A Special Breed of Warrior

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I Serve With Honor on and off the Battlefield

The Korengal Valley in the northeastern portion of Afghanistan, Kunar Province, had been the center of the most intense fighting of the Afghan engagement. More American blood had been spilled there than in any other location in Afghanistan. This is where the First Squad of the Second Platoon of SEAL Team 4 would call home for a large portion of their forward deployment. The mountainous area was naturally covered in pines, but large areas had been stripped of tree canopy by logging operations. The beautiful, rugged area bred hard people.

The team’s first stop in Afghanistan was Bagram Air Base. The massive military complex run by the U.S. Air Force was populated with all of the forces of the U.S. and coalition military. The airfield was one of the main operating posts for all military operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assigned to operation Enduring Freedom. This was the second time the team had spent time at Bagram, so they knew their way around pretty well. It was harder for Zip.

Zip spent much of his first week on the base trying to get himself used to the strange new surroundings. His body needed to adjust its internal clock. Being a full nine and a half hours ahead of Virginia time really messed him up, and it took him days to fall into regular eating and sleeping cycles. During the long series of flights over a two-day period he was sedated, which didn’t help his adjustment to this curious land. The familiarity of military surroundings helped him to adjust somewhat, but the general atmosphere of this cold and barren land was something that he was having trouble getting used to.

The rest of the team was also adjusting in their own ways. Lieutenant Kelly spent most of his time with the Company Commander, Navy Commander Mathew D. Heard. R.J. was catching up on his workouts and trying out Bagram’s gym, thoroughly impressing everyone on base in the process. Angel took time to evaluate the weapons inventory and study the maps and terrain of the valley with Fox. Boomer and Todd scrounged for supplies, especially trying to accumulate as much junk food as they possibly could move forward with as well as the special food that Zip would need in the tough mountain terrain. Penman set about getting to know the team’s newest member, their Afghan interpreter.

Abdul “Abby” Ashkilani would be assigned to SEAL Team 4 during their time in the Korengal. He was a tough man who looked significantly older than his forty years. From the time he was a small boy, there had been some sort of war raging in his land, and the permanent state of conflict had hardened him both physically and emotionally. Although he had a Persian name, he was actually Tajik. His father had fought with the Mujahideen against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and had survived only to become completely disillusioned with the results. Although the Mujahideen were successful at repelling the communist invaders, it allowed another, equally oppressive group to rise in place of the Russians. The Taliban was not what Ghazi Ashkilani had in mind for himself or his family as a reward for what he viewed as a glorious victory in the name of Allah.

The bitterness flowed from father to son. Ghazi had worked closely with CIA operatives during the time of the Soviet invasion, helping to smuggle Stinger missiles through the Khyber Pass and into the Hindu Kush Mountains. He brought his young son with him and Abby quickly became acquainted with the ways of the CIA and Special Forces operatives who were secretly working with the Mujahideen. The Americans taught him English, even as he cultivated his skills in Russian, Dari, and his native Pashto. Now, this linguistic proficiency made him a very valuable asset to the ISAF forces.

During a brief period of peace before the Taliban regime was fully able to exert its influence, Abby married and they had three daughters. Bibi Kur was Abby’s devoted wife. She was resilient, and as strong as Abby. She understood the sacrifices that had been made by Ghazi Ashkilani and by her own family as well. She had lost both parents during the Soviet invasion, and it was Ghazi’s family who took her in and protected her. Bibi knew her daughters would never achieve their potential living under Taliban rule, so she supported Abby in the fight against oppression. She also knew that she could lose her husband in the process, and not only in the physical sense.

Abby’s daughters were beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed, independent thinkers—a recipe for disaster with the Taliban. Abby and Bibi Kur knew this and worried constantly for them.

