Afghanistan 041135L February 2018 – 45,000 feet external temperature -56.7 °C
The Boeing RC 135 Rivet Joint of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, was just over two-and-a-half hours into its patrol. It had taken off from Dushanbe in Tajikistan and headed south, skirting the Afghan capital to the east. Its course roughly followed the Afghan/Pakistan border and if the mission specialists had any windows to look out of, they would have seen far below, the snow-dusted mountains of the Hindu Kush and the city of Khost.
The crew felt a slight tilting under their feet as the aircraft pulled a gentle right turn around the town to follow the border. The aircraft’s complement consisted of three flight crew, three electronic warfare officers who were known as “Ravens,” fourteen intelligence officers and four airborne systems engineers. The aircraft and its crew was a considerable investment by the US taxpayer running to half a billion dollars if the costs of training, capitation and maintenance was taken into account. There were four of these aircraft in theatre, one of which was operated by the Royal Air Force, flying out of one of the Gulf States.
The Rivet Joint was a force multiplier par excellence. It was in its simplest terms, a giant hoover of electronic data. The glossy sales brochure put together by Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed stated the aircraft …was to support theatre and national level intelligence consumers with near real-time on-scene collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities. Earlier versions had served in the Vietnam and the aircraft had served in every conflict the US Forces had been involved in since then. Its sensors picked up and processed electronic data from radios, mobile telephone networks and was able to pinpoint the location of a particular device to within ten feet. All of this myriad of incoming data was processed by the aircraft’s AN/SD-1 electronic intelligence system (ELINT). The cheek pods on either side of the aircraft’s nose pinpointed the source of the signal and stored it in its database. Certain signals of interest would be flagged up to the intelligence officers, most of whom were from the CIA.
The man had been in Multan for a number of days, lying low. He had suspected that he was being tailed in Karachi and he had purchased a ticket and boarded a bus to Hyderabad and got off in the suburbs, doubling back to the city. He then immediately hired a car, paid for with cash and driven north to Quetta. He abandoned the car and hired a van, then drove to Multan. He was now confident he wasn’t being followed and used a mobile phone with a new sim card, bought in a market that specialised in recycling stolen phones and sim cards. The call was processed by Pakistan’s Telenor mobile phone network and it was to another man who was in Mingora, the heart of commercial activity in the Swat Valley. The Rivet Joint verified and logged the connection, one among tens of thousands every minute and it’s pre-programmed AN/SD-1 ELINT suite interrogated the electronic signals. It registered two markers and alerted one of the intelligence officers’ consoles on the starboard side of the aircraft’s interior.
The Swat Valley is an area of outstanding natural beauty and it is the tribal homeland of the Pashtuns. In 2007, the Taliban took control of the region, originating a bloody war and killing thousands of innocent people. While the area is more peaceful now, the Taliban never left and the area is a vast R&R facility for Taliban fighters resting out the winters. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all travel to the Swat Valley.
The brief conversation was conducted in Pashto, “Effendi, it is Gamal Kirmani, your servant.”
“You were told not to contact me by cell phone. Where are you?”
“You will be contacted there soon. Do not use this phone again.”
On the Rivet Joint the intelligence officer listened to the recording several times then turned to one of the Ravens, “The ELINT has flagged a phone call with two markers. One is a name who is on the watch and apprehend list, who’s wanted by the Brits. The other is a phone that has been inactive for a couple of years, but it was traced to somebody we want very badly. “Can you get a fix on the call’s originator and the recipient?”
“I’ll try, what’s the call’s tag number?”
The intelligence officer relayed the file number and the Raven inputted it on his console. An electronic map of Pakistan and the surrounding area, courtesy of Google Maps appeared, showing four points, the location of the caller, the position of the Telenor relays and the location of the call’s recipient. The Raven zoomed to maximum magnification, which was much better than the standard package available on the internet.
“The caller is in Multan, specifically in the Aimys Villa Guest House, just south of the Chinese Heart and General Hospital. He is on the second floor,” the intelligence officer was making notes on a pad, “The recipient is in Mingora, south west of the city in a suburb. There are no notable reference buildings but his position is 34°46’02.9″N 72°22’32.7″E. It is a walled complex with a number of outhouses surrounding what looks like a villa.”
“Thank you. Could you screen grab that map, source and location of the recipient and pass them on to me as PNGs?” The intelligence officer flipped his console to the standard Microsoft Office package and composed an e-mail to Langley, Virginia. The information on Gamal Kirmani would be passed to the British SIS, but it was the recipient of the phone call who interested the CIA operative the most. And he knew the team at Langley would be very interested indeed.
The address of the US Consulate General at Peshawar says it is located on the Hospital Road, but it is actually north on the General Bakht Khan Road. It is set in pleasant gardens, surrounded by a high security wall. It does not process visas and continues with the business of supporting US interests in that volatile border area of Pakistan. It is about twenty kilometres from the Afghan border and seventy kilometres from Mingora.
