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Lunch with Pirates

Operation Homecoming

Before embarking overseas, many servicemen and women receive cultural sensitivity briefings so that they do not inadvertently offend the civilians and allied military personnel they meet in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the information is basic common sense and courtesy: Do not seem impatient or distracted during conversations, do not point a finger in someone's face, do not use profanity, etc. But some rules are less obvious. One should not, for example, compliment a host on any specific item in his home, as he will then feel obliged to offer it as a gift. And it is extremely insulting to point the sole of one's foot at another person, even if it is done unintentionally while sitting and chatting informally. No matter how much preparation troops are given, however, they will inevitably find themselves in situations for which there is simply no training manual or reference guide. In March 2003, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Clint Douglas, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was deployed to Afghanistan with the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Illinois National Guard, for more than six months. Douglas quickly discovered that beneath the patina of social niceties and expressions of mutual regard, some associations and alliances with local leaders were considerably more complicated than they initially appeared. (Some names in the story have been changed in the interests of privacy.)

Overall we worked well with the provincial officials appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Like Karzai himself, they owed their positions and their continuing survival to the strength of our arms. Without us they were all dead men. But the most peculiar, if not spectacularly bizarre, of all of our relationships was that with Zia Audin, the local warlord in Gardez. It was one of distrust, conspiracy, and mutual antipathy. We endured a dysfunctional marriage of convenience, but divorce was difficult and we couldn't just get rid of him. The few men that he still controlled were encamped at several different bases around the city, but his real power emanated from the Bala Hissar, or Castle Greyskull as we called it, a massive fortification built by the British in the nineteenth century in the middle of Gardez. It dwarfed all of the other structures in town and dominated the entire mountain plain that surrounded the city.

Zia Audin, sorry, General Zia Audin, was responsible for many of the rocket attacks on our firebase and at least some of the IEDs that exploded around our patrols. All of the American and Afghan agencies around the region knew this, and most interestingly Zia Audin knew that we knew. But he didn't try to kill us out of a sense of either hatred or malice in his heart; he did it out of jealousy and pride, for Zia Audin was heartbroken. He suffered from an unrequited love of America, and this was awkward for all parties. So Zia Audin, in a fit of adolescent pique, did what came naturally — he tried to kill us.

Outright murder wasn't on his mind so much as grandiose posturing. What he wanted was attention and respect. What he wanted was to keep us frightened of the incomprehensibly alien and hostile Afghan countryside. By arranging the anonymous, nighttime rocket attacks that rained down on us as we slept in our bunks, he thought that he could reinforce the perceived necessity of his power and authority, if for no other reason than to protect us, and fortunately the rockets and mortars missed their mark. No one had been injured.

We were up to some not-so-subtle subterfuges of our own. In moving to the Gardez firebase, we had inherited from previous Special Forces teams a conspiracy to undermine and isolate Zia Audin, and it was something that we did with relish. Zia Audin was a bandit and a thug, and so, of course, he had been a close American ally. Although a Pashtun, he had been a member in the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. As a young man he had fought against the Soviets during the Jihad and then against the Taliban, who had imprisoned and tortured him for several years. When the Americans invaded, he joined the swelling ranks of unemployed warlords and reemerged from obscurity to fight the Taliban once again, along with their Arab allies. By all accounts he had been a brave and tenacious fighter. But he was now a petty warlord beholden to no one, and his rank of "general" was recognized due to his years of fealty and service against the Taliban.

The goal of the Americans was to provoke and humiliate Audin, and ultimately drive him from his castle in the city center. Stripped of the castle, which afforded him both symbolic and physical protection, he would only be safe in Kabul. He had many powerful enemies in Gardez, and the locals despised him. His men had terrorized the community, demanding protection money from the local shop owners and raping young boys on their way to school. They were highwaymen, who set up illegal checkpoints, charging "road taxes" from anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon one of their roadblocks. And they preyed on the local nomads, kidnapping prominent tribal elders until their families ransomed them from jail. Audin and his men had gone out of their way to alienate and piss off everyone in town. Rocketing our firebase didn't endear them to us either.