The eldest and smartest was Zohal. Wise and compassionate beyond her eighteen years, she aspired to become a doctor. She had already seen so much pain in her life and the lives of others, and she wanted to do something about it. Zahmina Rai was the middle child and the athlete in the family. She loved to dance and was an excellent soccer player. When she was younger, she cut her hair short and disguised herself as a boy so that Bibi Kur could sneak her into neighboring villages to play soccer with the boys. The consequences of being discovered by the Taliban could have been deadly for them both, and Bibi sometimes wondered what she was thinking by allowing it. The youngest and most rebellious of the sisters was Shaima. At only thirteen years, she was already stubbornly refusing to wear a chador or even a hijab. Abby, Bibi, and her sisters knew she would surely become a target of the fundamentalists if she did not learn to keep her head covered and her mouth shut.

And so, Abby quietly snuck his family out of Kabul and moved them to the small city of Chehl Sutoon in the western plains of the country where the Taliban still had little influence. He then went back to the mountains where he joined the Northern Alliance, a loose network of Afghan tribes that had come together to resist the Taliban. The NA realized that the Taliban was nothing more than a power hungry, tyrannical political group hiding behind their own hypocritical interpretation of Sharia Law. Abby scoffed at the notion of ever having to live under those that would pervert the words of Allah and the teachings of the Prophet in such a way. Even the name “Taliban” turned his stomach. The Pashto word “Talib” means “seeker of knowledge.” In Abby’s mind, these were the last people on earth looking to be enlightened.

Now he was here, working with the ISAF forces and meeting his new team. He knew the mountains and the various villages and tribes in the area; he knew those that were sympathetic to the remnants of the Northern Alliance, those that were indifferent, and those out for a profit. All of them had a role to play in Abby’s personal fight. He met regularly with Commander Heard and Lieutenant Kelly to give them intelligence on the area, but he spent most of his time with Penman. The two connected with their passion for language. Before long, Abby was sincerely impressed with Penman’s ability to pick up on the regional dialect and accents as he reviewed the differences in Arabic, Pashto and Dari. Soon, the two were holding rapid conversations mixing all three together, as well as a little Russian thrown into the mix.

Around the end of their first week on base, Abby got his things together and moved over to the barracks with the rest of the team. Penman, who was helping him load his stuff, entered first to open the door wide and hold it for him, but Abby stopped dead in his tracks at the threshold.

“There is an animal in here,” he said in disbelief as he spotted Zip on Todd’s bunk.

“Oh, that’s just Zip,” Penman said. “He’s part of the team.”

Zip was sprawled as usual across Todd’s rack and took little notice of Abby as he took one, and only one, step into the room.

Abby stared at Zip intently and said nothing for an uncomfortably long period of time until he finally uttered, “The other dogs on this base are not in barracks. Dogs do not belong in the same living quarters with humans.”

“Well, this one does,” Penman said. “What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?”

“Dogs do not belong in the same living quarters with humans,” Abby repeated. Then he promptly spun on his heel and left.

Penman was not happy with the tension created between them, but losing an interpreter was the bigger problem, so he tracked down both Lieutenant Kelly and Todd immediately to explain what had happened. Todd was pissed.

“Screw him!”

“Shut up Mitchell!” Kelly snapped back, his tenor reaching the top of its register. “Look stupid, you have pushed the limits with that dog and if it comes down to a choice between our interpreter and that mutt, guess who wins? I’ll put him out in the kennels and that will be the end of it! Is that clear to you, Petty Officer?”

Mitchell was still defiant and responded in typical smart-ass fashion, “Oh, come on now Lieutenant, this is their country. I don’t think you need to put the towel head out in the kennel, it just wouldn’t be right.”

“Are you done pushing me?” Kelly glared.

Todd knew he had better gear down and backed off. “Yes Sir. Sorry, Sir.”

“Now go work this thing out. If you can’t, Zip goes to the kennel. Got it?”

“Yes Sir.” Todd turned without another word and headed briskly out the door of the command post.

“What the hell is wrong with that guy?” Todd asked Penman as they walked back to the barracks.

