The Afghan province of Nuristan is nestled in the majestic Hindu Kush mountains, along the country’s northeastern border with Pakistan. Nuristan has a mystical allure. Its name roughly translates as “land of light,” and many of its blond-haired, blue-eyed inhabitants proudly trace their genealogy to the forces of Alexander the Great, who invaded around 330 B.C.
I first set foot in Nuristan in 2006 while doing research on the Afghan insurgency and was enchanted by its raw beauty and peculiar people. Nuristanis have a distinct tribal structure and culture, and at least five languages and multiple dialects are spoken there. But the area also has a darker side. Nuristan tribes have a reputation for being fiercely independent and suspicious of outsiders. The area served as the backdrop for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” a novella about two British adventurers who tried to become rulers there. Locals mercilessly tossed one off a rope bridge to his death. They crucified the other by hammering wooden pegs into his hands and feet.
(Little, Brown) - The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor’ by Jake Tapper
Jake Tapper, a senior White House correspondent for ABC News, brings us back to the wilds of Nuristan in “The Outpost.” The setting is a series of austere U.S. military outposts in Kamdesh district, Nuristan province, between 2006 and 2009. Tapper particularly focuses on Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, which soldiers from 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division constructed in the summer of 2006. COP Keating has the feel of a U.S. Army fort in the American West in the 1800s — spartan, isolated and utterly exposed.
The book takes us through the tribulations of building and defending COP Keating and culminates in a tragic battle on Oct. 3, 2009. I was working for U.S. Special Operations in Afghanistan at the time and vividly recall the attack. A force of several hundred insurgents assaulted the outpost with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and B-10 recoilless rifles. They killed eight American soldiers and wounded nearly two dozen others, making it one of the worst attacks on a U.S. outpost during the war. Perhaps most alarming, insurgents entered the outpost and fought U.S. soldiers at point-blank range, nearly overrunning it.
The power of “The Outpost” lies in Tapper’s development of the main characters: the young soldiers serving in Nuristan and their anxious families back home. The book’s purpose, he writes, is to help readers “better understand what it is that our troops go through, why they go through it, and what their experience has been like in Afghanistan.” Tapper succeeds here. He juxtaposes dramatic battles, complete with limbs blown off and eyes dangling from sockets, with poignant scenes of wives and parents first learning of the deaths of their loved ones.
Despite the weighty subject, the book has lighter moments. “Are you Soviets?” a perplexed villager in the Chowkay Valley asked U.S. soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division in April 2006. The soldiers glanced at one another, bewildered, as Tapper recounts. “No,” they explained, “we’re Americans, and we’re here on behalf of the government of Afghanistan.”