The Peshawar Consulate General wasn’t the largest US diplomatic mission in Pakistan, but strategically it was probably the most important. Peshawar in located on one of the ancient silk routes and is a border city between Islamabad and Kabul and the tribal border areas span the route and the city. On 5 April 2010, a bombing near the consulate killed 8 people including 2 security personnel, although no Americans were injured. According to reports, the U.S. consulate was the intended target of the attack. Because of its strategic importance and its proximity to the terrorist heartlands, the US Consulate General had a very large CIA presence. The head of the CIA’s station was the Consulate’s Regional Security Officer.
The communique from Langley stirred up a hornets nest in Peshawar and although the consulate officially closed at 16:30, the Regional Security office was fully staffed that evening as the CIA officers were called in and operatives throughout Pakistan were redeployed or brought to full readiness. The station chief was poring over a map of Mingora, and Google Earth images of the south-western suburbs had been printed off and the close ups of the walled complex littered the table.
“What news on Gamal Kirmani in Multan?”
“We’ve already managed to put somebody in the guest house, posing as a travelling salesman. He’s staying in the floor below Kirmani, but hasn’t made positive identification yet. Langley has contacted the Brits in the Islamabad High Commission and they’ll have a team on site within the next six hours.”
“And what about Yusufzai?”
The operative running the Shangla District desk answered: “We have moved eyes to the area around the walled complex, but it’s difficult because it’s an affluent area where strangers tend to stick out.”
“But now at least we know where he is and we had better not lose him. See if there’s any property around that location that can be rented or purchased if necessary,” the CIA station head said, “Ok boys and girls, let’s move SEAL Team 10 up to readiness and let them know as soon as our eyes have any useful intel. I hope none of you had plans for the next few days.”
The Pashtun called Yusufzia had once been an ally of the Russians against the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. His hatred of the Northern Alliance had never been diluted, even when with American backing, the Taliban had been overthrown and had been forced to seek refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But over the years, Yusufzia had become more of a pragmatist. While he still hated the Norther Alliance, the Americans, ISAF and distrusted the Russians, he had come to understand the complexities of the area, its ambiguities and the endless opportunities to make a great deal of money.
Afghanistan grows 90 per-cent of the world’s supply of opium, $68 Billion Dollars of revenue that fuels the Taliban. Nearly three million Afghans are involved in the production and shipment of opium, which is around twelve per-cent of the entire population. In 2018, around forty per-cent of Taliban funding came from opium, which enables them to fight the Afghan government and the international community. Most of the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar are engaged in the drug trade, fighting for profit rather than religion and ideology. It is a rather amorphous industry with no auditors, audit trails and so what if just a little bit of the $68 Billion was redeployed? It was a means to an end and meant that Yusufzai could afford his lavish life style, his five wives and twelve slaves and this very agreeable and comfortable villa in Mingora. Hadn’t the prophet, peace be upon him said: “Any fool can be uncomfortable,” or was that someone else.
Opium not only logistically fuels the Taliban, but the drug dealers influence the highest decision-making body of the Taliban, the Quetta Shura. The now-deceased Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s selection as leader of the Taliban owed to his successes within the drug business, which bought him loyalty within the Taliban’s command.
Due to the high profit from illicit drugs, Taliban groups have even fought each other for control of drug trafficking routes and the collection of taxes. Mullah Mohammad Rasool, another well-known commander, had fought Mansour’s men couple of times for control of drug trafficking routes and this was one of the reasons he opposed the selection of Mansour as leader of Taliban.
In the field, Taliban-affiliated dealers provide seeds to farmers, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand, and collect opium after the harvest. The drug dealers also supply farmers with tools, fertilizers, and even cash in order to urge farmers to cultivate opium. And then of course so does the British DFID, whose two-kilogramme fertilizer sacks are ideal for the poppy fields and for making IEDs
The drug trade not only supports the Taliban financially, but garners them political support as well, winning them the backing of local drug lords, drug dealers, and youths who work in poppy fields, lancing opium at equivalent to $4 per day wages. And then the Americans rather unwisely chose to attempt to eradicate the growing of opium and men like Yusufzia who now owed their political success, wealth and prosperity to opium’s production, could not allow that to happen.
He was a respected man within the Taliban and at his level of seniority, he only needed to cross the border a few times, to maintain kudos and currency, direct the odd terrorist incident and then be home in Pakistan, protected by the Pakistani authorities, under the auspices of the ISI. He was also a rather careful man and he had been somewhat annoyed to have received a phone call from Gamal Kirmani on one of his many cell phones.
Yusufzai was intrigued by Gamal Kirmani. His associate had met the Pashtun from England and affirmed that he was a calculating man, despite his relatively young age. He knew that Kirmani had fought with ISIL in Syria and there is somewhat of a schism between the Taliban and ISIL. ISIL positions itself as the most Islamic (and violent) of all Islamic terror groups. Despite the widespread hatred of ISIL, even within the Muslim world, that small fraction of Muslims who support religious violence supplies an endless supply of young Muslims who see ISIL as the ultimate expression of what an Islamic warrior should be. This may sound absurd to Western politicians who are always in denial when faced with the realities of Islam, but the proof announces itself daily with explosions and more new recruits declaring their loyalty to ISIL.
