I recently watched "The Outpost" on Amazon Prime. The film was just released and depicts the Battle of Kamdesh, which took place on 3 October 2009, and the events leading up to it at COP (Combat Outpost) Keating in Nuristan, Afghanistan – close to the Pakistani border. Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, in Northeast Afghanistan. were at the height of military operations in Afghanistan the most dangerous places to be located. Ten of the Medals of Honor awarded for valor in Afghanistan were for actions that took place in Kunar and Nuristan. I served two tours in Kunar Province.
In the film, as in real life, there were a series of events (mistakes) leading up to the full-scale battle at Kamdesh. First off, the REMF military leaders and staff decided that it was a good idea to place Bravo Troop (79 Americans) in the COP in a deep valley surrounded by high ground on all sides. That made it easier to resupply them. That also made it easier for the Taliban to attack them. ANYONE who has read the history of fighting in Afghanistan either involving the British, the Russians, or experienced it firsthand like myself, knows that the Afghans (Taliban in this case) attack from the high ground. They will generally not attack uphill. In 1842, the British were forced to retreat from Afghanistan and Lieutenant John Greenwood wrote about it in his book “The Campaign in Afghanistan.” In his book, Lt. Greenwood describes how the Pashtun tribesmen (the Taliban are 90 percent Pashtun) prefer to fire down from the heights, surround the British camps, and then infiltrate and engage in close combat. The British and Indian Army in Afghanistan did not have close air support to pull their butt’s out of the fire…They lost 17,000 soldiers in that campaign.
The film depicts the loss of two of the COP’s Commanding Officers (CO's) before the Battle. One, played by Orlando Bloom dies in a vehicle accident because the rear echelon needed a truck that was located at the COP. The next CO, Captain Keating, is killed in an IED ambush and the COP is renamed in his honor. After that, the Army Chain of Command decides to close the COP down in a few months, but they send an obviously risk-averse Captain to accomplish that task. He uses piss bottles in his TOC and gives them to his men to empty. He will not leave the TOC! He is somehow magically relieved of command and the film does not exactly address how, but somebody in the rear got the message. With his departure, the COP is left in the hands of a Lieutenant who seems and proves to be competent.
COP Keating had a contingent of Afghan National Army (ANA) collocated with it and many of us know that their fighting skills and spirit leave much to be desired. There are Afghan Special Forces units that I would go into a fight with any day of the week, but the regular ANA Soldiers at the Kamdesh COP were not those. They fled the COP when the Battle started and the real accounts say that the stole equipment as they left. In real life there were two Latvian allies at the camp acting as advisors to the ANA - the film shows one of them, but does not depict that well.
The Pashtun (and Nuristani) locals and Elders in the film, like in real life, must be watched. They are looking out for short term profit. In one scene a new Captain withholds money from the local Elders and reminds the money is for schools and such. Did anyone really believe that? The money rents their good behavior - your security. Withholding it just pissed them off.
There is a lot of talk in the film about "the Mission.” Several of the COP Commanders try to make the point about winning hearts and minds like they have read too many Special Forces handbooks. No, it is only about renting the hearts and minds. More importantly, when one CO is relieved of duty, and the Lieutenant is left in command he and some of the Soldiers and Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha discuss "the real mission.” Those of you brothers and sisters who have been there, like me, know the real mission. “The real mission is to survive and make sure your brothers survive.” Remember that!
In a prophetic scene, SSGT Romesha is leading a patrol in the heights surrounding COP Keating and he and his patrol look down at the COP - in a fish bowl. He tells them exactly how he, an experienced Infantryman, would attack the COP. Hit the mortar pit, hit the ammo dump, hit the generator, and so on and then penetrate the wire. They also ask Romesha if there is any way to stop the enemy’s plan. Nope. It is coming.
The film depicts accurately catching a Taliban spy in the camp who was taking pictures and the local Afghan military commander trying to tell the soldiers what’s going on. Those of who served there know the significance of catching a local taking pictures with their phone on a base or COP. In real life, the Taliban like to do a series of exploratory attacks to test the defenses of a camp – they do this in the film. The defenses of COP Keating are spread out and all exposed. The ammunition is mostly centrally located in one building. That is not a REMF decision - that was a local tactical mistake. So, when the surprise attack unfolds there are soldiers risking the run to the gun positions and getting killed to resupply the .50 cal, M240’s, and other squad weapons with ammo. The ammo should have been prepositioned better – period! Also, the film mentions that no one in Bravo Troop had checked on the Claymores for a year?? Of course, they do not work when needed. They either had their wires cut and at worst were turned to face the COP. If true, that was not a failure of REMF leadership but again of local Bravo Troop leadership.
Afghanistan is deceptive and the film shows what we know. The Taliban probing attacks are done by squad or maybe platoon size units. When they want to mass though they can. They chatter on their Chinese radios and you had better be listening and have your SIGINT folks and interpreters figuring out what they are doing. When the enemy's comms increase, they are coming. One of the BIG signals that a large attack was coming was when the interpreter tells them there are various Pashtun dialects on the radio. That is a clue that they are coming from neighboring areas and its not just the local boys attacking you. In the film they never really seem to grasp that concept when the interpreter says they have various dialects. Pashtu is a language known for its various dialects - that can pinpoint pretty accurately where one is from.
