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Eastern Afghanistan, early February 2013
A menagerie of animal-named armored vehicles trundled along a rutted dirt road deep in Taliban territory near the Pakistan border. The temperature hovered around freezing, not bad for early February, and dusk was only two hours away.
The mission was simple enough—clear ten klicks of heavily mined road leading to a Taliban-controlled village that was acting as a hub for three rat lines funneling Taliban and Haqqani fighters infiltrating into Afghanistan. It was an important mission, and its success would severely hamper the Taliban's spring offensive, but there was zero chance it would make the six o'clock news back home. This was no Thunder Run, the rumbling charge of M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles that blew through Baghdad like metal hail through lace during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It couldn't even compare with the Syrian armored runs of T-72s and BMP armored fighting vehicles through the Damascus suburb of Daraya. No, this was an excruciating crawl, where progress was measured in feet, sometimes inches.
It was day 5, and the column was still a klick out. Leading the way on this godforsaken goat path were a pair of ten-ton, two-man Husky 2G armored vehicles equipped with four large electronics-bay panels affixed to their fronts. Each vehicle swept one side of the road using the Niitek Visor 2500 ground-penetrating radar set housed within the panels. They were looking for IEDs. They'd already found three today, for a total of twelve since the mission began. Seven of the IEDs had had enough explosive power to easily kill the heaviest vehicle in the column. Finding them before they could be detonated had been a major success, but as the saying went, you only needed to miss one IED to have a very bad day.
It was an arms race, pitting sophisticated electronics and up-armored vehicles against guile and ever-increasing explosive power. It seemed criminal now to think troops had once traversed these roads in nothing more than standard Toyota pickup, but then you went to war with what you had, and back in 2001, IEDs weren't an issue.
As the armored vehicles slowly rolled forward, a herd of seven Buffalo armored vehicles followed. Tipping the scales at over twenty-three tons apiece, the six-wheeled Buffalos looked and sounded like growling metal monsters. Their sheer size and power were so ferocious that one even made an appearance in a blockbuster movie as a shape-shifting warrior-robot.
Fearsome or not, a bundle of four 155mm artillery shells left over from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and buried two feet below the ground could turn fierce, blowing up and scattering bits of metal … and flesh. And so the column inched forward, the Huskies scanning the dirt for hidden death while, following from a safe distance, were the Buffalos, each carrying a complement of four dismounts—a cold term for the soldiers that would, if necessary, leave the protection of the Buffalo's heavily armored V-shaped hull and patrol on foot.
Forty klicks away at Jalalabad Airfield, Kolt "Racer" Raynor sat perched uncomfortably on a cardboard box full of MREs in his Bravo Assault Team's lounge area and watched the progress of the armored column on a fifty-inch flat screen. The feed came live from a UAV loitering some fifteen thousand feet above the column. A small box on the upper left of the screen showed an infrared view of the same area. So far, the only hot spots were the column's vehicles and a trio of donkeys huddled on the leeward side of a rocky hill a hundred yards in front of the Huskies. It wasn't as sexy as a Tier One high-value individual, but the hot spots would get Kolt and his men out the door. Tonight, they were on tap working a TST—time-sensitive target. Specifically, they were focused on the triggermen. While some IEDs were rigged to detonate on contact via a simple pressure plate, others were remote-detonated, the explosion set off by the thumb of a triggerman. For that to work, the terrorists would need to be within a couple hundred meters, hidden from the naked eye somewhere in the rocky outcrop. Kolt could have contacted the gunners in the Buffalos to tell them to forget the damn donkeys and sweep for two-legged asses, but the young army officer on target didn't need white noise from someone back in the rear, even if it was Kolt Raynor. Besides, Kolt stiff-armed micromanaging as a practice himself.
"We should be out there, not here," Kolt said under his breath. Forty klicks, even by helo, was far too long for a so-called rapid response. Kolt looked around the room. He was an invited guest here, and so he kept his thoughts to himself. Yes, he was their commander, but sometimes the smartest thing you did in command was to do nothing at all. Besides, he wasn't going to gripe to the men about how it should be. It was important to keep that subtle separation between the commander and the commanded. After a decade plus of war, everyone in the room was war weary, and the hunger to mix it up with the bad guys had abated years ago, something certainly not lost on Kolt.
Kolt accepted his fate, for the moment, and turned away from "Thunder Turtle's" agonizing progress to look around the tent. All four of Kolt's assault teams lived in tents that had once been green. They were now covered by a half inch of brown dust, which clung to everything, even the interior. Between the dust and the clutter, it could have been a cave.
The operators chilled out on green nylon, squeaky, foldout army cots, whose aluminum legs never seemed to balance correctly on the plywood floors. Individual shelves were fashioned out of half-inch plywood and two-by-fours with small head-high walls placed between each bunk to give an impression of privacy. There wasn't any really, unless they considered their five-by-six-foot space an island.
