I was passing through a place for a few days with nothing to do. I'd just returned the team home to Kabul and I was ahead on my reports, so three days as a guest transient in what was, compared to the urban grey of Kabul, a tropical paradise, was a welcome change of pace.
After catching 16 hours of sleep, I wandered the place, saw the local bazaar, fingered the same Chinese-made trinkets and forgeries that were sold to Americans everywhere in the country, and promptly went mad looking for something to do. I was wound too, absolutely too goddamned tight to sit and do nothing. So I did what I usually did and poked around where I wasn't prohibited, but didn't necessarily belong.
Where I landed up was with the beleaguered looking security coordinators who ran the local militia as they prepped for the evening's training exercise. I was politely nosy up until the point I mentioned that if they needed a gringo Pashto speaker, I'd be happy to do whatever they wanted, even if it was just English practice for the B-string terps or eavesdropping on militia NCOs.
"Actually," one of them said, "We're doing a training op tonight with the trackers."
The trackers were locals with special training and equipment that augmented militia troops with their capabilities and in some cases legal authority. They were Afghan-trained and Afghan-deployed specialists, and had a pretty good reputation among the Americans as being (especially compared to the average Afghan government troop) qualified and capable.
They were also the product of the Afghan instructors I had been training on the next generation of tips and toys, and I was extremely curious to see what a second or even third generation product of my program looked like.
This was supposed to be the final confidence exercise for this group of trackers. They were drilling in training scenarios with the local militia so that the locals could learn how they worked and vice versa. Think tech demo for the grunts, and eyes-on for the American advisors who didn't know these new guys or if they could walk, talk, and rack an AK at the same time.
I asked the advisors if they'd ever had any suspects on a real op go apeshit on them - really freak out.
"No," they said, "They normally go pretty quietly. These guys have a real nasty reputation and most guys are pants shitting scared."
"Well," I asked, "You guys have training for what they're supposed to do if a target acts like it's Miami Dade night on COPS?"
"Yeah," they said, "But it never happens."
I knew my guys were smart and they were cool under pressure. Ice fucking cold, in fact. But I really, really wanted to know what kind of product they were turning out.
So I told the advisors that if they wanted, I was down to push some buttons and risk a rifle butt.
"KARZAI'S DOGS! YOU ARE THE BOOT-LICKING DOGS OF KARZAI! YOU ARE WHORES! YOUR LIFE IS SHIT!"
The Afghans had been extremely suprised to find that their target was a foreigner that they'd never seen before.
They had been confused when the foreigner spoke Pashto from the other side of the holler.
They were absolutely batshit when the only guy big enough to drag me out of the spiderhole was the big bastard with the PKM, and I started cursing them every way I could think to without starting a blood feud. They were batshit, but they were silent, disciplined, and alert.
I started screaming that the Taliban would live forever. That the Taliban would rule this place long after their bones were the piss and shit of insects under my boots. That Mullah Omar would own their houses and use them as pig sties.
The big bastard clenched his teeth, took a deep breath, and told me to be quiet.
I told him I would be quiet when the last drop of blood from the whores of the Infidel had fertilized my crops.
He sighed again and put one big fat fuckin paw over my mouth and held it there while he carried me for a mile by the scruff of my kameez.
Afghans, soldiers, I must apologize to you before I introduce myself. Tonight, as you all know, you had a surprise in your training. My name is Mr. Haq, and I helped to train your instructors and their instructors. We have never met, and I wanted to test the ability of your instructors by testing you. I will tell you all that you have found a foreigner in your country that you did not expect to see, that there was evidence that he was plotting against you, and that he cursed your name and your pride, and what did you do? You performed your jobs exactly and perfectly, you were truly professional. You have mastered your training and tonight you have mastered the unexpected. I thank you for your dedication and I hope you will serve your country so well for as long as you are willing.
Sitting in an office somewhere in Kabul, I pull a pack of cowboy killers fresh off the plane from Ameristan out of my bag and give the deputy one courtesy fake before I toss them to him. He snatches them out of the air with the hand that isn't holding the tea cup to his face, and he thanks me with a flourishing gesture. He raps the pack, peels it open, and slides a stick out before tossing it to the chief, who does the same before tossing the pack back to me. I set it down on the table, meaning to leave it behind when we're done.
We're pretty much doing nothing. One of them has a cup of instant cappuccino and I'm splitting a pot of incredibly strong green tea with the other.
One of them sighs and mumbles something in Dari. The other responds, in English, "Well, what the fuck are we supposed to do about it? We told them."
"Do one of you have a... fire... thrower?" I ask, the colloquial word for "cigarette lighter" having fallen down the back of the filing cabinets.
They both crack up, simultaneously reaching into coat pockets. The chief finds his first, tossing it to me and making a *WHOOOOOOOOOSH* noise with his mouth.
The deputy said Beware your moustache! as I flicked the Bic, and I laughed the flame out.
The two of them were capable professionals, working for a country they believed in instead of the lucrative paychecks they could have been, or had been, taking from industry throughout Central Asia and the gulf. I respected their time immensely, I trusted them to let me know if anything important happened (and indeed I left it up to them what was important), and I stayed out of their offices unless they passed word they wanted to see me. They also knew that I was always down to waste 20 minutes eating candied almonds and talking shit if they need to take a break without being seen to take a break, or needed a reason to not have someone else in the office.
"Hey", the deputy said, "Tell the chief what you said in Konar!"
The shit-stuffed grins on both of their faces told me he already knew, but they wanted to hear it from my own lips.