Special Forces teams, ANA (Afghan National Army) units, the Karzai-appointed provincial governor, and the new police chief all conspired to chip away at his power. First, Audin's men were forbidden from operating checkpoints along the roads, then they were banned from carrying weapons while out of uniform in the city, and finally they were prohibited from wearing their uniforms in the city limits as well. They were only authorized to travel from Castle Greyskull to their handful of crumbling encampments in the countryside, where they would languish in the desert. Failure to comply led to the emasculating spectacle of being publicly and roughly disarmed. Bandits stripped of their mystique and their weapons found themselves to be very vul¬nerable men, and their former victims suddenly saw them as the small-time criminals that they were.

And then there was the matter of the rapes. An old man stopped a patrol of ANA along a roadside and complained to the battalion commander about Zia Audin's men, "touching the schoolboys, who were always crying when they passed his house." He'd seen Audin's soldiers taking boys into their barracks. The ANA battalion commander, an old communist who had fought with the Soviets and against our erstwhile mujahideen allies, was livid.

He marched a company of his men, along with two gun trucks of his American advisors, into the closest of Audin's compounds. His soldiers disarmed the men inside under gunpoint and surrounded them in the middle of a courtyard, then lined them up against one of the compound's walls. "If I hear about another crying schoolboy, I'll come back and execute the lot of you," he announced, his voice cracking with rage.

This was a threat that he made frequently and with solemn Stalinist sincerity and it always worked. He could say things that we couldn't and we admired him greatly for it, although I couldn't help but wonder about a man who was so cavalier about firing squads and mass execution. How often had he delivered on this threat in the past? Or was I just being squeamish and weak? There were no more reports about crying schoolchildren. Audin's men were further restricted and forbidden from any contact with the Gardez shop owners. They would always push their luck, and after an armed confrontation they'd back down, losing more and more face in front of the locals.

This was the deteriorating situation. We'd whittled away at Zia Audin's power and his honor to the point where his men sat dispersed at their various barracks despised, unpaid, bored, and hungry. Because of their previous turns at bad behavior, the locals were enthusiastic about informing on them.

Shame is a powerful force in Afghanistan, and we disgraced these sad pitiful f***ers without mercy. The consistency with which the Americans had dealt with Zia Audin had also generated no small amount of goodwill among much of the local population. We were mostly tolerated as a necessary evil, and that was about as good as we could hope for.

I became obsessed with Audin and his gang of cutthroats. The Taliban were nebulous, as much rumor as reality, but I thought that we could actually do some real good if we could get these gangsters off the people's backs.

We were nearing the final act. Zia Audin was trapped and isolated. He was largely marginalized. We even treated the rocket attacks as more of a nui¬sance than anything else, the price of doing business in Afghanistan. But more sinister was his flirtation with the Taliban. We started to receive reports that he was assisting his old enemies, putting them up in the castle, and facilitating their activities in the area. He was trying to play both sides against the other in a last desperate bid to maintain some kind of relevance. It was the oldest game in Afghanistan, and a particularly dangerous one if all of the concerned parties found out what you were up to.

Out of desperation he had surrendered most of his heavy weapons as a goodwill gesture, but still we pushed. There would be no reconciliation. We would pressure him until either we could prove that he was working with the insurgents or until he just quit the city. And it was against this backdrop that Bill, our team sergeant, and I, along with our ANA battalion staff, called on Zia Audin for lunch.

Lunching with Zia Audin was a ritualistic courtesy, demanded by custom and protocol. The first time that I'd heard of such an absurdity was during a conversation with one of our predecessors at the Gardez firebase.

"You've actually had lunch with him?" I asked, shocked.

"Oh, yeah, sure. I've been up there a couple of times," he shrugged.

