1:20pm

Wed February 20, 2013
Books

Jake Tapper: 'The Outpost' That Never Should Have Been

Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 3:10 pm

As the White House correspondent for ABC News, Jake Tapper covered the war in Afghanistan from what he calls "the comfort of the North Lawn of the White House."

"I had not been a war reporter in any sense other than debates about the war in Washington, D.C.," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

But then, on Oct. 2, 2009, Tapper's son was born. As he sat in the hospital room the next day, he recalls how, "in the haze in that room, out of the corner of my eye, I caught this TV report about the attack on Combat Outpost Keating. ... And it was just a gripping story, and most poignant for me was, as I heard about this story — up to 400 Taliban attacking 53 U.S. soldiers; the U.S. soldiers were at an incredibly vulnerable base at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14 miles from the Pakistan border — what was most poignant about it was holding my son and hearing about eight other sons taken from this world."

Tapper, who recently moved from ABC to CNN, wanted to know more about the eight men who died that day and about the 45 who survived. He also wanted to know why the military would put an outpost at the bottom of three steep mountains filled with people who wanted to kill those stationed there. The result is The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. Tapper's new book illustrates some of the larger problems American soldiers have faced in this war, including insufficient resources and what Tapper describes as "the deep-rooted inertia of military thinking."

Tapper says it's remarkable anyone survived the 2009 attack.

"To this day there are people who don't understand," he says, "people who are military historians and experts at combat who don't understand how anyone survived, because ... the last four words a soldier wants to hear: 'Enemy in the wire' — 'The enemy is inside the camp' — come across the radio."

On Feb. 11, one of the survivors, Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, received a Medal of Honor from President Obama for the heroism he displayed in that battle.


Interview Highlights

The flora and the fauna at Combat Outpost Keating

"I wanted to get across how otherworldly it was for the men to live there. This part of Afghanistan is gorgeous. It's mountains with cedar and walnut and fir trees and beautiful rivers, but ... for a lot of these troops it's like walking into another dimension where the creatures are just, you haven't ever seen anything like that. The lizards, the horned vipers — snakes that look like they have horns — there are monkeys in trees, there are leopards. The lizards would get as long as 6 feet, and then there's all these weird insects. Centipedes that were longer than a man's foot, different kinds of ants. ...

"But then the worst and the strangest creature was this thing called a camel spider, which is not technically, actually — it's about the size of a man's hand, and they're not poisonous but they are terrifying, and they would have a habit of being in your sleeping bag or in your shoe. These are spiders that would eat birds and lizards. It's something out of Stephen King. I mean, the men would have fun with it. They would put two in a box and watch them kill each other, or they would throw them at each other, but it certainly illustrated to the men that they're not in Kansas anymore."

On the extension of the tours of duty in 2007

"When the tours were extended ... especially in 2007, all these troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were about to go home, and then their tours were extended three or four months. It wasn't something that really registered for me as a reporter in Washington, D.C., at the time, but when I was reporting this book it became very clear that it was one of the more traumatic events of the deployment for the troops there in 2006-2007. They thought they were going home: 'We have survived. We made it. I only have two more days and then I'm going home. I will see my wife. I will see my baby. I survived. I lived.' ... And all of a sudden word came in that their tours were extended three or four months. It was crushing ... because they were convinced that this decision would mean somebody would lose their life who ultimately would not have."

On writing explicitly about the effect of weapons like RPGs on the human body

"I just thought it was important that people actually know what the effect of a rocket propelled grenade on the human body is. It's amazing to me that I'm in my 40s and I'm a journalist and I've covered these wars, and I had no idea and I really couldn't find much description out there. I had to go to a special Army medical journal to find what the effect of an RPG is on the human body: the fact that first comes the shock wave and then comes the shrapnel."