The film also depicts the local Afghan Military, or Police, Chief telling the COP just around dawn that they would be attacked that morning by a large group of Taliban. The film makes him out to be a “Chicken Little” – “the sky is falling” type and the soldiers say that he has done this before. I don’t know – I wasn’t there, but anytime an Afghan tells you the local village is deserted, and the Taliban are coming – please pay attention. Minutes after he warned them, six minutes in fact from the official after-action report, the Taliban attacked. An estimated 300 of them. It was 6am in the morning. The weather conditions were poor. Perfect for the enemy because they knew that our close air support would be grounded. The Taliban will attack with mortars, RPG’s, 12.7 DShK HMG's, recoilless rifles, AK’s and Dragunov sniper rifles. The Afghan Taliban do not all have the fancy ACOG’s and optics we do, but they learn to shoot as kids.
The film depicts the firefight as lasting about 45 minutes long - it was all day. Some reference is made to two hours before the air support starts to arrive. The mortar pit is taken out as Romesha predicted, the ammo supply point is covered by fire, the generator is knocked out and the Taliban are in the wire. Without the air support COP Keating was overrun. Apaches, F-15’s (not shown in the film) and a B1 bomber hit the surrounding mountains of COP Keating. Again, the actual firefight lasted all day. The quick reaction force (QRF) did not reach COP Keating until 7pm. The QRF landed at an OP for COP Keating at around 1400 then worked its way down the mountain. They arrived at COP Keating about 13 hours after the Taliban had attacked. The film in this area leaves the impression that the fight was short. It was not.
In the film, SSGT Romesha is portrayed as the seasoned, tactically sound, and gutsy NCO that he is in real life. His heroic actions and leadership on the ground take the camp back and keep them from pulling back to the “Alamo” positions. Those of you who have been in a COP know that when the call "Alamo" goes out it is not a good thing. It is the last ditch. Romesha tells the LT he can retake the COP and seal off the front gate and stop that direction of the Taliban's attack. They are literally flowing into the COP. Meanwhile, Specialist Ty Carter, a former Marine, now turned Soldier who was not popular in the unit when he arrived, displays extraordinary heroism coming to the aid of trapped and fallen comrades rushing one of them to the aid station in a hail of gunfire. He is a brave and popular Soldier now.
As a critical observer, who has served in the AO, the film gets many things right. From the COP layout to the TOC, to burning $!&^ at the latrine, to the Shuras, to the short calls home on the Iridium and Thuraya Phones, all of it. The language is also right. “Embrace the suck.” What was really impressive though is that at least four original members of Bravo Troop who were at COP Keating played roles in the film. One of them played themselves. At the end of the film during the credits there are several interviews shown and these include Romesha and Carter. So, in terms of getting it right they made the extra effort because I have no doubt that he would have dropped the red flag if something on the US side of the film was totally out of whack. I did notice a few things out of whack in terms of the way the Afghans dressed. Not much, just little things. One Pashtun Elder is shown though with the typical henna in the beard giving it a red tint.
The film uses a technique that won acclaim in the recent film “1917” – that is filming long segments of action uncut. That requires perfection, but it pays off because it draws you into the action and makes it feel real. As Bravo Troop is shown leaving COP Keating in helicopters two days after the Battle the COP magically explodes. This suggests it was by done by explosives. In reality, a B1 dropped its load on the COP to destroy it.
The Washington Post, not one of my favorite newspapers, in fact I don’t like it all, (remember Sun Tzu though “Know your Enemy) did a fair review of the film. They concluded though with a statement about the mission and its ambiguity whether we were there as diplomats or aggressors and why were we there anyway? Well, we all remember 9/11 so we know why we were there in the first place. And the mission, well when all is stripped away the film got that right Brother and Sister warriors – “The mission is to survive and help your fellow warriors survive.”
A postscript in the film credits, notes that four Army officers were disciplined for poor decision making in placing Bravo Troop in the valley to start with. Subsequently, the film credits also say that the Army pulled out COPs from such locations. That is not really true – having served at one – again in the valley surrounded by the high ground. At least we had OP’s with LOTS of ammo prepositioned to guard the high ground and a well defended mortar pit. COP Keating did have an OP, but it is not shown in the film. It too was attacked when the COP was attacked.
In the Battle of Kamdesh, 8 Soldiers were killed, and 27 wounded. An estimated 150 Taliban were killed. Romesha and Carter were both awarded the Medal of Honor. There were two Distinguished Service Crosses awarded. There were plenty of Silver Stars and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts earned that day. The Apache crews that came in at the desperate hour were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
If you served in the Sand Box, you should probably watch this film by yourself or with a Battle Buddy the first time and then decide if you want to watch it with your loved ones. But, it gets a thumbs up and you should watch it.
If you find yourself deploying to Afghanistan read as much as possible about actions such as these prior to going to understand the enemy’s tactics. Always BE PREPARED. Remember Roberts Rangers 28 rules that come down to us and are still taught in Ranger School. This one in particular! “At the first dawn of day, awake your whole detachment; that being the time when the savages choose to fall upon their enemies, you should by all means be in readiness to receive them.”
"Early shall he rise who has designs
On another's land or life:
His prey escapes the prone wolf,
The sleeper is seldom victorious."
Deny the enemy the high ground.
Deny the enemy surprise.
Limit the enemy’s knowledge of your defenses.
Be prepared to fight 360 degrees.
Never assume that the fight will be short or that close air support will be available.
Close air support may though be your most powerful weapon.
If they put you in the Valley of Death – go on record and say it cannot be defended.
Protect dead space with mortars, grenades, and Claymores.
NEVER accept the defenses made by another unit as SOP. Check everything.
The night is generally our advantage – they are getting better at that though.
“Stand To” before dawn.
Use unmanned aerial vehicles and OP’s to spot the enemy coming.
Always have SIGINT monitoring for enemy comms.
Never allow the enemy to capture a wounded or fallen comrade.
The photo shows SSGT Clinton Romesha as portrayed in the film.
Hrolfr - Chieftain
Hail Bravo Troop!