“Come on Todd, this isn’t your first rodeo over here,” Penman said. “You know Muslims don’t keep animals in the house, especially dogs. They think they’re unclean, and exist only for work and protection. These guys don’t keep pets. Most of the dogs in this country are half wild and full of disease. Besides, Abby’s never seen a dog like Zip. In his head, all the military working dogs are just trained killers. Look, you’re going to have to convince this guy. I’ll help you. He’s really sharp and one tough SOB. I think you’ll like him.”

“Dogs are filthy and never permitted in the house?” Todd replied. “Have you looked around this place? There isn’t a clean spot in this whole wasteland of a country. I mean, look at it! The entire damn country is gray! The houses are gray, the ground is gray, the sky is gray, hell, even the people are gray! Well, I better like him; and he better come around because Zip isn’t going anywhere.”

When they got back to the barracks, Abby was standing at near attention with his gear neatly placed beside him. Todd called Zip and he trotted from the barracks and sat down beside him.

“You’re Abby Ashkilani. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Todd said in the most diplomatic voice he could muster. “I’ve heard a lot about you in the short time we have been here and I know we’ll work well together.”

Penman fought the urge to roll his eyes, and had trouble hiding his incredulity at Todd’s line of BS.

“Thank you, Petty Officer,” Abby said. “It is also a pleasure to meet you and an honor to work with such a group of distinguished warriors.” This was Abby’s own line of BS. He had seen everything from Soviet Spetsnaz, to British SAS Commandoes to Norwegian FSK. He had been on deployment with U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force personnel but he had never worked with SEALs before and, though he knew the reputation, they would still have to prove themselves if they were going to gain Abby Ashkilani’s respect.

They moved to a picnic table alongside the barracks and Penman diplomatically brought tea for them. Zip sat up straight by Todd’s side, keeping a watchful eye on this new person. For the first few minutes, Abby had trouble concentrating on what was being said because he was continually distracted by the animal that seemed to be listening to him as intently as Todd and Penman were.

The three men talked for an hour. Todd explained the situation with Zip—how he was part of a fairly new program—and described the dog’s training. He pointed out that Zip served many purposes, and was not trained only to pursue and attack. He let Abby know that Zip needed to be in such close contact with the team so they could learn each other’s mannerisms and develop a nonverbal form of communication, and that he, in particular, needed to gauge how Zip might react in stressful situations.

Boomer came back from his workout about then and joined them, bringing some nuts and dates to have with the remaining tea. He opened a can of Pringles for himself.

Throughout the course of the conversation, Abby tried to relax. He could see that Todd was speaking with complete sincerity and could sense that this man and this dog had a bond beyond others. Now it was Abby’s turn to explain his objection to the cohabitation.

“You see, gentlemen,” he began, “I have never kept company with these animals for any particular amount of time, other than to run from them. When I was a child, I watched the dogs of the Soviet Army tear apart women and children even younger than myself. They terrorized us looking for Mujahideen. Many of the Soviet Spetsnaz forces used dogs bred at the Red Star Kennels.” Abby saw Todd’s right eyebrow go up. “You’ve heard of this place, yes? I have heard that they were known to genetically experiment with various breeds of dogs. Some of those Soviet military dogs had the blood of fifteen or twenty different breeds, including the wolf breeds. They made these dogs vicious. They were trained to intimidate us.

“When I was thirteen, my cousin and I, who was eleven, were watching the fence line of a Soviet encampment. Our job was to focus on the main gate and report to my uncle when patrols left the camp. One night, the guards spotted us and began to chase us with their dogs. We ran and ran like the wind, but still they chased us until we came to a dead end and they had us pinned against the wall of a courtyard. I was taller and stronger than my cousin and was able to leap and pull myself to the top of the wall.”