"Have I been reading the wrong intelligence reports or something? Did I miss a meeting? Are we talking about the same Zia Audin, the Zia Audin? The jackass who attacks our convoys, mortars our firebase, and who might be working with the Taliban?" I demanded, as I counted off his sins.

"That would be the one. It's just expected. You go up to Castle Greyskull occasionally and have lunch with him. You still have to talk to him, and anyway he puts on a nice spread of chow. If you get a chance to go up there, take it. You won't be disappointed," he said, obviously relishing the irony of the situation.

Now I had never in my pitiful life knowingly exchanged pleasantries over lunch, or any other meal for that matter, with a man who was regularly trying to kill me. But when Bill invited me to escort him to the castle for his first meeting with Audin, I jumped at the opportunity. The idea seemed so ele¬gant, like the medieval Spaniards and Moors retiring to each other's tents to play chess and exchange bon mots after a bloody day of battle and slaughter. Perhaps the metaphor was unnecessary; we would, after all, be departing from our own high-walled mud fortress to visit another, albeit grander one. We were literally making a kind of feudal social call. Although this situation was less straightforward; Zia Audin was technically on our side. And anyway, I really wanted to see the inside of that castle.

Bill and I, along with one interpreter (or terp, as we called them), jumped into the old Mercedes jeep that served as our "get around town" car and followed two jeeploads of our Afghan officers up to the castle. Theoretically the purpose of this visit was to discuss ways to coordinate our efforts at stabilizing the area around Gardez, but the reality was that lunch provided us all an opportunity to size each other up.

At the bottom gate to the castle drive, Audin's men lined up for a slapdash review. They saluted and lowered the ridiculous cotton string that barred the road to the castle heights, which meandered up the hillside past the thick stone walls and into an immense central courtyard. The courtyard itself was littered with old Soviet antiaircraft guns and rusting howitzers under several ancient shade trees. All of this, in turn, was surrounded by decrepit barracks and administrative buildings that were missing doors and windows. The rooms themselves appeared to be ransacked, with rusting artillery shells, old rockets, and human feces strewn along the floor.

On the north side, a rocky outcrop ascended still higher and the crum¬bling stone marked an even older castle, whose origins appeared to have been lost in violent antiquity. And here atop the highest parapet stood two stone burial vaults decorated with the green flags of martyrdom. But to whom they belonged was also seemingly lost. Opposite the most ancient part of the cas¬tle was a two-story building that had seen at least some renovation during the twentieth century. There were no obvious holes in its corrugated tin roof and the window frames held actual glass.

Audin and his officers walked out from behind this building while his soldiers, wearing pressed uniforms rather than the normal mix of camouflage and civilian attire, assembled in two ranks. Then Audin and his entourage filed between them dressed in finery appropriate to their status as oriental despots. They wore a mixture of green and khaki ceremonial uniforms, accessorized by scarlet epaulettes and exaggerated peaked garrison caps that were a hangover from Russian military fashion sense. They formed a reception line for us to introduce ourselves, shaking hands gently in the Afghan custom, as we touched our hearts, mouthing, "Salaam Alaikum"— Peace be with you. We left a couple of ANA privates to guard the vehicles in the courtyard. They were the only ones present who didn't feel the need to wear disingenuous smiles and instead eyed Audin's troops sternly, all business.

Audin's officers led us into what was the warlord's office and receiving room, with a large desk at one end and couches surrounding a low brass coffee table. The typical Afghan functionary would decorate his office with a bouquet of fake silk flowers, but Audin, the gaudy usurper, felt compelled to jam a dozen of them in every nook and cranny. The moldy brown carpet was covered by a cheap and threadbare burgundy-colored Afghan rug. The airless room stank of mildew, and body odor filled the space like a fog. Everyone settled into the couches, while Bill and I removed our body armor, piling it next to the door along with our carbines. We still had our pistols, and I chose to sit next to our gear, just in case this already awkward luncheon went horribly wrong. I calculated that Bill and I could shoot everyone in the room easily before any help could arrive for Audin, which I found reassuring.

