I am in Afghanistan. I was assigned here briefly as an embed to assist a regular military force on what should have been a simple operation. Canadian intelligence received word that a Taliban narco-trafficking unit was on its way down from the mountain with a supply of papaver somniferum. The plan was relatively simple, divide into two units, one at each end of the mountain valley, on high ground and pin any convoy in a cross-fire. Ordinance on the valley road would finish anything left over.
In the light of day, briefing them on the plan was simple. Most of them seemed tired from the work of the past few months. A few feigned excitement at the prospect of another fight, but mostly out of sheer boredom. Fighting guaranteed at least an adrenaline rush, and the prospect of being shot or blown up on base without that adrenaline was the worst kind of fate. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to where the troops went before the sun began to set and we marched.
Our night equipment underscored the difference between our army and their mujaheddin. I cautioned against overconfidence. None of the soldiers here were aware that the Afghanis were carrying more precious cargo than poppies. I had been told that they held a Commando.
We set up a perimeter, and waited. The night stretched out and my mind began to wander. Had we received bad information? Had some simple issue forced the run to be postponed? Had they been alerted to our presence? It was less than four hours until dawn and I had checked weapons at least a dozen times. Then I got word from an advance scout that a truck was headed our way.
Another fifteen minutes with nothing. Everything was in place.
I heard mortar fire. Immediately thereafter I saw an ancient ZIL-131, with no lights, streaking out of the Valley at top speed. The mortar slammed into the mountain near us and then small arms fire began. I saw djinn moving around our position, from the front and below. The mountain opposite us exploded with responding fire, the tracers creating red smoke and an erie shadow-play on every ridge and crag. I heard explosions in the valley below and then our side of the mountain erupted. I grabbed one of the soldiers and headed down to where our point man should have opened fire an eternity ago.
When I got there I heard yelling in Arabic. They pointed their guns in the air and fired wildly.
“What are they yelling?”
“The first transport is away,” my soldier replied. “Feeling all right, sir?”
My stomach turned. A few feet away I saw another of our number. Not moving. Dead? No. The needle near his arm told another story. Too much time in Afghanistan. He had a shallow pulse and I felt mine race knowing that there had to be 20 or 30 men closing in on our position. I breathed in and let my lungs expand, dulling some of my immediate urges. But not all of them.
“What do we do?” my soldier said, looking at his brethren, as he moved into position to lay down a cover fire.
“Help,” I responded, my mind on other things. I ripped the Canadian flag from his shoulder, and began to go through his pockets. That flag shows up on night vision and is not to fall into enemy hands. But the gesture of rending it from his uniform was fulfilling. The ammo I tossed to my friend or kept for myself. The knife for my boot. The cigarettes, no doubt laced, the Taliban can keep. A few other choice items for my pack, and finally the offending item. I grabbed that needle and sent it into his jugular. Here is your fix. My new friend wretched. His eyes looked towards me but saw Longinus. I heard a second truck and then another explosion. Looking down in the valley, I saw a Russian truck blown across the road.
The djinn were on us and my friend opened fire. From the look on his face, I was fortunate his bullets found their mark in the enemy. We deserted the fallen soldier there on the mountain as a second round of mortars went airborne.
“Closed off garden,” a voice sputtered over the radio.
No, I thought. One is enough.