Abby stopped for a moment and looked down at his boots. “But my cousin was not reaching the top. I leaned over to help him and had him by the wrist but the dogs grabbed him and my grip failed. Two of these beasts pulled him to the ground and were on him. I sat there, on the other side of the wall, listening to those Soviet bastards laugh at my cousin’s screams, until he stopped screaming and they pulled the dogs away. They thought my cousin was dead, or dying, so they left him there.

“When I was sure they were gone, I climbed back over the wall and somehow managed to carry my cousin back to my uncle, his father. Rakeem was permanently blinded and lost the use of one arm. He cannot work or have a normal life. He lives with hideous scars and wakes in terror, still hearing the dogs when he sleeps. Sometimes I hear them, too.” Abby brought his eyes back up and looked over the table at Todd. “Dogs are the weapon of a coward.”

Todd, Penman, and Boomer sat in stunned silence as Abby finished his story. Todd began to get a better understanding of the man and a measure of respect. Later, as the course of the conversation lightened, they exchanged personal anecdotes. Abby told Todd of his three daughters and Todd told Abby that he was a new father to a daughter. Abby smiled and began to talk of the difficulties of rearing women and what Todd was destined for. In the end, the two came to an agreement about Zip. Abby would stay in the farthest bunk from Zip, and Zip would not be permitted to cross the barracks to Abby’s side. Todd would train Zip to have no personal contact with Abby. Zip would not approach him for any reason. It was a workable compromise.

The team spent another full month at Bagram riding out the bulk of the winter. When eventually deployed into the Korengal Valley, the platoons would take turns spending a month at a combat outpost (COP). First Platoon would be deployed to the Korengal first, while Second Platoon stayed at Bagram to review additional intelligence and continue training. Zip and the team passed the days before deployment becoming acclimated to the area. The SEALs reviewed intelligence reports from Naval Intelligence, CIA operatives, and other operational summaries as they gathered further information on their mission.

It was clear to them that Afghanistan was never going to become a true democracy. The country and its people were too hardened by nearly two thousand years of war and invasions to really trust any form of centralized government, or embrace the concept of democratic freedom as an institutional ideal. What could be trusted was the loyalty of a tribe or particular ethnic group. The ISAF intelligence community had realized this long ago. The best they could hope for was to institute an oxymoronic concept of “ordered anarchy” in the region.

The premise was not as crazy as it sounded. ISAF let the local tribes know that they had no intention of imposing democracy or any ideology on the people of the Hindu Kush. Their aim was to strengthen the individuality of the region and establish a network of communication between each tribe. By doing this, they could set up a loose conglomeration of city- or tribe-states that could trade and interact while remaining separate in their traditions. The hope was to make the tribes interdependent. Then, anytime an imposing force would intrude, or seek to assimilate them into a greater whole, the tribes could come together to uniformly negotiate or resist. It was a struggle for the soul of the Hindu Kush. Cooperation, interdependence, hope, commerce, education, and opportunity were kryptonite to the Taliban and they were prepared to subvert any attempts at such by the ISAF.

The Taliban was a formidable foe. They weren’t stupid and they had the supreme confidence that the power of God was on their side. There was no way that the infidels, with their lack of conviction, could possibly win in this holy battle for their people. However, even the mullahs who had spent years studying in the Pakistani madrassas could not easily overcome the cynicism of a tribal elder. Still, the Taliban were well entrenched and had their sympathizers. There were many who had been indoctrinated to hate all that the West represented, and viewed this latest effort as just another crusade to draw them further from the rule of Allah and the teachings of the Prophet.

In this struggle, the role of Navy SEAL Team 4 and other combat troops in the area was relatively straight forward, but incredibly difficult. They were to root out the Taliban and dilute their influence for as long as possible while fostering a system of cooperation and commerce. The concept was that by providing stability and strengthening the local economy, they would diminish opportunities for fanaticism and the subsequent development of terrorism. Unfortunately, time was not on the ISAF’s side. Troop drawdowns had already begun, impacting their efforts. The long process of gaining tribal trust could quickly erode.

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