Audin sat in front of his desk, and when he removed his pompous headgear, I could finally get a good look at him. Not surprisingly he was a small man, broad across the shoulders, but also handsome. His meticulously combed and pomaded beard merged into a full head of black hair. He had a fresh haircut and used a discreet amount of hair crime. His hands were soft for an Afghan, with long manicured fingernails, and they were no longer accustomed to physical labor. His face, the little that wasn't covered by his thick beard, seemed unaffected by his years of hardship and overexposure to the desert wind and sun. This coupled with his dark sensuous eyes and full lips gave him an effete quality. He looked younger than I'd expected, too young to be the potentate of Gardez. He did not smile and when he spoke, he did so to the entire room and without looking at anyone directly, but taking in everything as his eyes shifted nervously from side to side. I knew right away that this was a man who had lost the taste for guerrilla fighting and living in caves. He was afraid.

Tea was served immediately and pleasantries were exchanged between Audin's staff and the ANA officers until the food was served. And it became glaringly apparent that Bill and I had made a serious error before we'd come to the castle — we'd brought only one terp, who was huddled next to Bill on the couch translating snatches of the conversation. I, however, was on the other side of the room and being deaf as a stump, was having a difficult time hearing the translation.

This was just a tactical error; the strategic disaster was in our choice of interpreter. We'd brought Mohammed, who, while he claimed that he was twenty, didn't look a day older than fifteen and was fresh faced, pretty, and beardless. We'd brought a god***n cherub to a meeting with a gang of pirates, pederasts, and rapists. Audin's henchmen couldn't stop gaping at him, their eyes bugging out of their heads. The young man shifted his slight frame nervously under the weight of their lewd stares, causing the couch to creak loudly and distracting everyone in the room. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, and he tapped his left foot incessantly.

He was also a lousy interpreter, one of our worst. All of his languages, English, Dari, and Pashtu, sounded like "moosh, moosh, moosh," and he had the affectation of pursing his lips when he spoke, giving the impression that he was blowing kisses to the listener. The suggestiveness of this unfortunate habit drove the assembled bandits mad with lust as they leaned forward in their seats devouring peaches and hanging on his every mooshy word.

But at least the captain had been right about the food; it was delicious — lamb and chicken kebabs with jasmine rice, followed by fresh melon, and ice-cold Pepsis. After the last plates had been cleared, we got down to the serious business of politics and war. I pulled out my notebook, if for no other reason than to look official and to write down my observations and the names of the men gathered. Bill began guiding the conversation where we wanted it.

"Attacks on coalition forces have been increasing in the region for the last two months." He paused, looking directly at Audin. "Are you aware of this?"

"Moosh, moosh, moosh."

The bandit on my right crunched loudly into one of the last remaining peaches and juice dribbled down his long beard.

"Yes, yes we are of course aware of this and we are concerned for the safety of our American friends.... We want to help, but our resources are sadly limited," Audin lied. "The people who are responsible for these attacks are not from this region. There are no Taliban here. All of the people are against the Taliban and bin Laden and the Al Qaeda. These people are foreigners, from Pakistan or maybe Kandahar."

"So you know nothing?" I said, staring directly at Audin, trying to be menacing and give my words weight by making eye contact, but failing.

He did not respond.

"Well, General, the only way that we'll be able to help you is if you join your forces with the Afghan National Army," Bill continued. He didn't have to threaten, he was a threat. The son of Norwegian farmers from Minnesota, he looked every bit the errant Viking that he was. His thick and muscled body always seemed to be straining to contain something explosive and volatile. His face was permanently locked in an angry scowl under a shaggy mane of sandy hair. I'd always had a nagging sense that Bill might feel the need to snap my neck someday, just to relieve tension, and I'd been his friend for six years.

"Yes, I'm very interested in this ANA. It is very good to build a new army for the peace, security, and stability of Afghanistan. Perhaps some of you Americans or some of these Afghan officers could share some of these new techniques with my men," Audin said, sweeping his hand toward the couch filled with our counterparts.