On how covering an on-the-ground story about Afghanistan changed the way he thinks about the way the war is discussed domestically

"I had been covering the back and forth with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the White House and President Obama, and I had been covering the White House's views of the election in Afghanistan in August 2009 and how corrupt it was and how riddled with problems the entire process was, but what was missing from my coverage — and this is one of the reasons I wrote this book — is what does that mean for Pfc. Kevin Thomson, stationed in the mortar pit at the bottom of three steep mountains in Kamdesh? What does that mean for Spc. Stephan Mace? Because it did have a direct effect.

"What the president and Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal were doing had an effect on whether these men lived or died. ... so [the story] opened my mind. ... You can know it on a theoretical level, that decisions made in Washington and across the river at the Pentagon have an effect on the lives of men and women, but when you can draw a straight line between a decision made by a general and a death at the bottom of a mountain, it really opens your eyes as to how important it is that the press corps in Washington, D.C., a) not be myopic and b) not be flip about these decisions."

On the particulars of the attack on Combat Outpost Keating on Oct. 3, 2009

"It's a nightmare, and it's one that I hear about from these soldiers to this day. A lot of them are still grappling with the terror of that day, but ... you're in this camp you've always known has been vulnerable. It's so vulnerable that even to go outside to go to the bathroom you have to put on your gear because you might be shot, and all of a sudden you look up and there are so many muzzle flashes and explosions and smoke coming from the hills aimed at you that, to return fire, you wouldn't even know where to start. The ground is crackling like popcorn with bullets. Eventually the camp catches on fire from the rocket-propelled grenades and mortars coming in. ... It is one of the most well-planned and carefully choreographed attacks in the history of the Afghan war. People in this country think of Taliban as cavemen from a previous century, but whatever you think of their ideology, these are fierce and smart fighters."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jake Tapper, has a new book that begins with this sentence: It was madness. That does a good job of setting you up for what's to come. Tapper tells the story of an ill-fated American military combat outpost in Afghanistan that illustrates some of the larger problems American soldiers have faced in this war, including insufficient resources and what Tapper describes as the deep-rooted inertia of military thinking.

His book "The Outpost" is about combat outpost Keating, which was set up in 1006 in a remote region in Afghanistan. It was at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains filled with people who wanted to kill the American station there.

In 2009, after the decision was finally made to shut down the vulnerable base, and as the soldiers posted there were breaking it down, the Taliban attacked. Hundreds of insurgents came charging down the mountains into the camp. It's remarkable any Americans survived. Last week, one of the survivors, Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, received a Medal of Honor from President Obama.

Jake Tapper just moved to CNN, where he's the chief Washington correspondent and will soon host a new daily program. He previously was ABC's White House correspondent and for about six months served as the interim host of the network's Sunday morning show.

Jake Tapper, welcome to FRESH AIR. Writing about Afghanistan isn't your beat. I mean, you write about it in terms of what the White House has to say about it. So tell us a little bit about why you wanted to tell this story.

JAKE TAPPER: I like to say that it's almost as if Combat Outpost Keating chose me to tell the story, because it didn't happen in a natural way, and it was one of those life-changing events that you don't really realize is happening to you at the time it is.

I was - as you say, I had been covering the war in Afghanistan, but from the comfort of the North Lawn of the White House. I had - I had done a couple weeks in the ABC News Baghdad bureau, but generally speaking, had not been a war reporter in any sense, other than debates about the war in Washington, D.C.

And then my son was born in October 2009. Jack was born on October 2nd, and Combat Outpost Keating was attacked on October 3rd. And in the haze in that room, out of the corner of my eye I caught this TV report about the attack on Combat Outpost Keating, a U.S. base I'd never heard of in a part of the world I was pretty unaware of, Nuristan Province, the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, and it was just a gripping story.

And most poignant for me was, as I heard about this story, up to 400 Taliban attacking 53 U.S. soldiers, the U.S. soldiers were at an incredibly vulnerable base at the bottom of three steep mountains, just 14 miles from the Pakistan border.

