Relationships forged with those who yearn for freedom
“Khuda pa amani, Sahib” was the last transmission sent to me via text message this past weekend. It traveled 8,000 miles to get to me.
I laid there in bed staring at the ceiling fan turning above me like the rotor blades of a helicopter, churning and kneading my memories from a decade past. The faint click, click, click metallic sound with each turn of the off-balance fan blades caused me to sink further away into the darkness of my thoughts. Images from a faraway land and distant people filled my mind’s eye as I laid there helpless to do anything more.
“Khuda pa amani, Sahib” is Pashto for “Goodbye, sir.” Those words were the last farewell from an Afghan man and police officer who I served alongside while operating undercover in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. He was known to me as Lt. Hassan, although due to the very sensitive nature of our mission to root out Taliban operatives, bomb makers and leadership in Afghanistan, that is not his real name. I first met Lt. Hassan in April 2010 at FOB Airborne while he briefed me and my police partner, Tim Gilbert of the Chicago Police Department, regarding a suspected Taliban IED bomb making facility located near Alasang in southern Wardak.
Hassan was a quiet man but as one of the junior officers in the joint U.S.-Afghan surveillance unit, he was the most productive. I likened him to a young and eager police detective of any American police department who just wanted to hunt down criminals, bring them to justice and see peace in the community. He also had a good soul about him and that was what brought us together as friends beyond my years in that war-torn country.
That and the fact that on more than one occasion he saved my life.
It was 2011 and my partner Tim was back in the U.S. on vacation and the spring offensive into the Nerkh Valley of Wardak province was well underway as Lt. Col. Chambers of the 3/89 Cavalry/10th Mountain Division was pushing hard into the Taliban strongholds. Combat Outpost Nerkh was one of the small U.S. held bases sporadically established in the valley overshadowed by the Hindu Kush mountains. Tim and I had never ventured into Nerkh as U.S. intelligence said it was far too dangerous by car. Even our 20-man Afghan ISU team had taken the same position.
But regular and Special Forces led by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Phil Chambers requested informant-based ground intelligence regarding any information related to Taliban movements, strengths and size as the push westward ramped up in an effort to crush the Taliban operating there.
Choke points – points in a road that cause a vehicle to slow down and therefore making it more susceptible to intercept and attack – were many along the Nerkh Road and that is why most all military movement back and forth between FOB Airborne and COP Nerkh was done by CH-47 Chinook helicopters or Blackhawks. The risk and danger of sporadic Taliban check points was very high along the long and winding Nerkh Road as the Taliban checked all vehicles and people traveling on it. Locals were questioned and forced to pay heavy fines while looking down the wrong end of an AK-47 held by the henchman.
So, Hassan, my translator, Jawid, and I packed our 1996 Toyota Corolla with supplies and drove out of the town of Maiden-Shahr to COP Nerkh located some 20 or 30 miles to the west of FOB Airborne where we stayed for a few days in that embattled outpost. We arrived safely and Hassan set to contacting his many informants located in the surrounding villages and farms. We had long established that the information provided by our network of confidential informants passed the military credibility test time and time again. I polished up the information Hassan developed and provided it to our Army counterparts which was combined with others as actionable intelligence to assist the soldiers of the 10th Mountain.
With our immediate job complete, I made the decision for all of us to return to FOB Airborne. Jawid and Hassan cautioned me against a departure that day due to increased insurgent activity along the Nerkh Road. But we had to return and Hassan recommended we leave very early before dawn and the morning Call to Worship, believing any Taliban insurgents would be occupied with their morning prayers.
As we drove, all of us could see the obvious choke point in the road ahead as the narrow road curved to the right on a steep incline. Jawid and I looked at one another with skeptical eyes and Jawid urged Hassan to drive faster. Then all of us saw the movement of 10 to 12 figures on both sides of the road. We immediately knew it was the Taliban and that they were setting up a check point. Both Jawid and I yelled for Hassan to drive faster and faster, pushing the little Toyota engine to its maximum.
Tim and I had traveled throughout a large swath of northern Afghanistan while on missions with our Afghan partners all the while driving so-called undercover cars and wearing traditional pajama pants and Masood hats. Taliban check points were always our biggest concern. We developed training with our Afghan partners as to what to do in the event we unavoidably drove into one. The tactic we developed was simple: slow the car down, then the driver would cause a slight verbal diversion, draw the insurgents to our vehicle and then we would attack using established fields of fire. It was a trojan horse concept built on the idea of survival in a potentially unsurvivable situation.
But Tim wasn’t with me and all I had was Hassan and Jawid. I had my M-4 and handgun, Jawid had an AK-47 and Hassan had a pistol. I also had my go bag which contained various other needed items. There was no need or time for talk as Jawid and I looked at each other and readied ourselves for the seemingly inevitable all the while hoping Hassan could make the Toyota scream past the insurgents. Lucky for us the slope off the sides of the road was too steep for the insurgents to rapidly climb onto the roadway. They were just setting things up and not fully ready to implement their check point and for them to stop our advance.
Hassan saved all of our lives that morning.
Now he was asking me to save his life and the lives of his family members as Kabul and all of Afghanistan has fallen to the very people he helped fight against. Over the past many months, I have tried to help Hassan submit his Special Immigrant Visa through the U.S. State Department and USCIS to no avail. I am fearful I cannot save the life of my friend and repay my debt.
Afghanistan has always been a very complex and enduring piece of strategic real estate in sub-continent Asia. Its people have seen the heydays of western lifestyles and governing in the 1960s and 1970s and this new generation of young people who have endured the past 20 years of the U.S. involvement there hoped to see their dreams of a free society be fulfilled. Without a doubt, Afghans have to take charge and responsibility for their own lives and country and the U.S. simply cannot continue to finance the operation of an entire country. However, be that as it may, that fact doesn’t take away the relationships forged with the innocent people who only yearn for freedom.
As the fan blades continued to turn above my head, so do the blades of the helicopters above the Kabul International Airport this Sunday morning in an effort to save all those who want to be saved.
Khuda pa amani, my friend.
Viper One Six – Out.
Leavenworth resident Dave Shearman is the author of “Outside The Wire In Blue.”