Kolt stood up and walked over to the door and cracked it open. He reached into the cargo pocket of his Crye Precision G3 combat pants and yanked out a half-empty pouch of Red Man. It's going to be dark soon, he thought as he pulled three fingers of leaf and slipped it between his cheek and gum. Another day come and gone with little to show for it. Too many days had gone like this for the thirty bearded Delta operators. Sequestered in relative secrecy inside a small area of Jalalabad Airfield, it was easy to imagine being stranded on a very desolate island. Worse, rescue did not loom on the horizon. With the United States and Afghanistan signing a security agreement years earlier, control of military operations was moving over to Afghan forces. American troops and equipment were departing the war zone at a rapid rate. But not for the EOD troops out on Thunder Turtle, and definitely not for spec-ops troops like Delta. Like it or not, they were here to stay. And as long as al Qaeda still threatened either the fragile Afghan government or, more importantly, the security of the United States, operators would be sticking around.
A noise made Kolt turn. Bravo guys were hooting and pointing at something on the screen. Kolt squinted to get it into focus, then shook his head. Based on the blurred heat signature, it appeared as if one of the donkeys was getting it on with another one.
Kolt checked his watch and figured they had about another hour or so to go. One more hour of this mind-numbing sitting and waiting for something to happen before dusk fell and Thunder Turtle turned and headed back to their FOB. This was his life at J-bad. Hours followed by days of boredom, punctuated by sporadic short-notice, quick-strike missions in the more dangerous and unforgiving parts of Afghanistan. It had been that way since their first deployment after 9/11. Even with a decade of Groundhog Days behind them, and Osama bin Laden taken out two years earlier, not much had changed.
In Afghanistan during the twenty-first century, just as during centuries before when Alexander's legions were there, adrenaline rushes could be served up in a moment. One minute the troops could be watching a column of armored vehicles crawl across a lunar-like landscape, and the next they could be engaged in a bitter firefight with insanely reckless insurgents. If it came to that, Kolt knew he had a hell of an advantage.
There was a lot of experience inside the tent that night. Four of the five members of Bravo Team had spent close to twelve years rotating back and forth from the States to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The newest operator on the team had just done over four years of combat time. Moreover, in between the months of hunting the ghost-like Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, they all had seen years of harsh urban combat in Iraq and had eaten plenty of brownout in east Africa. Along with the valor awards, most had TBI (traumatic brain injury) from eating too many IEDs or wall-breaching charges to prove it. And most, if not all, figured they were sure-bet candidates as future sufferers of PTSD.
Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was an operator's paradise. There was always something to blow up, someone to rescue, someone to kill. Intel nuggets uncovered from one raid dominoed to the next raid and then the next raid and so on. More times than not, almost before they returned to their sleeping quarters, savvy intel analysts had added some previously unknown individual to the link-analysis poster of foreign fighters and Shia militia leaders. For most the war, pace in Iraq was missed, but for some the lines between right and wrong were blurring, and killing had become either too sport like or numbing.
Now, on this cold late-winter night in northeastern Afghanistan, all but one of the team members sat on their asses. The only one earning his hazardous-duty pay, Shaft, was three hours and forty-five minutes away.
Unlike the rest of them, Shaft was working the sexy Tier One target—the one with National Command Authority attention.
"Shaft make his last comms window?" Slapshot, the burly troop sergeant major asked Kolt.
"Last check he was still looking for jackasses," answered Kolt, barely turning from the screen. He tilted his head, placed his upper lip delicately over the open end of the empty water bottle, and deposited a stream of Red Man leaf-tobacco juice.
Without looking up from the latest copy of Maxim magazine, Digger jumped in. "Shouldn't have trouble with that in the Hindu Kush."
"Dude, the four-legged kind. It's a long walk down the valley," Slapshot answered as he shook his head in mock disgust. "Although if that pair become a ménage à trois, who knows?" he said, pointing at the flat screen.
"A ménage à what?" Digger asked.
"A frickin' three way, dumbass!"
"Yeah, the number of appendages is about the only difference," Digger quipped back as he dropped the magazine to his chest to steal a look at his troop daddy.
Kolt chuckled, careful not to appear to take sides between two assaulters exchanging jabs.
"Think Ghafour is there?" Slapshot asked Kolt with an obvious change in tone. He was referring to the sixty-four-year-old Pashtun elder Haji Mohammad Ghafour, a terrorist they were keen to get their hands on.
"Who the hell knows, Slapshot? I guess I better believe it, or I should never have sent Shaft," Kolt answered.
"My money says he ain't, but don't start second-guessing your instincts now, boss."
"If you didn't think sending Shaft was smart, why didn't you pipe up?" Kolt asked.
"I've known you too long, Racer. It wouldn't have mattered what I thought," answered Slapshot.
Kolt didn't answer, turning his attention back to the plasma screen and Thunder Turtle. He knew he pushed it more than most. It had gotten him in trouble more times than most, and many an operator could credit their Silver Star or Purple Heart to one of Kolt's impetuous command decisions. He knew some of his calls hadn't played out as planned. Several of his mates whose names were engraved on the unit-memorial wall in the garden were daily reminders to everyone who walked the Spine of Delta compound. Even so, his men knew he was an action magnet, drawing fire exponentially more times than most troop commanders, and if you were still in Delta after ten-plus years of war, you pretty much recognized two absolutes: you were either divorced or about to be, and running with Kolt would guarantee trigger time or a body bag. It was still a volunteer organization, and selection was an ongoing process.
