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Authors: Brad Thor

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CHAPTER 2

M
any suspected that the blue-eyed man was Russian, but it was a topic Mullah Massoud did not like to discuss. There were still dormant animosities, even in his own village, over the long and bloody war the Afghans had fought with the Soviets. For this reason, Massoud addressed the man as Bakht Rawan and not by his given name of Sergei Simonov.

Their relationship stretched back more than twenty years. Before Massoud had joined the Taliban, he had been a fledgling Afghan intelligence operative and Simonov had been his mentor. His code name was Pashtu and meant “running luck,” something Massoud felt his mentor possessed in abundance.

The pair politely inquired into each other’s health, families, and affairs as Massoud gave orders to his men to unload the trucks. He then motioned for Simonov to follow him inside.

The Russian removed his hiking boots at the door and followed his host. The room was spartanly furnished with two long tables, a low bed, a small wooden desk, and a single chair. It would be more than adequate.

Two of Massoud’s men brought in an ancient carpet and unrolled it along the floor. It was a red, elephant-foot pattern known as a Bohkara. Simonov could only imagine what such a rug would fetch in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Other men entered bringing blankets, a pillow, a power strip, and an extension cord, which would allow him to run his electronic equipment off the compound’s generator.

Satisfied that his guest was on his way to being situated, Mullah Massoud informed him that he would see him for tea in twenty minutes.

Simonov thanked his host and closed the door. From the leather holster beneath his tunic, he withdrew his 9mm CZ-75 pistol and placed it on the desk next to a suppressor from his coat pocket. Inside the compound, he had no need for any of his weapons.
“Ze talibano milmayam,”
he said aloud in Pashtu. “I am a guest of the Taliban.”

The traditional code of honor among the Pashtun, known as
Pashtunwali
, dictated every aspect of their lives and was very explicit. One of the most important edicts of Pashtunwali dealt with hospitality and the treatment of guests. Once a Pashtun invited someone into his home, he was honor-bound to protect that guest at all costs, even if it meant fighting to his own death to protect him.

As Simonov unpacked his gear, he ran through the arguments Mullah Massoud had initially raised about the operation and how he would counter them if they came up again.

The bottom line was that the time was right for the Taliban to finally move beyond al-Qaeda.

In 1998, two years after seizing majority control of the country, the Taliban had molded Afghanistan into the purest Islamic state on the planet. Their ambassadors were shuttling back and forth to America and were close to signing a peace treaty with the Northern Alliance fighters—the last holdouts in Afghanistan against full Taliban control of the country. The Soviets were long gone, self-serving Afghan warlords were being dealt with, and the Taliban were on the brink of bringing stability to their war-ravaged nation. In short, they had achieved almost everything they wanted.

Then Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization carried out the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Americans had responded by firing missiles into Afghanistan. Angered, Taliban leader Mullah Omar broke off peace talks and disengaged himself from the Americans. The war with the Northern Alliance picked up speed and things gradually deteriorated. Just when it looked as if things couldn’t get worse, September 11 happened and the Americans invaded. In short, every problem the Taliban had could be traced to al-Qaeda. It was time for a divorce.

Mullah Massoud had always been smart enough to see al-Qaeda for what they really were—a liability. They were foreigners who put their global jihad ahead of everything else. They didn’t care what happened to Afghanistan and its people in the process. Massoud, on the other hand, did, and that was why he had agreed to go along with Simonov’s operation.

In typical Russian fashion it was elegantly simple. Simonov had found a way to deal al-Qaeda a death blow, but to make it look as if the Americans had been behind it. As the ineffective Mullah Omar drowned with the weight of the dying al-Qaeda organization tied around his neck, Mullah Massoud would step into the vacuum of power and would take over as supreme leader of the Taliban.

With the windfall they intended to reap from al-Qaeda’s demise, they could purchase all the weaponry and hardware they needed. They would mount a devastating offensive against the Americans and their coalition partners and send them running from Afghanistan like whipped dogs. And what the Russians asked for in return for their help was a pittance.

The Russians had learned their lesson and had no desire to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s. Afghanistan had been a Soviet graveyard. This time, they wanted nothing to do with the governance of Afghanistan, only the ability to help increase and share in its prosperity. How the Russians would use their influence in the region was of no concern to the Taliban. As long as they stayed out of Afghan affairs, the relationship showed significant promise.