What was most poignant about it was I was holding my son and hearing about eight other sons taken from this world. And there was just something in that moment that was, in retrospect, powerful. And I wanted to know more about the attack, I wanted to know more about the eight men who were killed, I wanted to know more about the 45 who survived, I wanted to know about why anyone would put an outpost at the bottom of three steep mountains.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. You don't need to be a military expert to know that a military outpost in a valley surrounded by three mountains and, I think, a river?

TAPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: That they're going to be - that they can potentially be sitting ducks. So what was the point of putting a military outpost there?

TAPPER: Well, this is a part of the world where you're either on a mountain or in a valley. And when the U.S. pushed into eastern Afghanistan in 2006, which is truly unbelievable that it took until 2006 for the U.S. military to do that, given that that's the part of the country where bin Laden escaped, it's the part of the country where bin Laden lived, but in any case when the U.S. pushed into that area, they did not have a lot of troops.

And the strategy was to create a lot of small outposts throughout this area, Kunar Province and Nuristan Province, to a do a number of things: bond with the locals; make sure that insurgents were not spilling in from Pakistan to kill Americans.

And the decision was made that because there were not enough helicopters in the country at the time to re-supply the camp, it needed to be near the road. And the road was at the bottom of the mountain. So ultimately, because of the restraints of what the camp was supposed to be doing in terms of bonding with the population, keeping an eye on the roads and being able to exist, being able to re-supplied, it had to be at the bottom of a mountain.

And that was - that was the decision that was made from higher up, and that's how the officers and soldiers underneath carried it out.

GROSS: Were there populations nearby to bond with? Were the American soldiers based there able to do that?

TAPPER: There were. There was a small hamlet right next door called Urmul, and up the mountain were many more hamlets in the area called Kamdesh. And there was Upper Kamdesh, Lower Kamdesh, much more population up the mountain. I don't think that the U.S. knew that at the time.

This was not a part of the world that anybody knew much about, not the Afghan government and certainly not the United States military.

GROSS: Just so we get a sense of what these men had to live through on this remote base at the bottom of a valley surrounded by three mountains from which they were frequently attacked by Taliban and other insurgents, describe what life was like on the base. Like you write, for instance, hygiene had a very loose definition.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Here I mean it was very rough living conditions.

TAPPER: Yeah, this is - as the men proceeded towards Combat Outpost Keating, conditions would get sparser and sparser. The situation improved over time to a degree, but for much of the existence of the outposts, there were no hot meals, no showers, very few creature comforts. There were so many bedbugs and other insects, initially, that they had to wear flea collars around their belts.

It was pretty grim. It was especially surprising to the veterans of the Iraq War who were there, because not that it was the Ritz in Baghdad, but it was certainly nicer than conditions at Keating. I mean, it was about as bleak as it could get. And as bad as it was at Combat Outpost Keating, for much of the existence of the camp, it was even worse up the mountain at the observation post, OP Fritsche, there it was 100 times worse than it was at Keating. Keating was the Ritz compared to Fritsche.

GROSS: And then they were surrounded by animals and insects that they were totally unprepared for, it sounds like. You have a picture of a lizard in there that's like a really long lizard. I mean, I'm laughing, but I've never seen a lizard that looked quite like that. What are some of the kind of surprise insects and animals that they encountered?

TAPPER: Well, it was - I wanted to get across how other-worldly it was for the men to live there, because while the - you know, this part of Afghanistan is gorgeous. It's mountains with cedar, and walnut, and fir trees; and beautiful rivers, but it is - in no small way for a lot of these troops, it's like walking into another dimension, where the creatures are just, you haven't ever seen anything like that.

The lizards, the horned vipers, snakes that look like they have horns, there was monkeys in trees, there are leopards. The lizard you're referring to, they - I mean, the lizards would get as long as six feet. And then there are all these weird insects, centipedes that were longer than a man's foot, different kinds of ants, a red bee of some sort, scorpions.

