“Any sign of Zahed?” I asked Brown.
Despite being a rich kid from Chicago, he spoke and acted like a hardcore seasoned grunt. “Nah, nothing. What the hell happened?”
I wished I could give the big guy a definitive answer. “Our boy got tipped off. And someone took out our Cross-Com and the drone. Somehow. I can’t believe it was them.” I handed the drone to him, and he stowed it in his backpack.
“So who did this?” he asked. “Our own people? Why?” I just shook my head.
Brown’s dark face screwed up into a deeper knot. He cursed. I seconded his curse. Ramirez joined the four letter-word fest.
Three more operators—Matt Beasley, Bo Jenkins, and John Hume—arrived a few minutes after with three prisoners in tow, their hands bound behind their backs with zipper cuffs.
I nodded appreciatively. “Nice work, gentlemen.” “Yeah, but no big fish, sir,” said Hume. “Just guppies.” “I hear that.”
Treehorn ascended from his sniper’s perch and joined us, fully out of breath. “Guess I blew the whistle a little too soon,” he admitted.
I was about to say something, but my frustration was already working its way into my fists. I walked over, grabbed the nearest Taliban guy by the throat, and, in Pashto, asked him what had happened to Zahed.
His eyes bulged, and his foul breath came at me from between rows of broken and blackening teeth.
I shoved him back toward his buddies, then pointed at the girl. “Did you do this?” I was speaking in English, but I was so pissed I hadn’t realized that. I shouted again.
One guy threw up his hands and said in Pashto, “We do not do that. I don’t think Zahed does that, either. We don’t know about that.”
“Yeah, right,” snapped Ramirez.
Nolan got the girl to come around, and she began crying. Ramirez went over and tried to calm her down; he got her name, and we learned that she was, as we’d already suspected, from Senjaray, the town on the other side of the mountains from which we operated. We had conventional radio, but even that had been fried, and Hume suspected that some kind of pulse or radio wave had been used to disrupt our electronics.
We hiked over the mountain, keeping close guard on the prisoners and taking turns carrying the girl. We eventually reached our HMMWV, which we’d hidden in a canyon. The radio onboard the Hummer still worked, so we called back to Forward Operating Base Eisen hower and had them send out another Hummer to bridge the eleven-kilometer gap. We set up a perimeter and waited.
“You know, this place makes China look good,” said Jenkins, who lay on his stomach across from me, his nor mally hard and determined expression now long with exhaustion. “Those were the good old days. That was a straight-up mission. Pretty good intel. And good sup port from higher. That’s all I ask.”
“I don’t know, Bo, I think those days are gone,” I said. “No matter how good we think our intel is, we can wind up like this. And I know it’s discouraging. But I’ll do what I can to find out what happened.”
No matter how careful we’d been in leaving our FOB, no matter how secretive we’d kept the mission, all it took was one observer to radio ahead to Zahed that we were coming. We’d taken all the precautions. Or at least we’d thought we had.
And at that moment, I was beginning to wonder about our “find, fix, and finish the enemy” mantra. I still wasn’t buying into the whole COIN ideology (let’s help the locals and turn them into spies) because I fig ured they’d always turn on us no matter how many canals we built. But I wondered how we were supposed to gather actionable intelligence without help from the inside—without members of the Taliban itself turning on each other . . . because in the end, everyone knew we Americans weren’t staying forever, so all parties were trying to exploit us before we left.
The second truck arrived, and we loaded everyone on board and took off for the drive across the desert. My hackles rose as I imagined the Taliban peering at us from the mountains behind. My thoughts were already leap ing ahead to solve the security breach and tech issues.
Treehorn, who was at the wheel, began having a con versation with himself, offering congratulations for his fine marksmanship. After a few minutes of that, I inter rupted him. “All right, good shooting. Is that what you want to hear?”
“Hell, Captain, it’s something. I got the feeling this whole op will go round and round, and we won’t get off the roller coaster till higher tells us.”
