Exit Strategy
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Chapter 1
Khost Afghanistan/Pakistan Border Oct 2012

“They're gone. We're in.” The team leader pressed send on his encrypted sat phone. Now he had to wait for the response. He wasn't one to break a sweat, but there had been a brief moment of panic when the Canadians showed up, unannounced and definitely uninvited. Black ops had little to no margin of error built in; this one had none. It was only because of their superior training that he and his men had managed to pull back in time and melt into the landscape, undetected. The trick had been getting the villagers to keep quiet, and not alert the visitors. Timing was critical. The team had to get the op done now.

They had held back as the three Canadians nosed around, asking questions. If the situation warranted, they would have moved in to take them out. But all bets were off when a convoy of Americans pulled up, led by Major Mike Callaghan. At that point, the team leader had known he had no choice. He would have to break silence to get direction. And even though the big man at the other end had been extremely pissed, it had been the right call to make. They had been ordered to hold their positions, avoid detection at all costs, and report back once the other units departed. Then, in just over half an hour, Callaghan and the Canadians had pulled out. It seemed the villagers had been successfully scared into silence. He looked down at the flashing red light on his phone and retrieved the message. They had the go-ahead to continue.

* * *

Sand. It was everywhere. Between his teeth, in his hair, in his clothes. Major Mike Callaghan spat out another mouthful as he kept his eyes ahead and navigated the rugged M-ATV over the rocky gulch that passed for a road. He had an excellent driver in his unit, but for this assignment Mike wanted to be behind the wheel. He knew the terrain well, his instincts honed for the way IEDs were laid out after too many forays here during the decade of warfare. A sudden series of attacks on military and supply convoys had upped the fatalities by ten in the past two weeks, and Mike and his boys had been called in. Because apparently there was a new warlord in town, and he wasn't backing down to anyone.

So now Mike and his team were going to play a little game of hide and seek with Khalid Hussain, the fearless young leader of the newest and most aggressive of the Taliban groups coming across the Pakistan border. As Intel had it, Hussain had no problem fighting the Pakistan Army, or anyone else. Mike's team was headed up to patrol a section along the Afghan-Pakistan border that was a real no-man's land. The remote tribal area was 500 miles of lawlessness and violence, off limits to the US military and the CIA, beyond the control of the Pakistani government. It had been long thought to be the hiding place of Osama bin-Laden, and the unofficial headquarters for Islamist terror. Locals drove through the narrow, snow-clogged mountain passes in pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Barren, resolute, the mountain ranges of North Waziristan across the border symbolized the land and the people who had remained unconquered for centuries.

Mike checked his rearview and saw the second M-ATV, with the rest of his team, close behind. That vehicle was specially outfitted with artillery and weapons designed for the kind of mountain combat they would likely engage in. They had started south of Kabul , where the mountain ranges led down from the Swat valley region of neighbouring Pakistan . The most recent series of attacks had occurred in this region, where the Taliban had been entrenched for decades. Nothing had dislodged them. Mike harboured no illusions that he and his team of nine men were about to change the standings. Depending on how things went, they would wind up their mission in the south, in Kandahar . That region had actually been comparatively quiet the past six months, especially since the situation in Helmand province finally seemed to be under control by the coalition forces. The Canadians were doing a fine job of training their replacements, and helping the locals take charge of their own affairs, having helped rebuild schools, hospitals and water systems.

The date of withdrawal was looming. Everything was riding on the Exit Strategy. That meant tying down any loose ends and taking care of problems like Khalid Hussain, whose only objective was to undo all the efforts of the coalition forces. Afghanistan wanted everybody out by the end of 2014. The US had started wrapping things up officially in 2011, but what worked on paper for the rest of the world didn't mean a damn thing here. Not to the Taliban insurgents, not to the warlords. Corruption was still rampant, even after the massive press coverage about payoffs to the Taliban and local security sub-contractors. The American-backed Kharzi government looked every bit the façade it was, a flimsy screen behind which money and favours just kept on being traded. And then there was the tribal mentality, something the Americans and everybody else could never truly understand. For every hot spot they managed to get under control, another one popped up. Despite their efforts, Mike was willing to bet that things rebounded right back to the way they were once all the foreign coalition forces pulled out.

“Hey, we got company.” Pete Delmonico, their second driver, alerted Mike to the Canadian vehicle. Shielding his deep blue eyes from the harsh sunlight, Mike made out what looked like a light armoured vehicle, stopped, just off the side of the road. It was like a tank on wheels, and made their M-ATV seem streamlined. They pulled up outside of what was supposed to be a village. Typical of the region, the compound consisted of a few assorted mud huts, surrounded by a mudbrick wall.

“Looks like our friends from up north are here,” joked A.J. Martinez, their communications specialist. He pointed to a maple leaf decal on the side of the “tank”. “Did you know they'd be around?”