Simonov unpacked his satellite uplink equipment and reflected on how ironic it was that Russia was now funding and orchestrating instability within Afghanistan, exactly as America had done to the Soviets in the 1980s.

But the Russians needed to be very careful. Times had changed. America had many partners in Afghanistan, and if Russia’s role in promoting insurgency was ever proven, the international repercussions would be extraordinarily severe.

He was still running these points through his head when he heard a crash as his door was kicked in.

The Russian reached for his CZ atop the desk, but caught himself and stopped. Standing at rigid attention in the doorway was Mullah Massoud’s mentally challenged brother, Zwak.

He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and boots two sizes too big. One of his pants legs was rolled up to just beneath his knee and he clutched an AK-47 to his side, the top of its barrel wrapped with blue tape. He had the “official” job of guarding the village well and watching for spies. Carrying the rifle was a source of pride and made him feel equal to the other warriors who fought for his brother.

Zwak was thirty-one years old, stood only a hair above five feet tall, and had a coarse, dark beard that followed his jaw line, exactly like his brother’s. Each morning the two men shaved their upper lips together in a cracked mirror in the courtyard. When not searching for spies or guarding the well, spending time with his brother was Zwak’s favorite thing to do.

Simonov had great respect for how Massoud treated his childlike brother. He never mistook the man’s compassion for weakness. He knew that Massoud was anything but weak, and as soon as his country was rid of al-Qaeda, he would be the Taliban commander under whom the country would be united.

The Russian studied his visitor. An intent look of satisfaction spread across Zwak’s face as he realized he had startled Simonov. He was exceedingly proud of his accomplishment.

Sergei approached and gave the man a military inspection, which Zwak took very seriously. He stood as straight as he could while the Russian examined his clothing and then his weapon.

Shaking his head, Simonov crossed the room to retrieve something from his pack. Zwak removed his boots and stepped inside to see what the Russian was doing.

When Sergei turned, he held in his hands a pair of white hi-top basketball shoes. Despite their hatred for the West and Western culture, the only thing the Taliban prized as highly as their rifles was basketball shoes.

Zwak couldn’t believe his eyes. Simonov smiled as he handed them to him. “Don’t let anyone take these from you,” he said, though he didn’t believe there was anyone in Afghanistan dumb enough to rob the brother of Mullah Massoud.

Forgetting custom, Zwak dropped the shoes on the floor and slid his feet inside. They weren’t a perfect fit, but they were much better than the oversized boots he had been wearing for as long as he could remember.

Zwak tested the shoes by bouncing up and down on his toes. His excitement registered in the smile on his face.

But as he remembered his purpose for coming to the room, his smile faded and Zwak was all business. “Tea,” he said. “Tea now.”

The Russian smiled back and said in Pashtu, “Tell your brother I will be there in a moment.”

Snatching up his rifle, Zwak slung it over his shoulder and headed for the door. As he reached it he turned back around. Simonov assumed a thank you was coming. Instead, Zwak repeated, “Tea now.”

“Soon,” said the Russian, “tea soon,” and he watched as the man left his room and stepped out into the courtyard to show off his new shoes to his brother’s Taliban soldiers.

Walking over to his pack, Simonov withdrew a picture of his son, Sasha. It was the last photo that had been taken of the boy before the accident.

He pinned the picture to the wall above the desk and placing a kiss upon his fingers, pressed them against the photo. “Soon, Sasha. Soon,” he said.

Grabbing a folder full of photographs, the Russian took a deep breath before heading toward the door. Everything depended now on whether Mullah Massoud was still 100 percent committed to his plan.

Stepping into the courtyard, Simonov prayed that the American he had selected would be the right bait for his trap. Time and the new president of the United States would tell.

CHAPTER 3

K
ANDAHAR
P
ROVINCE
M
ONDAY
(T
HREE WEEKS LATER
)

D
r. Julia Gallo sat on a dusty carpet and eyed the cracked mud bricks and exposed timbers of the tiny room. She didn’t need to look at her interpreter to know that he was watching her. “Ask again,” she said.

Sayed cleared his throat, but the question wouldn’t come. They were in dangerous territory. It was bad enough that the young American doctor dragged him to the most godforsaken villages in the middle of nowhere, but now she was openly trying to get them killed. If the Taliban knew what she was doing, they’d
both
be dead.

The five-foot-six Afghan with deep brown eyes and black hair had a wife, three children, and a not-so-insignificant extended family that relied on him and the living he made as an interpreter.