"No, I'm afraid that that is not possible. We only work with the ANA and the ANA do not train other militias. Respectfully, I don't think that you understand what the ANA is," said Bill, smiling. "Your men must eventually submit to ANA command and go to Kabul for training."

"Ah, yes I see. Perhaps then, I could send some of my men to Kabul for training and then they will return here to Gardez and share this new knowledge. Then together we will all work for peace, security, and stability here in Gardez. But after we have done this we will need new weapons and money for uniforms. Right now I do not even have the money to pay my soldiers." At this his men nodded in agreement, while our Afghans said nothing and betrayed neither emotion nor opinion.

"Again this is not possible. All of your men need to go to Kabul for training. We know that your men are good soldiers. There will always be a home for them in the ANA," replied Bill, speaking not to Audin this time, but to his lackeys, who were concerned about their personal fortunes as well. He was offering them a way out. He paused for dramatic effect. "But they will not return here under your command. They will become professional soldiers, and they will go where the army orders them, just as my army has sent me here to Afghanistan."

"Yes, I see. But my own men are from here. This is their home. Many of them must take care of their families, some even have sick relatives that they must tend to. Plus they know the city. The people of Gardez do not trust strangers. My men can provide information. They can recognize the people who come here to cause trouble. They can be a great contribution to the peace, security, and stability of Gardez."

I had had enough of the courtly circularity of the conversation and decided to force the issue. The empty cynical phrase "peace, security, and stability" was also giving me a headache. I looked at the terp, who I suspected had been doing a lousy job at the translation to begin with, and told him to pay close attention to my words, to which he responded with a peevish scowl.

"Who are the terrorists and where are they? If you and your men know the area and who the troublemakers are, then tell us. Give me their names and their addresses. We know that there are Taliban in Gardez. The firebase is attacked regularly, bombs are planted along the roads, and bandits set up illegal checkpoints to rob the people. You say that you can help us, then help us."

The room exploded into arm waving and excited jabbering and the terp was overwhelmed.

"General Audin says that they do not know who these people are, but if they find them, then they would gladly torture them for you," the terp said affably, while trying to keep up with the six men who were all speaking to him at once. The mention of torture apparently brought all of the Afghan factions in the room together and now all of them were animated and jabbering and laughing and the tension eased. I lit a cigarette and waited for the room to quiet a bit.

"Now what are they talking about?" I asked the terp after the commotion seemed to die down.

"They're still talking about torturing their enemies," he replied with a shrug. I waited, but the Afghans seemed content to debate the nuances of abuse. Bill just smiled indulgently as he observed the scene.

"If you don't know who these people are, what use are you to us?" I interrupted over the din of the crowd. "They are the future," I said, pointing at the ANA officers, who were suddenly all quiet and stone faced. "If your men want to continue to soldier, then they will join the ANA. If they have to stay in Gardez, then they'll have to get civilian jobs. There's no way around it. It's inevitable."

The room grew silent and the tension returned, to my great malicious satisfaction. But Audin was a professional at these parlor games, whereas I was just an amateur. He was momentarily off balance, but recovered quickly. He made eye contact with me for the first time and only for a moment, before slowly reaching for his tea on the coffee table.

"Tell me more about this ANA of yours. My men and I very much want to help our American friends fight the wicked Taliban."

And around and around we went for another hour, just like the previous one. Audin was trying to find a way to hold on to some scrap of his power and prestige, while we tried to disabuse him of the notion that he had any future in Gardez. Finally, when everyone seemed exhausted from too much talking and jittery from too much tea, we left the castle after many florid pronouncements from all sides testifying as to the great productivity of the day and assurances to meet again soon.

