops. Writing it, I wanted to stay involved with the people whose lives have been touched by the war and what happened at Keating—the moms, widows, wives. I wanted them to feel ownership of the book as well as the story, and that they understand and approve it, the tone, the descriptions of them and their loved ones.
The mother of one of the soldiers who was killed said to me that she was happy about the book for a lot of reasons, and that was one of them—to say that there is a war, in which young men, American sons and daughters, have been taken from their families.