Stronger than My Enemies
When the helicopters arrived, Lieutenant Kelly briefed the engineers and relief troops on the situation. He left Abby and Penman to assist with the interrogation of the locals while he gathered the rest of his squad and returned to the Humvees. When they got back to the vehicles, an additional squad of British SAS personnel was making its way up the road in a couple of FV432 Bulldog Armored Personnel Carriers to escort the team back to the COP. The Brits reported that their trip was uneventful and they expected a smooth ride back to the COP.
As Abby, Penman, and two Naval Intelligence officers who had accompanied the engineers interviewed the Shuras, the truth of the situation began to come out. The Taliban had been in and out of the village for the past three months moving equipment and people through the hills. Darbat had become a resting stop between where they were coming and going. They estimated about 200 men had been through the area carrying weapons and ammunition. The Taliban had appropriated nearly all of their winter stores and assured them they would be well taken care of in the spring but no further help ever arrived. Toward the end of the winter, they began leaving arms at the village and, when they heard that the ISAF was stepping up their incursions to the local villages, they hastily dug the storage area that the team discovered.
The Taliban had held the villagers in a constant state of fear and false hope. They took the tribal elder’s granddaughters and grandson away, promising their safe return if the villagers continued to cooperate. When the SEALs found the weapons and ammunition, all hope evaporated. As Abby and Penman interviewed the elder, he broke down and began to sob. He told them that since the village had failed to protect the weapons, his grandchildren were all but dead. The village would be marked and when the Taliban returned, Darbat would cease to exist.
The intelligence team assured the elders otherwise. They told them that food and supplies were on the way. They were arranging for a platoon of Green Berets to come and assist them with training the remaining men of the village to use the weapons left by the Taliban. They would set up a system of communication the elders could use to call for help if needed. Also, they would arrange for increased meetings with the neighboring villages to form a coalition to help each other share resources.
The Shuras were not placated. They had seen this routine before. The Taliban were like cockroaches—one could come in and stifle them for a time but they would always come back. Someday the soldiers would be gone but the fanatics would still be there, waiting for the next opportunity.
Abby tried to explain his situation to them and his belief that, if they banded together and remained strong with the help of the military, they could push the Taliban out. The Shuras looked at Abby and coldly responded, “We are talking to a dead man.”
Abby sighed and said to Penman, “These people are beaten. Their spirit is broken and they are now just part of the landscape. I don’t think we can do anything here.”
Penman was a little more optimistic. “It looks bad Abby but let’s see what the engineers and Green Berets can do. They’ll get the Shuras from the next village over here and try to be the diplomats in all of this.”
“I hope you are right, my friend.”
Ten kilometers away, Tajwah Rabbani was returning to the camp of Mullah Nur Mohammed Karmal. The Taliban had developed an ingenious system of caves and various encampments within the Hindu Kush Mountains and Korengal Valley that had helped repel invaders for centuries. This particular camp included a system of caves and tunnels that went on for several kilometers in the mountains, opening into a small network of pastures that were used for grazing livestock. Nur Mohammed Karmal knew every inch of this territory. His brilliant use of both ruthless and sometimes humanitarian tactics, intimidation, and concealment had made him a formidable enemy. Karmal was almost a legend; seemingly more myth than actual person. There was only one known photograph of the man, and that was disputed. Even his personal history was a mystery. The villagers told stories that he was a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. He was said to be “God’s Warrior” and impervious to harm by the infidel. The truth was something completely different.
Nur Mohammad Karmal was indeed a mere mortal. He was orphaned when his parents were killed by Pakistani military police during a demonstration, and placed under the care of his maternal uncle along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Karmal’s uncle was an extremist who despised the ways of the West and instilled that hate in his nephew. The uncle made sure to poison the mind of his nephew as he began to manufacture a man of hate. Karmal’s education was a mixture of half-truths and complete lies about the infidels and their crusades and attempted corruption of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet. Karmal was taught the Koran, but only those passages that emphasized the need to protect the word and punish the transgressor. When Karmal’s uncle sent him away to the Darul Uloom Haqqania Madrassa in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, at the age of thirteen, he handed over the essence of an extremist.
The Imams of the madrassa began to mold the clay of hate into the personality of a fanatic. They taught him to speak and become a talented orator. They were impressed by this child’s ability to easily memorize the Koran and to recite the passages with conviction. They taught him to listen; to take the thoughts of others, repackage them, and twist them into his own agenda. There was brilliance of the worst kind in this child. A world of hardship, oppression, religious extremism, and political manipulation had created a dangerous human being who could be used as an effective weapon against those the Imams saw as a threat.