I considered myself an optimist, the never-say-quit guy. I’d been taught that from the beginning. Hell, I’d been a team sergeant on an operation in the Philippines and lost nearly my entire ODA unit. My best friend flipped out. But even then, I never quit. Never allowed myself to get discouraged because the setbacks weren’t failures—they were battle scars that made me stronger. I had such a scar on my chest, and it used to remind me that there was a larger purpose to my life and that quit ting and becoming depressed was too selfish. I’d be let ting everyone down. I had to go on.
If you join the military for yourself, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. Kennedy had it right: Ask what you can do for your country. I’ve seen many guys join “for college” or “to see the world” or “to learn a trade.” Their hearts are not in it, and they never achieve what they could. Perhaps I’m too biased, but in the beginning, there was an ideal, an image of America that I kept in my head, and it reminded me of why I was there.
Kristen Fitzgerald, standing among acres of lush farmland, her strawberry-blond hair tugged by the wind. She smiles at me, even says, “This is why.”
Pretty cliché, huh? Makes it sound like I do it all for a girl. But she represented that ideal. A high school sweet heart who told me she’d always wait, that she was like me, that we were not born to live ordinary lives.
My ideal was not some jingoistic military recruiting commercial or some glamorous Hollywood version of
war. I didn’t join because I wanted to “get some.” I wanted to protect my country and help people. That made me feel good, made me feel worth something. And as the years went on, and I got promoted and was told how good I was, I decided to share what I knew. I loved teaching at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. I couldn’t think of a more reward ing part of my military career.
In fact, that was where I met Captain Simon Harruck, who’d been a fellow trainer despite his youth and who was now commander of Delta Company, 1st Battalion—120 soldiers charged with providing security for Senjaray and conducting counterinsurgency operations.
I knew that when we got back, Harruck would try to cheer me up. He was indeed ten years my junior, and when I looked at him, oh, how I saw myself back in those days.
But as we both knew, the ’Stan was unforgiving, with its oppressive heat and sand that got into everything, even your soul. I threw my head back on the seat and trusted Treehorn to take us home, headlights out, guided by his night-vision goggles.
By the time we arrived at the FOB, Harruck was already standing outside the small Quonset hut that housed the company’s offices, and the expression on his face was sympathetic. “Well, we got three we can talk to, right?”
I returned a sour look and marched past him, into the hut.THREE
The three prisoners were taken to a holding room. The CIA was sending a chopper down to transfer them to FOB Chapman in Khost, where some big shot from Kabul would come in to interrogate them. FOB Chap man was the CIA outpost where seven agents were killed years ago. I knew this time the bad guys would be strip searched, x-rayed, and then have their every orifice and cavity probed.
Didn’t matter, though. I didn’t think they knew much. Zahed wasn’t fool enough to allow underlings to know his plans or whereabouts.
The girl was taken to our small hospital, and we could only speculate on what would happen to her after that. She was damaged goods, a disgrace and dishonor
to her family, and they would, I knew, not want her back. A terrible thing, to be sure. She might be trans ported to one of the local orphanages and/or assisted by one of the dozens of aid groups in the country. She might even be arrested. I couldn’t think about her any more, and I’d made it a point
to learn her name. Her plight fueled my hatred for the Taliban
the local Afghans. No one cared about her. No one . . .
I sent the rest of my team back to quarters. We’d debrief in the morning. I sat around Harruck’s desk, and he offered me a quick and covert shot of cheap scotch, saying we’d turn ourselves in later and receive our letters of reprimand.
Harruck was a dark-haired, blue-eyed poster boy who made you wonder why he’d joined the military. He resembled a corporate type who played golf on the week ends with clients. He was taking graduate courses online, trying to earn his master’s, and he kept on retainer two or three girlfriends back home in San Diego. Because he was so articulate and so damned smart, he’d been recruited to teach at the JFK School, and when he wasn’t overseas, he participated in our four-week-long uncon ventional warfare exercise, Robin Sage. The first time I met him, I was immediately impressed by his knowledge of our tactics, techniques, and procedures. His candor and sense of humor invited you into a conversation. Once there, you realized,
Holy crap, this guy is for real:
talented, intelligent, and handsome. If you weren’t jeal ous and didn’t hate him immediately, you wanted him on your team.