During the drive back to the firebase, I found myself feeling oddly sorry for Audin. He was frozen in his own rhetoric, an anachronism, incapable of change. He was alone and justifiably terrified of the future, surrounded by enemies, a prisoner behind his own castle walls. Perhaps pity was a truer description of what I felt for him, however fleetingly. He was just a man after all and not the monster of my imagination. But the feeling faded as we passed the earthworks of our own fortifications and I saw the faces of my friends. He had made his own enemies, and I counted myself among them more than ever. It was his obvious position of weakness that I'd seen during lunch and it was this frailty that had spoken to my humanity, but it didn't last. I felt a clarifying rush of bloodlust instead.

We headed over to the Afghan officer tent when we got back to brief the ANA battalion commander and talk with our counterparts about their impressions of Audin and his cronies. We found the officers lounging around a long table drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Two commanders from another Afghan militia unit had stopped by for a visit. They were from General Lodin's command and Zia Audin theoretically reported to them, although they exercised no real control over him. Everyone had been discussing how to remove him from Gardez before we even arrived. One of the guests, whose face remained shrouded behind aviator sunglasses, claimed that he was Audin's "best friend," and that while he remained loyal to his comrade in arms, he understood that his old friend needed to move on, perhaps to Kabul.

"He must learn that the world is changing," he explained, as he prattled on about the usual "peace, security, and stability" bull****. They say never trust a man who says, "Trust me," and I decided while I sat there listening to this man pontificate that anyone in Afghanistan who talked at length about peace, security, and stability was probably working overtime to undermine all three. The general consensus among the Afghans was that Audin needed to be handled respectfully, if not gently. His mysterious friend promised to have a manly tete-a-tete with him while he was in town. It was impossible to tell whether he was there to spy for us or on us.

While all of this flowery discussion was taking place, I noticed that Bill seemed more explosive than usual, and then suddenly, he slammed his fist onto the table, spilling everyone's tea, and his face contorted into unmasked fury. "I hate that asshole!" he screamed to no one in particular. "I wanted to punch that no-good mother****er in the face! Beat that mother****er right in his own god***n house! Beat him right in front of his men... mother****er. I'd love to shoot that bastard." And then he laughed like a maniac at his own bloody fantasy.

Audin's "best friend" literally winced in what looked like genuine pain, and the rest of the Afghans looked aghast and confused as they listened to the translation. "Oh ***," I thought, "so much for diplomacy." The ANA officers were laughing nervously and their insulted guests didn't bother to hide their irritation at this breach of protocol, both of them scowling and smoking in silent impotent rage.

Cultures everywhere celebrate their traditions, but they also chafe against them. Most Afghans were tired; tired of war, tired of fighting, and tired of meaningless talk. Bill embodied the unrestrained and unpredictable power of the United States, but his frustrated rage appeared to be honest, and honesty is a rare and precious thing. Stories of his impolitic explosion filtered through the terps, the ANA soldiers, the Afghan militias and mercenaries, into the city, and no doubt to our myriad enemies. Bill's reputation was made. That was the day that the Afghans named Bill Shere Khan, The Tiger. That was the day that the Afghans fell in love with him. Bill was a force of nature, and so it was impossible to tell whether his outburst was genuine or calculated drama, but it amounted to an earthquake. Here was Bill, heir to Iskander in all of his blond barbarous glory, equal parts courteous and cruel. My petulant badgering of Audin had been nothing more than second-rate theatrics, which no doubt all of the Afghans expected from an earnest and self-righteous American.

Up until that moment, the Audin situation was a local political problem, but Bill had made it personal, he'd made it tribal. And at that moment he'd crossed over and gone native. After that day there wasn't a thing that our Afghan troops wouldn't do for him; they trusted him completely. In a land fragmented by blood feuds, he'd transcended politics and had declared a personal vendetta. And in Afghanistan, it was considered a moral obligation to carry out one's revenge. Two weeks later Zia Audin quietly abandoned Castle Greyskull and fled to Kabul.

Excerpted from Operation Homecoming, by Andrew Carroll, editor. Copyright (c) 2006 by Southern Arts Federation. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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Staff Sergeant Clint Douglas