QANDAHAR

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Chapter 14

9:30 a.m. AST. March 21, 2009

“I understand completely, Senator.” President Forster spoke into a secure phone aboard Air Force One high over the western Atlantic after leaving Andrews Air Force Base nearly forty-five minutes late. She had meant to call Senate Majority Leader Brian Hughes since he’d left a message with Helen Brown the day before at the Oval Office. “Senator, it appears we’ll need a few more votes to get Constance Stowe in. I’ll call some of those stubborn Senators on my way to London.”

“It’ll do them good to hear from you,” Hughes said from his office on Capitol Hill. Forster was trying her best to hear Hughes’ voice above the constant whirring sound of the 747’s four jet engines. “Oh, when you see Secretary Wheeler, tell him thanks for his calls. They really helped.”

Hughes had worked closely with Wheeler, the former President, when he was in office. And Hughes eventually came out early in support of Richard Templeton’s presidential candidacy, a surprise to many of his fellow Democrats in the Senate. Hughes also had been one of a handful of Democrats who’d attended Templeton’s funeral in South Carolina.

“Madam President, you can tell Secretary Wheeler,” said Hughes, “you’ll have yourself a Vice President on Tuesday.”

President Forster had been insistent that Constance Stowe stay in Washington and not make this trip with her to Jordan and Iraq. “You need someone with you to give ’em hell,” Stowe had said. That’s precisely why the President didn’t want her along. Constance Stowe was a political infighter, not a diplomat.

The President’s retinue on the trip included Helen Brown, press secretary Claire Higgins,

National Security Advisor Timothy Connors and Secret Service agents Janet Watson and Gabriella

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Nunez. Forster was scheduled to meet Secretary of State Gordon Steinmetz and Defense Secretary Wheeler in Aqaba, Jordan the following day, March 22nd.

__________

4:19 a.m. GMT+3hrs. March 21, 2009

Thirteen miles south of Sheykh Sho’eyb, Iran

Eastern Persian Gulf

“Captain, we have three stationary blips about four nautical miles off the starboard bow,” a U.S. Navy ensign said into the mouthpiece of his headset.

“What are they?” asked Captain Blaine Rendell, who had switched on a bulkhead-mounted reading lamp. He was speaking over a closed-circuit line from his quarters to the ship’s radar and communication center.

“Appear to be non-military cargo ships, sir, dead in the water,” the ensign said.

“In international waters?” asked the captain.

“No, sir. Too close to Iran. They’re right off some little spit of an island called Sheykh Sho’eyb.” The ensign spelled out the island’s Arabic name.

“Any visual I-D?”

“Negative, sir, not at this time,” said the ensign, “but I’ll check it out.” The captain heard a click on the other end of the line. He cradled the phone between his left ear and shoulder as he swung around over the edge of his bunk and sat up. One hand tried wiping sleep from his eyes, the other reached for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter on a bunk-side table. He heard another click.

“Anything?” Rendell picked up the cigarette pack and pulled one out with his fingertips.

“Checked with the watch on the bridge, sir,” said the ensign. “With nearly a full moon, sir, the bridge can see ’em. But their running lights are off.”

“We’ll be slowing down and coming around back again at daybreak to get a visual,” Rendell said to the ensign. “I’ll be in the wheelhouse command center by then.”

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“Aye, aye, sir,” barked the ensign. The phone clicked off.

Captain Rendell dialed the bridge and ordered the night duty officer to slow the USS Hue City to eight knots and run in a circle two miles in diameter. He hung up the phone and lit the cigarette and inhaled, slowly exhaling the smoke.

Then he picked up from his desk a coded message deciphered on a half-sheet of paper and read it again: “Board and inspect three (?) Pakistani-flagged freighters – Barcelona, Cadiz and Cordoba. Be on the lookout for contraband munitions, explosives and heavy armament. Proceed with extreme caution. Suspected Jihadist Front militants believed on board.” The message was from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

Rendell finished the cigarette before he took a quick shower and put on his uniform. He was walking to the bridge as the first rays of sunlight spread over choppy, Persian Gulf seas.