But then the worst and the strangest creature was this thing called a camel spider, which is not technically actually a spider. It's about the size of a man's hand. And they're not poisonous, but they are terrifying, and they would have a habit of being in your sleeping bag or in your shoe. I mean, they would - these are spiders that would eat birds and lizards.

These are - I mean, it's (unintelligible). And I mean the men would have fun with it, they would put two in a box and watch them kill each other, or they would throw them at each other, but it certainly just illustrated to the men that they were not in Kansas anymore.

GROSS: The tours of duty of the men at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan were extended by 120 days. I imagine you covered that as a White House correspondent, that in your duties as a White House correspondent you knew about many of these extensions. How did it look different from your post covering it from the White House as opposed to hearing the men whose tours were actually extended tell you what it meant in their lives?

TAPPER: It's a great question because when the tours were extended, and it happened a few times but especially in 2007 all these tours in Iraq and Afghanistan were about to go home, and then their tours were extended three or four months, it wasn't something that really registered for me as a reporter in Washington, D.C., at the time.

But when I was reporting this book, it became very clear that it was one of the more traumatic events of the deployment for the troops there in 2006, 2007. They thought they were going home, we have survived, we made it. I only have two more days, and then I'm going home, I will see my wife, I will see my baby, I survived, I lived.

And this is a group of men, the ones at Combat Outpost Keating, who had seen not only the death of their beloved officer and XO of the camp, the executive officer of the camp Lieutenant Ben Keating, but also their lieutenant colonel was killed in a helicopter crash. Nine other men were killed in that same crash. Others had been gravely wounded.

So the idea that relief was right there, that they were almost going to go home, several were planning on getting married a month or two later, and all of a sudden word came in that their tours were extended three or four months. It was crushing - and to a man or woman. It was described to me as one of the worst events of their deployment, including the deaths of all their friends and colleagues, because they were convinced that this decision would mean somebody would lose their life who ultimately would not have.

GROSS: And the thing is, they were right. Eight deaths happened after that, 11 wounded.

TAPPER: It was a horrible, horrible decision from their perspective. Now from the perspective of the military, the secretary of defense was brand new, Robert Gates, he'd been brought in after Bush fired Rumsfeld after the thumping he referred to in the 2006 elections, and the country was growing very weary with Iraq.

And what Gates was trying to do was to provide the manpower that generals were calling for in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need more troops, we need more troops. By extending the tours of the troops who were there, there was a mini-surge, to a degree. But it was crushing and devastating to a lot of the troops.

And they were angry at Bob Gates, they were angry at George W. Bush, they were - and, you know, some of them were inconsolable in terms of having to delay their weddings or their fears that they would not make it home now.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Tapper, author of the new book "The Outpost." Tapper is ABC's former White House correspondent and CNN's new chief Washington correspondent. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper, he's author of the new book "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor." And it's the story of a combat outpost that was set up in Nuristan Province, in a remote part of Afghanistan, in 2006, at the bottom of a valley surrounded by three mountains in which insurgents could easily come down and attack, which is what they did in October of 2009 when the camp was overrun.

So this combat outpost was named after Captain Ben Keating, who died while helping to organize the post. Describe what happened to him.

TAPPER: He was a lieutenant when he died, he was promoted posthumously. Lieutenant Ben Keating, whose parents were unbelievably cooperative when I wrote this book, almost mind bogglingly so, since they didn't know me and didn't initially have any reason to trust me. But they let me see his letters, his emails, and so I really was able to get into his mind. Ben Keating almost exemplifies why an outpost in that position was such a questionable proposition to begin with.

The roads that they needed to be near were not strong roads. This is - infrastructure, it's not Afghanistan's strong suit and even less so in Nuristan Province. And Ben Keating one day decided to solve a problem that had been created by his Lieutenant Colonel, Mike Howard. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard had sent up an LMTV, a light-medium tactical vehicle, a truck, up the road.

