Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (6/7)

“You can decide on your real answer while I pay a long overdue visit to the bar."  Parkinson winked. “I want to see if this bartender will give me a little taste of home and I don’t trust the waiters to get it right.” As he got out of his chair, he held up a piece of paper in his right hand. “We should talk about Afghanistan before his arrival.” Parkinson was referring to a letter they had all received from a Kabul-based NGO called Projekt ROLA; they were awaiting a representative, Herr Jürgenmeyer, who arranged to meet them, Mustafa in particular, at 7 pm.

“Yes, that would be good,” chimed in Selderhuis. “I’ll take this opportunity to make a phone call in the lobby.”

Parkinson put a feeler out. “I’ll wait for you at the bar? Even a Calvinist such as yourself can enjoy one hard drink with a friend.”

“Believe me, Gary, faith’s got nothing to do with it. Mrs. Selderhuis keeps mehow do you say?on a tight leash.”

“The old trick of blaming the spouse. I should have known…”

As their voices trailed off, Dr. Anderson and Mustafa, thoroughly entertained by this exchange, smirked.  “Now that’s an odd pair!”

Dr. Anderson checked her cellphone for text messages from her daughter-in-law in Los Angeles and turned to Mustafa. “Wim once told me he wanted to be a pastor when he was twenty and even went to seminary, a Reformed seminary of some kind, before he went into law.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

Dutch waiters in white pleated shirts scurried back and forth carrying silver trays of steaming fish and vegetables. One of them approached the table next to Mustafa and company where a young fair-skinned man sat, seemingly engrossed in a local newspaper. He had a well-trimmed mustache and wore an ash-colored suit. It would take someone of preternatural perception, or someone with foreknowledge of the man’s purpose of being there, to pick up on anything askew. As the waiter took his order, he was rather curt and dismissive, more intent on bringing as little attention to himself as possible than being rude. He ordered only a glass of white wine, and spoke softly so that those sitting at the table nearby could not hear his accent.

“How is Sirma?” Alone with her senior colleague, Dr. Anderson took the opportunity to catch up on more personal affairs.

“Thank you for asking, Lynn. She’s helping Cenap manage the farm. Nothing but a headache. Gathering documents that date back eighty years or more!” Mustafa had told Dr. Anderson about an ongoing property lawsuit, but he would never elaborate.

“And the grandkids?”

“I don’t see them enough.”

Dr. Anderson knew that Mustafa was laconic when it came to family matters, but she also sensed he was distracted. “You’re thinking about taking this case, aren’t you?”

“Am I an open book?”

“I think I know something about you by now!”

“I haven’t made up my mind about it. It’s time to devote myself to apricots and grandchildren, not dirt and death. If I accept this assignment, Lynn, I want you as my chief pathologist once we got bodies for you. The site isn’t even six months old, they suspect, so I'll definitely need you.”

“I won’t be teaching until January; I’ll have a week or two late December. But let me get this straight: you’re going to accept this mission? In Afghanistan? I think we both swore we’d never go back to that hellhole. You know more about it than you’re letting on.”

“No, not really. I read the letter in my room last night. The letter from Projekt ROLA…”


“There’s something about this one that….”

“I know. You have a strange feeling about it!” Dr. Anderson was used to Mustafa’s cryptic and quasi-mystical reasons for accepting or declining a forensic investigation. Little did she know that the old man’s sixth sense was based on more than science and intuition.

“I’ll hear what this Herr Jürgenmeyer has to say. The letter stresses urgency, but any dig should wait until spring for more favorable climatic and soil conditions.”

“And when you’re retired and harvesting fruit trees!”

The two formed an odd partnership, though because of its romantic connotation Mustafa would never use the word partnership to characterize their work together. Fifteen years her senior, Mustafa had become a kind of uncle to her, especially since the death of her husband from a stroke. Nonetheless, he felt he was being unfaithful to his wife whenever he was alone with a woman. At first Dr. Anderson accounted for this bizarre behavior by supposing him to be a shy when it came to matters outside work, but she realized that he thought it was “proper” behavior. He had even arranged to stay at a different hotel than Dr. Anderson during their sojourn at The Hague. She learned to put up with his idiosyncrasies.

“Wim said it earlier,” said Parkinson returning to the table, triumphant with a glass of bourbon in one hand and loosening his tie with the other.  “Let’s be thankful for what we’ve achieved: international law put Drago away.” Selderhuis soon followed and took up his chair.