7:06 a.m. GMT+3hrs. March 21, 2009

Ten miles off Sheykh Sho’eyb, Iran

Eastern Persian Gulf

“Give me those binoculars,” Captain Rendell said to the duty watch officer on the bridge of the USS Hue City. He focused the binoculars. “You said they don’t have Spanish names.”

“Yes, sir,” the watch officer said. “In some other language I’m not familiar with, sir.”

“Shit!” said Rendell. “Three ships all right, but different color scheme and they’re Portuguese-flagged with Portuguese names.” The ships were less than two miles to the northwest. “What the hell happened to those three Spanish ships? Saw ’em entering the Gulf days ago.”

“Not the ships we’re looking for, sir?” asked the watch officer.

“Nah, not our day today. All ahead, full,” said Rendell, leaning over a chart table and glancing at a nautical map of the southwestern section of Iran’s coastline along the Persian Gulf.

“We’ll set a course toward, ah, fifty degrees longitude, thirty degrees latitude. Look for those suckers up north near the Shatt-al-’Arab. Maybe they’re docking near Iraq somewhere. Lieutenant, any word from patrol boats up along the Saudi coast?”

“No, sir,” said the watch officer. “No radio traffic about those three ships.”

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“Well, I hope one of ’em gets lucky,” Rendell said. “We got about forty-some of those little suckers out there.”

__________

12:30 a.m. GMT+3hrs. March 22, 2009

King Hussein International Airport

Aqaba, Jordan

Over eastern Egypt, Air Force One began its descent into southern Jordan. It had crossed the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, skirted the Jordanian coastline and landed in a twenty-mile per hour wind that had kicked up a mild, ground-level sand storm. A contingent of Royal Jordanian soldiers in full military dress and wearing protective goggles quickly marched in formation to the plane taxiing toward the airport’s control tower and a nearby hangar. The soldiers formed an honor guard inside a hastily installed, seventy-foot long tunnel of canvas that had been stretched and tied down over a eight-foot high, ten-foot wide bridgework of aluminum and copper tubing.

The U.S. entourage deplaned under a protective canopy that led directly into the canvas tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, inside an air-conditioned, well-lighted hangar, stood Jordan’s King, who greeted President Forster with a quick handshake and a kiss on each cheek. “Welcome to my kingdom, Madam American President,” said the King. “I’m so sorry about the inconvenience of a little sand blowing around.”

“Thank you, your royal highness,” said Forster, “but I find the swirling sand a good sign. Minute specks of sand centuries old have come from all over the Middle East to greet us here this morning after crossing thousands of miles of desert, the handiwork of God alone.”

A line of Cadillac limousines parked inside the hangar awaited the U.S. delegation. President Forster, accompanied by Secret Service agents Watson and Nunez and Helen Brown, rode in the lead car to the Royal Jordanian Hotel, a beach resort less than five miles across the Gulf of Aqaba from Eilat in southern Israel.

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10:23 a.m. GMT+3 hrs. March 22, 2009

Royal Jordanian Hotel

Aqaba, Jordan

A Jordanian military band struck up the first chords of The Stars and Stripes Forever, the official march of the United States, as President Lorraine Forster entered a large marble-columned banquet hall. She winced a bit upon hearing an off-key note from the band’s trumpet section. The President turned to Timothy Connors, her escort. “You hear that?” she whispered.

“Ah, yes ma’am,” said Connors, who leaned in close to the President.

“I hope that’s not a precursor of things to come.” Forster attempted a smile. She glanced from Connors to a large circular table in the middle of the ornate hall. Connors led the President to a seat at the table opposite a large picture window with a view of a beach along the Gulf of Aqaba empty of tourists. Instead, there were scores of heavily armed security guards, sitting inside Humvees and Land Rovers or pacing back and forth. The twelve-piece band stopped playing. Each member gathered his instrument to exit the hall.