With the war in Afghanistan still going after twelve years and counting, and with the most wanted man in the world, the al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden so much fish food, the targets for Tier One outfits like Delta had changed. The new number 1 on Delta's target list was the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, Z-man as he was known in SOF circles. He'd taken the reigns of al Qaeda soon after bin Laden was killed and was still at large. Ghafour, a relatively unknown entity until recently, had rocketed up the list because of his long-term relationship with Z-man.
Despite the intelligence, no one knew where either man was. Rounding up former acquaintances of targets had long been an operational method for American special operations forces. Some referred to the targets as the "low-hanging fruit." The hope, and it often was more hope than anything else, was that they would reveal something about the targets above them. Over the years, the technique had mixed results.
Finding Ghafour could very well mean finding Zawahiri, but recent intelligence had revealed that finding Ghafour was becoming crucial for an entirely different reason. The CIA no longer considered Ghafour simply low-hanging fruit.
After nearly a year of combing through the treasure trove of computer files, hard drives, thumb drives, and handwritten documents in Arabic that SEAL Team Six had taken out of bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, information about Ghafour had surfaced. Hidden within Osama's extensive pornography collection, an analyst with insomnia discovered encrypted general plans linking Ghafour to the planning of attacks on commercial nuclear power plants. Two of the plants were located in Europe, but three others were only referred to by a crude code using the letters X, Y, and Z. The analyst and Kolt agreed one hundred percent, figuring X, Y, and Z were almost certainly in the U.S. of A.
It was enough to get the president's attention, as well as the attention of every leader of America's allies. And since the recent international uproar, when the rogue Syrian regime used sarin gas on its own citizens, showed that there was only a limited appetite from the "coalition of the willing" for responding to international incidents, POTUS couldn't afford to be soft on a potential attack on American soil. Unlike much of what was discovered in Abbottabad that night, which was declassified and shared with the world, every important acronymed organization or agency that listed national security as one of its core responsibilities agreed that the MTSAK files, curiously pronounced "empty sack," should remain top secret. Truth be told, just as he didn't with the civil war in Syria, Kolt didn't give two shits about Haji Ghafour, until the connection to the homeland was uncovered. Otherwise, he would never have asked Shaft to hang it out on a singleton mission in the Pakistani badlands.
"Maybe we should roll up and squeeze those donkeys," Kolt said, watching as the animals finished their afternoon delight and set off on a path that would intersect with the column of armored vehicles. "Did they get a good look at those animals?" Kolt asked Slapshot, knowing he had an earbud in while monitoring the Thunder Turtle radio transmissions.
"Yeah, Racer," Slapshot said. "Just three run-of-the-mill donkeys. Nothing strapped to them, and there's no way they'd get enough explosives in them and have them move around like that."
"Rog, I guess not," Kolt said, growing uneasy all the same as the donkeys wandered down from their rocky rendezvous and out onto the road being cleared. The Huskies, fifty yards away, slowed, not that you could really tell.
The lead Buffalo edged over to the right side of the road, no doubt because of the top gunner's begging to get in a shot at the animals, at least to scare them off. The image on the flat screen blossomed into a roiling white cloud, obscuring the entire column.
"Fuck!" Kolt shouted, gripping the water bottle so hard it cracked, spilling the tobacco juice over his fingers. As the cloud dispersed, the Buffalo could be seen nose down in a large crater a full five yards wide.
"Damn, that one is gonna hurt," Digger said, easing forward until his nose almost touched the screen. "The Buffalo looks intact, I mean, probably lost the right front wheel, but the tub looks solid. Any casualties, Slapshot?"
"Stand by. They're trying to unfuck it now."
Slapshot was bent over, his right hand pressed against his ear as he listened in. He looked up a half minute later. "No criticals or KIAs. Driver probably has a broken ankle, and the rest are pretty banged up, but otherwise they're good to go."
Kolt relaxed. A thousand yards behind this column was a second one composed of three more Buffalos and a pair of twenty-nine-ton MRVs, mine-resistant recovery vehicles. They were essentially wreckers on steroids, each heavily armored and sporting a huge thirty-ton lifting boom in addition to recovery and drag winches. Thunder Turtle might not be fast, but it was well prepared.
The second explosion marked the last moments on earth of the three donkeys.
"Damn, the donkeys were rigged. Triggerman must have gotten jumpy and hit the button too soon," Slapshot said.
Kolt was about to agree when tracer fire crisscrossed the screen. A lot of tracer fire. Several smaller explosions appeared among the column of armored vehicles. One appeared on top of a Buffalo. Several secondary explosions from within the Buffalo followed, ripping the armored beast to shreds.
"They're dumpin' mags and frags," Kolt said, confirming to the others that they'd met their trigger to launch.
"Christ, it looks like they landed a mortar round right through the gunner's hatch!" Slapshot said as he scrambled out of his bunk.
Kolt was already racing out the door. "We launch in ten!"
Copyright © 2014 by Dalton Fury