“Let’s not clink our champagne glasses just yet, Gary. Mustafa’s a teetotaler after all,” retorted Dr. Anderson. Mustafa frowned. He didn’t care to disabuse them of their pious portrait of him. He was in fact not averse to downing a rakı or two with his Turkish chums.

“Okay, let’s talk about this. Have you been to Paktia before? Have you worked with Operation Afghanistan? What do you know, Wim?” Parkinson searched for a pen in his breast pocket as he spoke.

“As the letter specifies, the ICC is calling for a discreet investigation related to a high-profile cabinet official in the Karzai government, a former warlord.” Dr. Anderson was using shorthand for the International Criminal Court.

“What?”  Parkinson feigned incredulity.  “In the Karzai government? Dost mine ears deceive me?” said Parkinson.

“Once a warlord always a warlord, I say,” asserted Dr. Anderson.

“Can’t argue with that. So who is this individual?” asked Mustafa. “I have three or four people in mind. I’m just curious.”

“Let’s play, Know your Warlord.” Dr. Anderson hummed a made-up theme song. “Could it be Dostum? Do I hear an Ismail Khan??”

“That’s more than I know,” said Selderhuis. “Jürgenmeyer has the details.” He turned to Mustafa. “Listen, doctor. I know you’ve decided to take no more missions, but at least hear him out. It’s an important investigation, and you have been personally requested.”

As Selderhuis was making his plea, a swarthy Teutonic-looking man in his forties walked into the hotel restaurant carrying a brown file folder, sporting a jacket over a white shirt with a straight collar. The gait, orange-flushed cheeks, thick build, the eyebrows—Mustafa recognized him for a Bavarian. The restaurant hostess was directing him their way. Dr. Anderson followed Mustafa’s eyes toward the German man already at their table and extending his hand.


“Hello, everyone. My name is Dominick Jürgenmeyer and I represent the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Judge Escavarra, and my own organization, Projekt ROLA, Rule of Law in Afghanistan. I think I’ve talked to you all by phone at one point or another. I trust you haven’t waited long.” He consulted his watch—7:13—and took pride in having violated a German stereotype.

After mutual introductions and a brief exchange of pleasantries, Jürgenmeyer described the mission. “I’ve lived in America long enough to know,” he said, making eye contact with the two Americans at the table, “that I need to get the bottom line up front. We’re asking Dr. Doctor Özerkan to head up an investigation team to examine a mass grave in Eastern Afghanistan…”

“Yes, in Paktia Province.” Mustafa wanted to move on from the information he had already received in a phone call, letter and e-mail. “Where exactly? Can you be more specific? Along the border with Pakistan?”

“I’m coming to that. Not on the border exactly. It’s near a village called Qela Dho.” Jürgenmeyer waited for a follow-up response from Mustafa. Not getting one, he proceeded with his information brief.

“We, that is, the ICC and NATO and a host of other involved organizations have reason to believe that a Pashtun tribal leader named Ahmadzai is responsible for the death of probably twenty people—civilians—at this remote location. We’re not positive about the numbers.” Jürgenmeyer, a lawyer by trade, scanned the four faces, finding only Mustafa seemingly familiar with the warlord’s name.

Mustafa knew something of Jalaluddin Ahmadzai, a maverick Pashtun warlord who had found exile in Turkey during the Taliban years. He had once seen him during a stopover at Incirlik Air Base. Nobody could miss him: a long black beard, black turban, and angry eyes that looked as though they could pierce armor. What he was doing on an American airbase, Mustafa had no idea, but it was clear he had made enemies in Afghanistan and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had encouraged him to leave.

When Mustafa spotted Ahmadzai, he had a retinue of young men around him and appeared to have just finished prayers. Those were the days when America had lost interest in Afghanistan and paid little attention to the Taliban. Once U.S.-funded and Pakistan-supported mujahedeen sent the Soviets back over the Amu Darya with their tails between their legs, the West shifted focus to a putative new world order. Whatever differences Ahmadzai had with the Taliban, Mustafa knew the warlord shared their radical Sunni beliefs and strict implementation of Sharia law. Weeks after spotting him at the airbase, Mustafa read in the newspaper about one of Ahmadzai’s men murdering a fellow Afghan at a religious school in Üsküdar.