President Forster turned to greet Jordan’s King Nasim, a short, barrel-chested man dapperly dressed in a tailored Savile Row dark suit. The King smiled, his salt-and-pepper, well-trimmed moustache glistening with wax.

“Our military musicians are not attune to the nuances of American marches composed by your Mr. Sousa,” said the King.

“Oh,” said the President, a little taken aback. “You it heard it, too. That poor trumpeter was probably just nervous with all the dignitaries here.” Coming to her left was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Ish-Shalom. There followed Egyptian President Abdul Qaadir and Prince Ahmed Muhammed

Karim, the Saudi Prime Minister, walking into the hall together. The three leaders approached President Forster, bowed their heads toward her and went to stand at the back of their seats, waiting until the Jordanian King sat down. But he remained standing.

“Please, all of you, my good friends,” said the King, “please do sit down. Our finest coffee will be served to you.”

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Wearing starched white shirts, black ties and freshly pressed and creased black trousers, waiters poured coffee first into President Forster’s small white, pristine cup resting on a gold-trimmed saucer. She turned and looked up to the waiter serving her and said thank you in Arabic.

“We shall get started with our proceedings,” said the King. “It is my understanding that American Defense Secretary Wheeler and Secretary of State Steinmetz and their guests are soon to arrive.” He turned to President Forster, who was seated next to him.

“Yes they are, your highness,” Forster said. She quickly turned away from the King and motioned to Connors, seated with Helen Brown, Press Secretary Claire Higgins and Secret Service agents Watson and Nunez behind the President. He walked over to the President.

“Yes, ma’am?” Connors said as he approached the President.

“Are they here yet?” she asked. Connors’ left hand reached to his wireless earpiece. He listened for a few seconds.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “They’ve just entered the hotel lobby.” With that, Connors stepped back and the President rose to her feet and straightened the lapels of her suit jacket.

“Excuse me, your highness,” said Forster. The King sat down. He was seated to President

Forster’s right. On his right was the Israeli Prime Minister, who glanced up at Forster and then across the table to the Egyptian President and the Saudi Prime Minister. The three leaders had been informed to expect only the arrival of Wheeler and Steinmetz.

“I have personally invited two others to our meetings today,” Forster announced. “I, of course, had checked ahead of time with King Nasim to determine if it would be good protocol to invite our special guests. His highness said to me personally that it would be most appropriate to have at this conference the foreign ministers of two of Iraq’s neighboring states.”

Walking into the hall, as if on cue, were Syrian Foreign Minister Adar Maloof and Iranian Foreign Minister Javeed Bahman Sabouri. A few steps behind them were Defense Secretary Wheeler and Secretary of State Steinmetz. Wheeler had flown to Tehran the day before in a U.S. Air Force Gulfstream G550 jet to pick up the Iranian minister. The plane flew to Damascus to pick

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up Syria’s foreign minister and Secretary Steinmetz, who had been in talks with Syria’s President.

The Egyptian President turned to the Saudi Prime Minister and smiled. In Arabic, President Abdul Qaadir said to Saudi Prince Ahmed Muhammed Karim: “It’s about time the United States did this.” They both applauded and bowed their heads toward a beaming President Forster. Jordan’s King and the Israeli Prime Minister also applauded.

2:37 p.m. GMT+3 hrs. March 22, 2009

Royal Jordanian Hotel

Aqaba, Jordan

“We, and I mean all of us gathered here around this table,” said Forster, “have seen millions of Iraqi refugees scattered all over the Middle East.” She turned to King Nasim and nodded to the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran. “It is a massive problem that we all must begin to deal with. Iraqis young and old have been torn from their homes and ended up in Syria, Iran and Jordan. Others have gone to Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. These people desperately want to return home. But they can’t return to Baghdad or Al-Anbar as long as the war rages.”