But those attributes did not make him famous around the Ghosts, no. He was, as far as I knew, the only Army officer who’d been offered his own Ghost unit and had turned down the offer.
Let me repeat that.
He’d become a Special Forces officer, had led an ODA team for a while, but when asked to join the Ghosts, he’d said no—and had even gone so far as to leave Spe cial Forces and return to the regular Army to become a company commander.
We called it temporary insanity. Or alcoholism. Or some said cowardice: Pretty boy didn’t want to get a scratch on his smooth cheek.
I’d never asked him why he’d done this. I didn’t want to pry, but I was also afraid of the answer.
“I don’t know how much help you want with your gear,” Harruck said after we finished our drinks. “All your toys are classified, but I’ve got some guys that’ll take a look if you want.”
“That’s all right. I’ll have to ship a few units back and see what they say. Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait till they drop in replacements.”
“Taliban bought EMP weapons from China,” I said through a dark chuckle. “It’d make sense. We’re run ning a war on their money now. Wouldn’t they do every thing they can to keep us spending? It worked when we did it to the Russians.”
“I hear that.”
“I’ve still got a half dozen more drones I can send
up—if I can get some Cross-Coms. The disruption’s localized, so we’ll find out what they’re using. I’m curi ous to see who they’re playing with now.”
“What if it’s us?”
I snorted. “NSA? CIA? You think they’re in bed with Zahed? Well, if that’s true—”
“You sound tense.”
“I’m not good with setbacks, you know that. I fig ured we’d capture this guy tonight and get out.”
Harruck wriggled his brows. “Yeah, I mean he’s a fat bastard. He can’t even run.”
I smiled. Barely.
“You need to relax, Scott. You’re only here a few days. And the last time you were here, that didn’t last long, either. You’ve been lucky. It’s eight months for me now. Damn, eight months . . .”
“To be honest with you—no.”
I shifted to the edge of my seat. “Are you kidding me?” “This might sound a little hokey, but you know what?
I came here to build a legacy.” “A legacy?”
“Scott, you wouldn’t believe the pressure they’ve put on me. They think this whole war can be won if we secure Kandahar.”
“I hear you.”
“They’re calling it the center of gravity for the insur gency. That’s some serious rhetoric. But I can’t get the support I need. It’s all halfhearted. I’m going to walk out of here having done . . .
“That’s not true.”
Harruck leaned back in his chair and pillowed his head in his hands. “I know what these people need. I know what my mission is. But I can’t do it alone.”
I averted my gaze. “Can I ask you something? Why did you do this to yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
I took a moment, stared at my empty glass. “Another one?” he asked.
“No. Um, Simon, this isn’t any of my business, but you could’ve been a Ghost.”
“Aw, that’s old news. Don’t make me say something I’ll regret.”
I smiled weakly. “Me, too.”
I’d had no idea that Harruck was exercising tremen dous reserve in that meeting, when, in fact, he’d proba bly wanted to leap out of his chair and throttle me.
Forward Operating Base Eisenhower lay on the north west side of Senjaray. It was a rather sad-looking collec tion of Quonset huts and small, prefabricated buildings walled in by concrete and concertina wire. The main gate rose behind a meager guardhouse manned by two sentries, with more guards strung out along the perim eter. The usual machine gun emplacements along with a minefield on the southern approach helped give the Taliban pause. The juxtaposition between the ancient mud-brick town blending organically into the landscape and our rather crude complex was striking. We were foreigners making a modern and synthetic attempt to assimilate.
Harruck knew he’d never get his job done by hiding behind the walls of the FOB, so nearly every day he went into the town to communicate with the people via TCAF interviews (we pronounced it “T-caff”), which stood for Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework. Har ruck’s patrols were required to ask certain questions:
What’s going on here? Do you have any problems? What can we get for you?