The Imams were successful at manufacturing their religious zealot, but the child needed to learn the ways of destruction. For this, he was sent to learn from Al-Qaeda’s Lashkar Al Zil or “The Shadow Army.” The Lashkar Al Zil was a paramilitary unit consisting of the reformed 055 Brigade which was the Taliban’s Special Forces. It included many former Mujahideen. Karmal learned the craft of war by being a direct aid to commander Abdullah Said Al Libi. When he joined the Shadow Army in the early ’90s he also met a man who would become his mentor for a brief time. Ali Mohamed was a double agent. He was closely tied to Al-Qaeda, but also acted as an advisor to the U.S. Coalition. He trained with the U.S. Special Forces at Ft. Bragg and taught Karmal about the U.S. Military structure and tactics during his time in Afghanistan. The lessons Karmal learned from Al Libi and Ali Mohamed shaped him into an efficient weapon.
Karmal developed charisma by studying the great religious, military, and political leaders. He was especially imbued with the exploits of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman also known as the “Blind Sheik.” Abdel-Rahman had been convicted of organizing the first World Trade Center bombing and was the inspiration for the more insidious attacks perpetrated by Osama bin Laden. Ali Mohamed knew the Blind Sheik and spoke of him as if he were a mystic. Mohamed would later be caught and convicted of conspiracy for his part in plots to bomb embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Because of Mohamed’s stories about the Blind Sheik and a desire to keep a sense of mystery about himself, Karmal took to always wearing dark glasses so that no one could look into his eyes and possibly secure a glimpse into his empty soul.
Now, as he stood at the edge of a shallow crevasse and watched Rabbani approach the camp, Karmal could see the dejection on Rabbani’s face and knew that it would not be good news. He pushed the heavy glasses up on the bridge of his long nose and resolved to steel himself to whatever the news was to be. He listened to Rabbani give his report about the SEAL team incursion and discovery of the weapons cache then told Rabbani that he was thankful for his safe return and instructed him to rest and get some food. He would organize a meeting of his commanders in two hours so that Rabanni could deliver his report again to the entire group. Karmal was an expert at managing a meeting.
His commanders were a small and close-knit group who had been operating in the mountains of the Hindu Kush for most of their adult lives. Karmal’s approach was to frame a discussion, then take a knee in the middle of the group and let them opine. Sometimes he would let the conversation go on for hours without saying a word. This was the case for the current situation. His advisors listened to Rabbani’s report and discussed options. Some of them suggested returning to Darbat and wiping it off the map as they had done to other villages that had defied or disappointed them. Others suggested they send suicide bombers to the COP. Karmal patiently listened and said nothing. Eventually, when the discussion deteriorated into a circular argument and Karmal knew that his group had explored all options, it was time for him to intercede and make decisions.
As was his custom, he rose from the middle of the group and stepped to an area of the room that allowed whatever light source was available to hit him in a particular manner that illuminated him but still kept a portion in the shadows. When he addressed any group, his first words were always a softly spoken. As-salāmu ʿalaykumā, “Peace be upon you.”
“My brothers,” he began. “Thank you for the useful discussion. Allah has blessed me with talented leaders and advisors. We are facing another group of formidable enemies but their arrogance will once again bring their demise. They think they have crippled us and are now gathering further intelligence from the people of Darbat and formulating their next steps against us. We must keep them off balance.
“Tajwah, I must once again ask you to be the tip of my sword.”
Tajwah Rabbani nodded in reverent compliance.
“The Americans think they have won a victory, when in fact they have only scored a point. They will be itching for more. Tajwah will take three men to their nest and poke at them until they are angry enough to swarm. When they do, he and his men will lead them away to the ruins near Bebiyal.
“Tajwah, you must make a retreat that looks as though a professional soldier is trying to mask an escape. But don’t conceal too much. We want the Americans to believe they are being clever in their ability to track you. When you arrive at the ruins, dig yourselves in and wait for us. There will be food, water, and additional arms waiting for you. We will not be far. Bebiyal is a perfect spot for us. It is in a place that tapers into a narrow valley. Their helicopter air support will be ineffective.”
“Teacher;” Abdur Rahman spoke. Rahman was Karmal’s explosive expert and an especially cruel man. “What of those sheep in Darbat? They betray us at this very moment.”
“What exactly do they know, Abdur?” Karmal replied, nearly dismissing the comment and question. “We will soon pay them another visit and educate them on the consequences of impiety. For now, we will deal with that elder’s grandchildren. Send the boy to our brothers at the madrassa in Akora Khattak that he might come to know Allah and someday rejoin us in Jihad. Send the girls back to Darbat—” He paused and looked slowly around the circle at his commanders. “But only the heads. We will keep the rest as retribution for Darbat’s imprudence.”