This is a very difficult task. The convoy with this truck was ambushed a number of times. A number of soldiers were seriously wounded. But he wanted the truck to get up there to show that it could be done, to show force, to be able to have indication that it would be possible to supply the camp with trucks like this.

But the roads of Afghanistan are not what the designer had in mind when he manufactured this truck. And Ben Keating wanted to move this truck off the base because everybody wanted it off the base because it was a target, it was taking up space. And Ben Keating was a religious man. He, as a child, would read the picture Bible and was very inspired by the story of Jesus offering to wash the feet of his disciples. And he would not have his men do anything that he would not be willing to do himself.

And so he, against military protocol, drove this truck back. And it did not survive the trip. It spilled over the road into the river below, and Ben Keating died in November 2006, and the camp was named after him posthumously. His parents were very ambivalent about that, because they loved the fact that his men wanted to honor him, but they did not feel good about that camp in that location being named after their son.

GROSS: Because they felt so - that there was something intrinsically wrong with the camp being there?

TAPPER: Yeah because it was a bad place and a dangerous part of the country, and it just sounded like a place you would not want named after your son. And so they always - I spoke with them earlier this week, and they always had real misgivings about the camp being named after their son, because it was just in a horrible place.

GROSS: That really says something when you don't want a military camp named after your son.

TAPPER: And it's also - I mean, the military doesn't have a tremendous comprehension of the concept of irony. It's - there was many fine things you can say about the military, but self-awareness is not always one of them. And the idea that you would name a camp after somebody whose death exemplifies why that camp should not be there somehow eluded the people who kept the camp there.

GROSS: In your author's note that opens the book, you write: The most difficult choice I faced in writing this book was deciding how honest to be about the horrors of war, the injuries, the deaths, all the things that make war so terrifying. Just tell us a little bit about what you had to consider regarding that in telling the story of this battle.

TAPPER: This was a very difficult decision because first of all, nobody wants to be gratuitously violent when you're talking about actual violence. And nobody wants to be the one to tell a widow or a mom how their son, their husband actually died and how horrifying it was and how painful it was.

And I went back and forth on this and talked to a lot of troops and talked to a lot of journalists. I talked to Bob Woodward about it one time, I wanted to know what he thought. And ultimately I decided to err on the side of information with the warning page up front, which is basically for moms and widows, maybe you shouldn't read this book - gold star moms and widows.

And that is, you know, I don't want it to be gratuitously violent, and I don't think it is, and there's certainly things I held back from describing, but ultimately we in the media - and I'm not talking about you, Terry, but me and especially in broadcast media, we hold back from telling these things. We hold back from showing them.

We take our cues from the public in doing so, because the American people turn off the TV, or they change the channel, or they don't buy the magazine. But these wars are costing us a lot not just in terms of money but in terms of a whole generation of men and women and pain for their families. And I just thought it was important that people actually know what the effect of a rocket-propelled grenade on the human body is.

I mean, it's amazing to me that I'm in my 40s, and I'm a journalist, and I've covered these wars, and I had no idea. And I really couldn't find much description out there. I had to go to a special army medical journal to find what the effect of an RPG is on the human body: the fact that first comes the shock wave and then comes the shrapnel.

So I don't think it's a violent book per se, and I don't think the violence is gratuitous, but my goal was to describe what war is.

GROSS: Jake Tapper will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Outpost." Tapper is now CNN's chief Washington correspondent. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jack Tapper, CNN's new chief Washington correspondent. He's preparing to host a new CNN program called "The Lead." He recently left ABC News where he was the White House correspondent.

After having written about the war in Afghanistan from the Washington perspective, he's written a new book from the point of view of American soldiers who were stationed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan. The post was at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains filled with insurgents. The soldiers knew how vulnerable they were. The post had come under attack, but it survived for three years. In 2009, just after they got the word they could close down their base, the 53 American soldiers there were attacked by about 400 insurgents.