But Kirmani had perhaps come to realise that living in squalor and dying a martyr’s death only had a spiritual attraction and perhaps he was ready to move on to better things. Perhaps they could be good for one another. The risk of crossing into Afghanistan to maintain his standing was a concern to the careful Yusufzai and perhaps it was time to employ a competent lieutenant for taking care of business the other side of the mountains. But not only Kirimani, he too was a marked man. The CIA had learned that Yusufzai was responsible for the murder of two members of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), who were on an outreach project to persuade the Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates instead of opium. It was the particularly gruesome way in which they were murdered, which had drawn Yusufzai to the attention of the US intelligence agencies. He was also wanted for being involved in the planning of an attack on the ISAF base at Kandahar. Several suicide bombers penetrated the security of Kandahar Airfield on Tuesday, 8th December 2015, barricading themselves in an old school building that now contains shops, and sparking a battle with Afghan soldiers that lasted for many hours. The Afghan Defence Ministry stated that 50 civilians and members of the security forces had been killed, along with 11 attackers, while at least 35 people were injured. The Taliban claimed responsibility. The attack was co-ordinated just hours after a “Message to Obama” was posted on a video site by the Taliban, warning U.S. troops of upcoming attack. The cell phone which Kirimani had had called had been used to plan the Kandahar incursion and it had been traced. Yusufzai was a marked man.
Yusufzai had decided that he would listen to what the Englishman had to say. If he felt any doubt, then Kirimani would vanish, another sad statistic of the many people who travel from England to their ancestral homeland and disappear. He summoned his current right-hand man, another Pashtun of course, but not incredibly bright, given the rather limited gene pool of his mountain village.
“My friend, I have a job for you,” His lieutenant smiled like an eager gun dog, although of course, dogs were haram, “I want you to take the Toyota pick-up and drive to Multan. Here is an address of a number of guest houses within the city. Go into each one and ask for “the Englishman.” Someone will know where he is. I would like you to bring him back, not here but to the garage. Tell him I will see him in a couple of days. Make sure he is looked after with food and a bed. The garage should be comfortable, but you must tell him not to leave until I have seen him. Now repeat to me what I want you to do.”
His lieutenant did so, word perfectly, “Excellent. I would like you to take this cell phone with you. You must not use it under any circumstances. First drive north to the Swat Bridge and throw this phone in the river. Do you understand?”
But his lieutenant knew that the phone was valuable. When he got back from Multan he would bury the phone in the back lot of his house, because it was a nice phone and probably worth many Rupees. He enjoyed driving the Toyota and as he headed south on the N95, he felt a lightness in his heart. One hundred miles away and 40,000 feet above Jalalabad, a Rivet Joint constantly monitored the phones roaming signal, its GSM to the network’s antenna masts, even though the phone was switched off. The operators knew that the phone was in a vehicle and it was heading south at around fifty-five kilometres per hour. Within thirty minutes they knew the vehicle was a Toyota Hilux and its registration plate, service history, previous and current owners. And they knew it was heading towards Multan.
Bagram Air Base is the largest US military facility in Afghanistan and is maintained by the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade (Task Force Pale Horse) and 3-10 GSAB (Task Force Phoenix) of the U.S. Army, with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Air Force and other US Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard, and ISAF units having sizable tenant populations. In addition, the US government’s regional platform for the east is at the base, staffed by civilians.
The vast, sprawling air base is host to a large number of lodger units, including a detachment from the UK’s Mobile Air Movements Squadron to a small RAF Aeromedical Evacuation Cell, attached to the US field hospital. In February 2018 it was the forward operating base (FOB) of a forty-man “Task Unit” of SEAL Team No 10. The Task Unit was commanded by a lieutenant commander and his 2IC was a lieutenant targeting and operations officer. The headquarters element had been stood up by the Headquarters of SEAL Team No 10, which was based in Little Creek Virginia. The tasking had come directly from the Naval Special Warfare Group in the Pentagon, and the intelligence feeds were coming in from Langley and the Peshawar Consulate General. Within the last thirty minutes a live feed had been activated from the airborne River Joint.
The SEAL commander had stood to his headquarters planning team, but while they knew their area of operations would be over the border in Pakistan, their mission was as yet unknown. The full planning team would consist of N1 Administrative support, N2 Intelligence, N3 Operations, N4 Logistics, N5 Plans and Targeting, N6 Communications, N7 Training, and N8 Air/Medical. The operational or tooth arms consisted of two platoons of sixteen men with their own combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS).
“Until we get more from the Special Operations Group, we’ll plan for an operation along the lines of Neptune Spear. We had better get the Night Stalkers in on this one. We’ll assume an abduction and intel gathering operation until we get more. We have photos of the complex and surrounding area and the Night Stalkers can identify the routes in and out. Check equipment and weapons and that’s as far as we can go, until the mission has more granularity.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
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