Mike shook his head, no. The Canadians weren't supposed to be here. For that matter, neither were Mike and the boys. This wasn't a scheduled stop. But there was no such thing as a routine mission out here. People were more likely to die by IED than in actual combat. Mike didn't take chances and he took nothing for granted. He and his team had been selected because they were a close unit, successful, and their reputations were solid. Nine guys he had known for years, whose asses he had saved, and who had his back every step of the way. Mike would lay down his life for each and every one of them. So on this, like every other mission, they would go in, do the job, and get their asses out alive. Standard operating procedure.

The second M-ATV in their convoy pulled up alongside them as Mike unfurled his six foot frame from the cramped quarters of his vehicle. At 34, he was in better shape than most twenty year olds, his wiry frame solid with muscle. He unstrapped his helmet and ran a hand through his dark chestnut brown hair, soaked with sweat. Thick and wavy, the short army cuts just made it grow back faster.

“What are these guys doing here?” asked Joey Lutz, their mechanic.

“I don't know, but let's go find out .You can parlez-vous with them, ok?” Mike laughed as Martinez elbowed him. They got on fine with the Canadians. They were hard-working, reliable and friendly. The boys knew the terrain, the locals, and had a good sense of the politics. Because they played fair and shared what they knew, some valuable intel routinely got passed along. Mike and the team had come to really respect them.

Mike and company walked along the dirt road to the compound, listening to their guts with each footstep. Too many years of IEDs, too many body parts they weren't ready to part with.

They heard voices on the other side of the wall. As they came around, a tall man dressed in Canadian camouflage colours looked over and given a wide smile in welcome. “Eh, Michel! Good to see you, my friends!” Sgt Martin Lavoie paused a moment, taking in how many of them there were. “It must be serious if it brings your team here.”

“Actually, I was going to ask you what's happening here,” Mike replied, smiling in genuine pleasure at the friendly face. Smiling wasn't something Mike did often enough, and it lifted the years of duty as it transformed his mission-hardened expression to one relaxed and open, revealing his almost boyish good looks and deep dimples. But this was a side he shared with only those closest to him. He counted three Canadians on site, including Lavoie. Like Mike's team, they were Special Forces. They wouldn't be wasting their time at the compound if something wasn't up.

It was already October 2012, but Mike and his men were back here doing the same kind of work they had been doing all along. 11 years. 2 months. 16 hours. That was how long the clock on America 's war on terror in Afghanistan had been ticking. By Mike's calculations, that was about 12 years too long and $180 billion too much. The U.S. Special Forces leader could feel the frustration of his men as they undertook yet another mission out here. It didn't matter what they uncovered or who they brought in. The ugly truth was that they weren't going to end anything. He had seen enough action in Afghanistan to know how the Taliban operated, and the hold they had over entire villages. It seemed to him that someone wanted to keep things going out here, despite all the media messages and presidential statements to the contrary. But Mike did not make policy. He followed orders and he didn't question the orders he was given. His men followed his lead. Like it or leave it. However, there were lines he would not cross. And if something stunk to high heaven, he would not put his team in harm's way.

Lavoie furrowed his brow, puzzled by Mike's response. “Hussain, of course. Isn't that why you're here?”

“Yeah,” Mike nodded, his dark brows furrowed as his eyes narrowed. “You telling me he's here?”

“Not now. But according to the residents, he was. We just missed him. We think they left maybe an hour ago.”

“Thanks for bringing us into the loop,” Mike replied. “How did you know to look here?”

“We got lucky, got a tip-off. We weren't even going to be up here,” said Lavoie.

“We weren't either,” said Mike. “We only stopped because we saw your tank out there. Who was the source?”

Lavoie leaned forward, his voice low. “It was from an interpreter we use. He couldn't tell us too much, for his safety. But since he is someone we trust, we decided to follow it up. We just didn't radio it in.”

“There's another village further up the road. Maybe he stopped in to say hi. You want us to come with?” Mike had just invited his team along on Lavoie's pursuit.

Lavoie nodded, smiling as always. “Of course. You guys bring up the rear. And no more tank jokes, ok?” The vehicles pulled out minutes later, dust and sand spewing out from beneath the tires.

As the roar of the engines gradually disappeared, and the dust plume trailed off into the distance, the villagers gathered together. Fear, not relief, wrote itself across their faces as they watched the other men materialize once more, their Ak-47s aimed forward. The men wore the local style of baggy trousers, long shirts with vests over top of them, and head wraps. They could have been Taliban, but they weren't. Their leader stepped forward, and addressed the villagers in their dialect. He told them they had done as they were asked, and kept silent. Now, he ordered them to remain outside their homes and to not interfere with his men as they finished carrying out their business. Or, as they had already been shown, retaliation would be swift and deadly.

 

Copyright 2013 A.C. Biswas