How did the timing of the closing of this base reflect disagreements between the Obama administration and General Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time?

TAPPER: The colonel and the lieutenant colonel who were coming into that part of eastern Afghanistan in 2009 had been working for months on trying to figure out why Combat Outpost Keating existed. It didn't - from their point of view, it didn't seem be accomplishing anything. Now that's not to say that it never did. It certainly did in 2007, 2008. There were a lot of successes in terms of winning over the locals. But by the end of 2008, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Brown and Colonel Randy George had decided that Outpost Keating and a number of other small outposts needed to be shut down, it was a waste of manpower, and these troops were just way too vulnerable and their lives were going to be - their lives were at serious risk, so they came up with a plan to close it and a number of other bases. And they presented this plan to General Stanley McChrystal.

Now McChrystal at this point had taken over the war as the commander of the ISAF, you know, the forces in Afghanistan - international forces - so when Brown and George came to General McChrystal in the summer of 2009, he decided he was not going to shut down Combat Outpost Keating or these other small bases in that part of the country, because he was deferring to President Karzai, the Afghan elections were coming up in August 2009, and Karzai did not want any bases closed before then at all. There was likely some corruption involved as well in trying to make sure that he had votes coming in from that part of the country, but on a more official basis it was more just that he did not want bases closed before the election - Karzai. And then also McChrystal at this point was deferring to President Obama and didn't want to be seen as closing any bases while Obama was still coming up with his AfPak review and he had not yet announced - President Obama had not yet announced whether he was going to surge troops or what he was going to do.

GROSS: So this is another example of how covering something from Washington must've looked really different than writing about it from the perspective of the soldiers who were at this remote base in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Exactly right. Because when I - I had been covering the back-and-forth with Karzai and the White House and President Obama. And I had been covering the White House's views of the election in Afghanistan in August 2009 and how corrupt it was and how riddled with problems the entire process was. But what was missing from my coverage - and this is one of the reasons I wrote this book - was that meant for Pfc. Kevin Thomson, stationed in the mortar pit at the bottom of three steep mountains in Kamdesh. What that meant for Spc. Stephan Mace. Because it did have a direct effect. What President Obama and General McChrystal were doing had an effect on whether these men lived or died. And more - and earlier in the process, the fact that President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld were under-manning and under-resourcing the war in 2006, had a direct effect of where Combat Outpost Keating was put, where it was built. So it opened my eyes this entire experience. You can know it on a theoretical level that decisions made in Washington and across the river at the Pentagon have an effect on the lives of men and women, but when you can draw a straight line between a decision made by a general and a death at the bottom of a mountain, it really opens your eyes as to how important it was that the press corps in Washington, D.C., A, not be myopic and B, not be flip about these decisions.

GROSS: Let's talk about the final battle at Combat Outpost Keating in October of 2009. The outpost is basically told you can close down, you have two weeks to shut down operations and then leave. We're shutting this outpost down. And as they're shutting it down, the attack that they thought might happen all along happens. The outpost is overrun by two insurgent groups, the Taliban and a rival group, and they get together just for the purpose - they put their differences aside just so they can attack this outpost.

Describe for us the image that you have now in your mind after having interviewed soldiers who survived this battle, what they were up against. Like how many Taliban and other insurgents were, you know, streaming down from the mountains, you know, converging on this little outpost?

TAPPER: You know, it's a nightmare, and it's one that I hear about from these soldiers to this day. A lot of them are still grappling with the terror of that day. But I mean it's hard to imagine, you know, sitting here in Hanover, New Hampshire, how awful it was, but you're in this camp that is you've always known has been vulnerable. It's so vulnerable that even to go outside to go to the bathroom you have to put on your gear because you might be shot. And all of a sudden you look up and there are so many muzzle flashes and explosions and smoke coming from the hills aimed at you that, to return fire, you wouldn't even know where to start. The ground is crackling like popcorn with bullets. Eventually the camp catches on fire from the rocket-propelled grenades and mortars coming in. The troops who initially run out the door, the first one killed in the mortar pit running to his machine gun, Pvt. Kevin Thomson from Reno, Nevada, sniper hits him. Bang. The next one killed, Josh Kirk, Sgt. He tries to return fire. He has a grenade launcher. He aims up in the hills. He's killed.