I was sitting on the boardwalk in Burlington, Vermont with my lady friend. We were waiting for our dinner reservation a couple of blocks up and enjoying one of the last shirtsleeve evenings before autumn began in earnest. A pair of fellows walked by in front of us, muttering to each other in Dari.
"No shit," I said to her, "Afghans." A quick gesture.
We had been talking just the previous day about the state program pledging to take 300 Afghan families fleeing the fall of the puppet regime.
"How can you tell?"
"Dari," I said. "They're Northerners. If it was just me here I'd probably holler at them just to see what they make of it."
"You don't have to worry about me," she said, "Do what you want."
I considered it for a brief moment but the part of my brain that automatically does the calculus necessary to chuck a rock or a spear on an intercepting course decided that they were just out of range to make it worth the trouble of springing up.
"Nah," I said, "My Dari's shit anyway and their English is probably no good. Not worth it."
We watched a lazy sailboat cut through the lake, someone taking their last sunset cruise of the season, and from my left down the boardwalk came three more Afghans dressed in their finery - shalwar kameez, and sandals, three men about my age, walking slow, and one of their kameezona sequined from top to bottom with the Afghan flag.
"Now there's a mark," I said, waiting for them to draw within conversation range.
"Salaam, wroona," I said, "Eid mubarak sha," and stifled a laugh when they broke their necks looking. The light was gone just far enough that they squinted at me for a moment to confirm that I had no business knowing those words.
"Salaam alaikum," one of them said, and they pivoted as one to draw closer.
"Salaam" and "Salaam" came the muted greetings from the other two, and they stopped in handshake range from where we sat. They were off guard, curious and taken aback.
I gave my lady friend a brief pat and stood, hand over my heart and head bowed ever so slightly.
"Tsunga ye? Jor ye? Pa khair ye? Pa khair khairiat? Haiwanat sha da?" I offered them my personal formula of the formal, ritual greetings.
They snapped to reflexively, in the same manner as a soldier the world over is programmed to return a salute, and we made a round of handshakes as the greetings tumbled forth on all sides. I could tell immediately that they were Pashtun, but that of the three, only one of them spoke the language regularly or well. In the manner of all people who dwell in places with mixed languages, he unconsciously took up the role of interpreter for his friends as the opening acts came to their natural conclusion.
"I hope you can excuse my rudeness in calling you," I said, enunciating carefully in my "book Pashto", "but I heard that Afghans were coming to live in Vermont and I am glad to see that you are arrived safely."
"Yes sir, we have been here some months, and we like it very well."
"I am very glad to hear it. I am sure you would rather be at home, but I hope that whoever is coordinating your stay has been helping you with all that you need."
"Yes sir, we have an apartment not far from here, and there is an assistance program that is very good."
They are all bursting with the singular question. I drag them through enough small talk that I'm sure it would have satisfied Old Sarajzada's sense of propriety, and hand the initiative over to them. Immediately, the question comes.
"Sir, where are you from that you learned to speak Pashto?"
"Look man," I said to the other American. "This sucks but I need to tell you straight up, I can't cut it with this guy."
He didn't twitch, he didn't move a muscle. He sat for a moment to think and then asked me if it would help to draw the meeting out a little to get used to his dialect.
"No," I said. "This guy's from way out there. I could buy a bag of oranges off him or whatever but not this stuff. I know this guy's important and I don't want to blow it. He knows it, too - that cross talk I didn't cut you in on, it was him being real polite to me about being annoyed with me."
He took a breath and nodded. "No problem. Thank you for doing the right thing. We'll have a backup here in 45, you explain that to him and when the backup gets here, you can chill with security until it's time to roll."
I nodded and we went back into the meeting room.
"Good," the client said. "My English is worse than your Pashto. Tell them it is no problem. Tell them I will wait for a Pashtun. Tell them I want more tea."
I have a couple of different stories about where I learned how to sprekken ze Douche in case the truth is likely to be problematic. I tell people I learned it in University. Of course, you can learn anything in American University. There's even one school that offered introductory classes for two semesters about fifteen years ago. It's not an airtight story but it's good enough for the right circumstance. I tell people when I was a kid, my neighbors were Afghans and I grew up with the mashuman, that kakajan didn't speak any English so I learned enough to eat dinner with the family when it was their turn to host. I told these guys the latter, which also did something to explain why I cared.
It would explain why I worried that even here, in the bleeding heart of liberal Ameristan, that I worried they would face discrimination from people who had absolutely no clue what it meant for an Afghan to walk around with that flag flying proudly. That I wanted them to know that there were strangers in the crowd that were glad they were here, that were rooting for them, that had even the faintest glimmer of understanding of who they were, that gave even one wet shit what they had faced and were facing.
And it meant I didn't have to open up the very real possibility that I'd killed some cousin or other, or seen them off to a detention center.
"Very good sir, may I ask what your plans are for this evening? It is Eid and we are celebrating, will you and your..." he glanced over my shoulder at my lady friend, who was sitting and smiling pleasantly. He looked carefully back at me, and then clasped his hands and waited for me to speak as I desired regarding my female companion.
"My friend and I have an appointment for dinner soon," I nodded, "But I wish we could accept your offer. Another time, I am sure."
"Of course sir, do you live nearby? We should invite you for chai?"
"I'm afraid I live quite far, nearly three hours by car. I come to the city sometimes to visit."
As we all sensed the conversation coming to a close, the one in the shirt let loose something in Dari too fast and colloquial for me to follow.
"Ah yes," the spokesman said, "But how did you know we are Afghans?"
It was the perfect punchline, the perfect sendoff.
I pointed to the one in the shirt and asked, "So do Germans wear such things?"
They all turned to look, the one wearing it included, and I sent them off into the evening roaring with genuine laughter.