For the first time in his twenty-two-year-old life, Sayed had something very few Afghans ever possessed—hope; hope for himself, hope for his family, and hope for the future of his country. And while what he did was dangerous, there was no need to make it any more so by taunting the specter of death. Dr. Gallo, on the other hand, seemed to have a remarkably different set of priorities.

At five-foot-ten, Julia was a tall woman by most standards, but by Afghan standards she was a giant. And although she kept her long red hair covered beneath an Afghan headscarf known as a
hijab,
she couldn’t hide her remarkable green eyes and the fact that she was a very attractive woman. She was a graduate of the obstetrics and gynecology program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and ten years her translator’s senior. And while she might have shared Sayed’s vision for the future of Afghanistan, she had her own opinions of how best to bring it about.

In a country where most parents didn’t name their children until their fifth birthday because infant mortality rates were so high, Dr. Gallo and others like her had made a huge difference. Infant mortality was down more than 18 percent since the Taliban had been ousted. That meant forty thousand to fifty thousand infants who would have died under the old regime were surviving. She should have been thrilled, but for some reason she wasn’t. She was unhappy, and that made her push harder to bring about change.

Gallo knew she wasn’t just rocking the cultural boat on these visits out into the countryside, she was shooting holes in the stern and reloading, but she didn’t care. The Taliban were a bunch of vile, misogynistic bastards who could rot in hell, as far as she was concerned.

“Ask her again,” she demanded.

Sayed knew the answer and was certain Dr. Gallo did too. It was embarrassing for the women to have to answer, yet she pressed her point anyway. It was the setup for a message she had taken to proselytizing on a regular basis. Gallo had become a zealot in her own right, no different from the Taliban, and as much as Sayed admired her, this was going to be their last trip out of Kabul together. He would respectfully ask their NGO, CARE International, not to assign him to her anymore. He wasn’t going to die because of her.

Dr. Gallo had always been complicated. She never spoke about her family or personal life, no matter how many hours they spent driving together or how many opportunities Sayed offered her. She either turned the conversation back to him, asking questions she already knew the answers to, or she simply sat in the passenger seat staring out the window. Sayed had given up trying to connect with her and now was done trying to understand her.

Two pairs of eyes lowered toward the floor as Sayed capitulated and asked the women Dr. Gallo’s question once more. A long silence followed. The translator was tempted to fill the uncomfortable void, but Gallo held up her hand to quiet him. Finally, the elder of the two women responded in Pashtu.

Julia listened, and when they were finished, Sayed translated.

“They traded the girl to pay off her father’s debt,” he said.

“Like some sort of farm animal,” Gallo replied. “Tell them they don’t have to live like this. I don’t care what kind of arrangement the men of this village have with the Taliban, women have rights,
even
in Afghanistan. But unless they know their rights, they can’t begin to exercise them. The first step is for them to get educated. There is a school less than five kilometers from here. Why aren’t they going to it?”

Sayed shook his head. “You know why.”

Julia fixed him with her intense green eyes. “Because it’s dangerous?”

The interpreter didn’t reply.

“More dangerous than being beaten by your husband or sold off because your father’s opium fields failed to produce?” Julia waited for an answer and when none was offered, she stated, “We need to explain to them that they have options.”

“You say this even though the Taliban ride by on motorbikes and spray children and teachers who dare go to school with acid. It is easy for you to demand that these women exercise their ‘rights,’ as you say. But I’m sorry, Dr. Gallo,” said Sayed as he stood. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Can’t do what?”

The young man didn’t have the energy to explain. He had told Dr. Gallo repeatedly that what she was doing was dangerous for both of them.

“I’ll wait for you outside at the car.” Turning, he exited the room and closed the door quietly behind him.

Julia felt a stab of regret. Sayed was the best interpreter she had ever worked with. They had spent countless hours together in some of the wildest, most remote regions of the country. She had learned that she could trust him and he was invaluable to her. She had contributed money out of her own pocket to make sure he was paid better than any of the other translators CARE used, and she had also spearheaded the effort to get the organization to pay to send him to medical school. He couldn’t leave her. Not now. She wouldn’t let him. They had a long drive back to Kabul. She would talk to him. She’d promise to relax her rhetoric a bit.

Shifting her attention back to her patients, Julia employed her limited Pashtu medical vocabulary and completed the exam.

BOOK: Apostle
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