Running out of the barracks to help re-supply the name on guard duty, Specialist Michael Scusa, runs out the door to help deliver ammunition to his comrades at the guard posts. He's killed by a sniper. I mean this is in the course of the first few minutes of the attack. It's just devastating. And the men don't know what to do. They call for air support. Air support is at least 40 minutes away, and then when the Apache helicopters get there the Taliban are prepared for them too and start firing upon them.

Remember, they're in such a deep valley that the helicopters, when they come in the Taliban are basically an eye level, the ones who are up in the mountains and have, you know, a clean shot to the Apaches who get hit. It is one of the most well-planned and carefully choreographed attacks in the history of the Afghan war. People in this country think of Taliban as cavemen from a previous century, but whatever you think of their ideology, these are fierce and smart fighters and the Americans don't know what to do.

The mortars, they cannot return fire up into the hills with the only guns that really have the ability to do so in a powerful way because the men in the mortar pit can't get to their big guns because the Taliban are targeting it - targeting the mortar pit - and Kevin Thomson is already dead. Any time they step outside they'll get killed too.

GROSS: And the Taliban kind of got into the outpost, I mean soldiers were saying enemy in the wire, enemy in the wire. The outpost had been breached. And I guess one of the things I find most amazing about this battle is that anybody survived, that only eight men were killed and 11 wounded and that the rest of the 53 survived. How did they survive?

TAPPER: It is incredible that anybody survived the attack. And to this day there are people who don't understand, people - military historians and experts at combat, who don't understand how anyone survived, because you're right. The last four words a soldier wants to hear - enemy in the wire, the enemy is inside the camp - come across the radio, and the Americans have to retract, they have to - they're going to only try to do so five or six buildings and they're going to cede other parts of their camp to the insurgents. They ultimately are able to beat the Taliban back through a combination of incredible valor and selflessness and courage and, ultimately, air support. Ultimately planes and helicopters are able to get into the area and start bombing and killing enemy. The entire town of Urmul(ph) , the local village, flattened, destroyed by bombs, American bombs. The Taliban had been using Urmul as a staging ground and most of the villages, if not all of them, had fled already.

But it really cannot be overstated how much the individual courage of troops inside the camp were a decisive factor in taking back the camp. There was the man who was the acting commander that day, Lt. Andrew Bundermann. The captain, Stoney Portis, he had been trying to do an inventory of the camp a few days before and his helicopter, as he went up to the observation post was shot by a sniper. And he and another lieutenant and another sergeant were at the local forward operating base. They were not there. So this was a camp without a captain that day.

GROSS: But he flew back. He flew back to help his men.

TAPPER: That's right. He was part of the quick reaction force, but it wasn't so quick because they couldn't get in. They could not get into the valley until later in the day. And then ultimately they decided to land at the observation post and walk down the mountain, which is about a three or four hour walk. In fact, Stoney's description of what it looked like, what the valley looked like, sounds like something out of Dante, just a completely hellish view of a camp on fire and people crying for their lives over the radio.

But there were unbelievable acts of selflessness, and that's one of the things that I hope is at least somewhat inspiring in the story of Combat Outpost Keating. There are trips like Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, whom last week President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, who leads the charge to take back the entry point of the camp where the enemy had been sauntering in. He's not going to die a victim cowering in his barracks. He's going to lead a group of men back into battle to take the camp back. There were others. There were five troops stuck in a Humvee, and those five troops are panicked and they don't know what to do. Another man, Staff Sgt. Joshua Hart, volunteers to get in a truck and drive to those men to help provide them with cover, knowing that it would probably be a suicide mission. It's just, soldier after soldier, just to save their buddies runs into fire and it's an incredible story what they do to help each other.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Tapper, author of the new book "The Outpost." He recently became CNN's chief Washington correspondent after serving as ABC's White House correspondent.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Tapper. We're talking about his new book "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," about a combat outpost in a remote part of Afghanistan at the bottom of a valley that surrounded by three mountains that was finally overrun by Taliban and other insurgents.