“But madam,” said the Syrian foreign minister, “you have ordered your troops to leave Iraq in three months time. Once they leave, I fear the violence will become worse.”

“Sir,” said Secretary Wheeler, seated to President Forster’s immediate left. “We believe that our troops withdrawing from Iraq will cause the militants from either the Sunni or Shiite or Kurdish factions to withdraw themselves from the fighting. The presence of our troops since March 2003, yes, ordered to Iraq by a previous administration in Washington, has caused the situation we continue to have in Iraq today.” President Forster leaned back in her chair and turned her head toward Wheeler.

The Iranian foreign minister rose from his seat to speak. “President Wheeler –– ”

“No, sir,” Wheeler interjected. “There is only one American President here today. I’m her Defense Secretary, her adviser, and nothing more.”

“I understand, sir,” said Iran’s Bahman Sabouri. “I truly apologize to the Madam American President.”

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“No need to apologize, sir,” said Forster, gazing at the foreign minister. “I consider all of us equals here today. There are no presidents here, no prime ministers. And, excuse me your highness, there are no kings or other royalty here today. We are here today representing each of our countries’ interests in bringing about peace and stability to Iraq. We all must work together. If not, I believe there will be massive chaos throughout the region.”

“Thank you, Madam President,” said Iran’s Bahman Sabouri. “Your words bring freshness to these debates today, words that have been sorely lacking for so many years.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Forster. “If I may have just a few moments to compose my thoughts.” She paused, then turned to King Nasim. “I’d like to stand, your highness, and stretch my legs a bit and walk around the table as I continue my remarks.” The King looked at Forster and nodded. As she stood up, she patted Wheeler on the shoulder.

“The United States government, under the budget directions I hope Congress will follow,” said Forster as she walked behind the King and the Israeli Prime Minister, “will supply Iraq with aid funds to help the country stabilize its economy, bring its oil production back to pre-war levels and become a true trading partner with its neighbors in the Middle East and the world.

“Once our troops leave by the end of this coming June,” the President said as she approached the Egyptian President and the Saudi Prime Minister, “there will be left behind only the Iraqi military and police forces to bring about the end to the violence in their country. I am

proposing to you here today that Egyptian, Saudi, Syrian and Iranians troops become part of a united peacekeeping force under the aegis of the United Nations.” Forster stopped behind the seated Saudi Prime Minister.

Two days before, President Forster called for a U.N. peacekeeping force for Iraq. She purposely had failed to mention the countries that would be asked to supply the peacekeepers. At the time, analysts predicted the force, if it were formed, would include troops from Western Europe.

Wheeler, Steinmetz, seated to Wheeler’s left, Brown and Connors felt it, an air of disbelief, uncertainty and shock. They heard whispers around the table. Connors and Wheeler had no inkling

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the President would make such a proposal to a room filled with leaders from countries who, in other circumstances, just might kill each other over petty political differences. The President wanted U.N. troops from the Middle East to maintain peace in Iraq, an unprecedented suggestion.

Forster heard the murmurs as she returned to her seat. Wheeler stood and extended his hand. He expressed exasperation. “What were you thinking, Lorraine?” he whispered to her as she sat down. She looked around the table at the Egyptian President, the Saudi Prime Minister, the Israeli Prime Minister, the Syrian Foreign Minister, the Iranian Foreign Minister and, lastly, the Jordanian King. Then she turned to Wheeler and Steinmetz.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a low voice to her Defense Secretary and Secretary of State, “I believe it’s the only solution to solving the Middle East crisis we’ve gotten ourselves into.” She wondered if the others heard her comment.

“If all of you did not hear what I said to Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Steinmetz,” Forster said, pausing to sip some water from a crystal glass in front of her, “I shall repeat it, and then add another sentence or two. What I said was that my proposal to use your military forces as peacekeeping units in Iraq will go quite far in not only bringing about stability in Iraq ... but in all of the Middle East.