After this final battle of Combat Outpost Keating, when the Apache helicopters come in and finally rout the Taliban and other insurgents, then there's a debate in the military about what to do with the base. The men are leaving. But should they destroy the base or leave, you know, the remaining buildings there? And the people are arguing to destroy the base.

When they try to destroy the base and it ends up being hard to destroy. It's so odd, such an odd ending to the story. Why couldn't they destroy it the first time around?

TAPPER: It is weird and it just really symbolized the - I don't want to call it a comedy of errors because there's nothing really funny about it but it's certainly just a bizarre story of difficulty and struggle in Afghanistan for the U.S. They set up the explosives and as the troops leave the base just a few days after the attack they decide that they're going to bomb the camp. They're going to destroy the camp.

And they flick the switch and they get on the helicopter and they take off. And nothing happens. It doesn't go off. The bombs don't go off. And some surveillance aircraft pick up the next day that the head bad guy in the area, a guy called the bad Abdul Rachman for the local Taliban is at the camp. And they're taking ammunition that was left behind.

I mean, they left a - the U.S. left a lot of things behind. A lot of ammunition, a lot of Humvees, a lot of - they took everything they could but they were trying to get out as quick as they could. So anyway, the surveillance aircraft picks up that bad Abdul Rachman is there. At this point they've also ordered a different bombing run but apparently that didn't work either.

Finally, a third attempt to bomb the base happens and this one succeeds. And there's a picture in the book of what combat outpost Keating looked like after it was bombed and it basically looks like the surface of the moon.

GROSS: We've talked a little bit about how some of your - some of what you saw as a White House correspondent, you had a deeper understanding of after writing about this outpost in Afghanistan because you saw how decisions made by the military and by the Obama administration affected the lives - and in some cases the deaths - of these men.

So our new secretary of state John Kerry is a veteran of the Vietnam War and as is Chuck Hagel, who is President Obama's choice to be secretary of defense. So seeing how just writing the story about Afghanistan deepened your understanding of White House and military high level decisions, how do you think it might or might not affect, you know, a secretary of state or a secretary of defense to have experienced war firsthand?

TAPPER: Well, without getting into the particulars of John Kerry or Chuck Hagel, who have, I believe, five purple hearts between them and Hagel still has shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam, I like the idea of men and women who have served to have a seat at the table. Now I think without question service affects people different ways.

Certainly John McCain, his service is admirable but he is somebody who I think it's fair to say would use force more quickly and readily than either Hagel or Kerry. It does seem to me that President Obama with his picks for secretary of state and defense is indicating a - maybe leftward is the wrong term - but a desire to use force with more circumspection, less of a willingness to send troops.

Even Obama aides will say that Hagel and Kerry are more to the left on these issues than Panetta and Clinton or Gates and Clinton. But in general, I do think that it is healthy for us to have people who know what the stakes truly are, to have people like that have a voice at the table. And whether it's a Republican or a Democrat or somebody who is more inclined to use force or less inclined to use force, I think that that's all too often lacking in these debates. Both behind closed doors and also on TV, on TV news.

GROSS: Jake Tapper, thank you so much for talking with us.

TAPPER: Terry, it's been a real honor. I am a long, long-time fan of your show. And keep doing what you're doing because there are a lot of us out here.

GROSS: Jake Tapper's new book is called "The Outpost." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Tapper recently moved from ABC News to CNN where he is now chief Washington correspondent and is preparing to host a new daily program called "The Lead." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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