“There are two other proposals I’d like to make, and I hope once I’ve stopped talking we all can join in a discussion about the merits of my proposals. To my plan for this united peacekeeping force, I’d like to add these two others. I plan to contact Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq and urge

their forces to join this peacekeeping operation as well. I see their efforts, though, confined solely to the Kurdish autonomous region.” Then President Forster turned and looked directly at the Israeli Prime Minister.

“Sir, Mr. Ish-Shalom, I’ve recently contacted leaders from the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and leaders from Hamas.” The President clasped her hands together, raising her arms until her chin rested on her intertwined fingers. Her head was cocked slightly to the right. “They’ve agreed to come to Camp David next weekend to begin peace talks with you, sir. I extend my invitation to you now. I believe such meetings finally can bring about true peace between the Palestinian people and

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Israel. I would hope neither side will leave Camp David without first initiating a ceasefire before determining the composition of peacekeeping forces and, most importantly for each side, both Israel and the Palestinians, recognizing each other’s legitimate existence.”

__________

4:19 p.m. CST, March 22, 2009. Gulf of Mexico

Twenty miles southeast of Peveto Beach, Louisiana

Abu Mahmoud took the call inside the Seixal’s radio room. The double-screw propellers of the Vila Real, the last in line of his four-ship fleet, were entangled in shrimp netting. It apparently had become entangled the night before, shortly before the Vila Real had come to a full stop. He went to the Seixal’s port-side railing, raised his binoculars and saw a shrimp trawler about a hundred yards behind the Vila Real. Vietnamese crewmen on the trawler’s deck were shouting and waving their arms. Abu Mahmoud quickly went back to the radio room and gave the order in Pashto to send divers down to cut away the netting. “And be quick about it,” he yelled.

Two Filipino crewmen on the Vila Real volunteered. A ship’s derrick crane lowered them into the water. They swam to the ship’s stern and dove down, long daggers in scabbards tied around their waists. They successfully cut away most of the netting, full of shrimp, from one of the propellers before coming up for air. They dove down again but were having trouble cutting away

the last strands of netting wrapped around the second propeller. They came up for air and treaded water for a while. Diving again, both tried to find a line of netting that led to the entangled mess around the propeller’s blades and screw. In the murky water they found two lines and cut them both before propelling to the surface for gasps of air.

Once the two lines had been cut, the netting, heavy with a large catch from the day before, plummeted. Thousands of shrimp swam free. The Vietnamese shrimpers noticed immediately they’d lost their catch when they pulled in what remained of their tangled netting. The trawler’s captain restarted the boat’s engines, and a helmsman swung the boat around toward the port side of

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the Vila Real. The Vietnamese standing on the trawler’s deck saw the ship’s derrick crane lower a rescue cage into the water to pick up the two divers.

As the trawler came along side the massive freighter, its captain shouted into a battery-operated bullhorn up to scores of Afghans leaning over the ship’s upper-deck railing. If Abu Mahmoud had been listening he would have understood the trawler captain’s raging screams in Vietnamese: “Big bad ship cut our nets. You lose our shrimp catch. You pay us American dollars now, you bastards.”

One of the Afghan Jihadist Front fighters aimed an AK-47 at the bull horn and squeezed off a round. The bull horn shattered, the captain’s head burst in a bloody mass. A Vietnamese crewman raised and aimed a .45-caliber pistol toward the rifleman. Before he got off a shot, an AK-47 round tore through his upper chest. The Afghan fighter sprayed the trawler’s deck, killing or wounding all ten crewmen he saw standing and shouting on the small boat’s deck. Another Afghan fighter aimed and fired an RPG-7 grenade. It hit the trawler dead center. The boat’s fuel tanks exploded. The trawler sank in less than thirty seconds.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter was patrolling less than two miles south. A boatswain’s mate saw through binoculars a puff of yellow and orange flames shoot up from the water’s surface at the horizon. Moments later, the blast’s sound wave bounced off the steel bulkhead behind him.

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