Jürgenmeyer continued with the details. “I’m referring to Jalaluddin Ahmadzai Khan, a thirty-seven-year-old tribal leader with a long history of drug smuggling, abductions, and, well, the usual things that warlords unfortunately do in this part of the world. Counternarcotics agents call him JAK…”

“Jack?” asked Parkinson.

“J.A.K. A code name.”

“Yes, I see.”

“But locals and troops on the ground refer to his nom de guerre, the ‘Tank Eater.’   He operates a network, the so-called JAK Network, that hides and protects heroin labs throughout the area and has direct ties to the Quetta Shura, that is, the Taliban leadership safely ensconced just across the border from Kandahar. Believe it or not, the DEA relied on him in an ill-fated program to eradicate poppy production back in the early Nineties.”

Parkinson reacted with a hearty laugh. “Oh, I’m a believer alright!” Jürgenmeyer’s comment afforded Parkinson yet another opportunity to demonstrate his disapproval of the aforementioned American Imperium. “What warlord haven’t we supported at one time or another?”

Selderhuis wanted clarification. “What is this tank-eating business?”

“According to local legend, Ahmadzai, as a kid back in the Eighties, one night snuck onto a Soviet tank that was holding his village captive and dropped a few grenades down the hatch.”

“What a wonderful coming-of-age story,” Dr. Anderson blurted out sarcastically.

“He’s a warrior, no doubt about that,” Jürgenmeyer went on. “His followers sometimes refer to him as mullah, but the appellation hasn’t stuck with those outside his Ghilzai tribe. He became a fundamentalist as a medical student at Kabul Polytechnic University.  He's cultivated a reputation as a pious Muslim.”

“A Jihadist in other words?”

“Yes, but not necessarily in the 'terrorist' meaning of the term,” responded Jürgenmeyer, making quotation marks with his fingers. We’ve established no direct connections with Al Qaeda, and I do emphasize direct, for satellite phone chatter is suspicious in this regard. His relationship with the Taliban, moreover, is problematic.  Sometimes he forms an alliance with them, sometimes he doesn’t.”

“How was this site discovered?” Mustafa asked.

“The Americans were building a women’s health clinic on the site.”

“Oh yeah? I got a name for it: The Michelle Obama Clinic.” Everyone looked at Parkinson strangely. “You know, like the Laura Bush maternity ward in Kabul? Geez.”

Jürgenmeyer wasn’t going to waste time on peripheral issues. “Listen, we need to keep this secret for now. As some of you might know, Ahmadzai formerly served as one of the deputy presidents in the Karzai administration, though everyone knew he had blood on his hands. A man like Ahmadzai has a checkered past. His resume reads like a catalogue of unmitigated cruelty and sadism, but he still plays a role inside Kabul and has Karzai’s ear.”

“More like a rap sheet, I’d say,” said a caustic Selderhuis.

“He’s a nasty piece of work.” Jürgenmeyer had pocketed that American phrase for use on occasions such as this.

Parkinson was suspicious. “Did he kill Americans?”


“Did he kill any Westerners or officials of the Afghan government.”

“Not that we can tell.”

“Why are you so interested in Ahmadzai?” Selderhuis held the same suspicion of his dinner partners at the table. “I mean, his crimes are appalling but not exactly earth-shattering, as far as Afghan warlords go.”

“Your question is apt. Ahmadzai has become too powerful and the civilized world needs to bring him down. He’ll jeopardize efforts to stabilize the Afghan government. He stands in the way of ongoing efforts to lessen the influence of warlords in the country and convince the Afghan people that we, the international community, are serious. I should also add that he has had tremendous influence drawing soldiers away from the Afghan National force after they’ve been trained. We have evidence that they bring their new skills and new weapons into Paktia to serve Ahmadzai’s nascent army.”

Jürgenmeyer could see on Selderhuis’s face that he still wasn’t making his point. “We need a legal basis to put Ahmadzai away. We cannot just send the 82nd Airborne after him. He himself has agreed publicly to submit to the rule of law. We know that’s a lie, but that’s the basis on which we’ll subdue him, keep him off the streets.” The German availed himself of another American expression. “We need evidence of wrong-doing, and since we’re dealing with Afghanistan, a country in shambles for over thirty years, we need significant crimes, not your run-of-the-mill opium smuggling or kleptocracy.”

“Only in Afghanistan!” sighed Parkinson.

“I suppose that would be a rather bloody undertaking anyway, no?” queried Dr. Anderson.  “Taking him by force, I mean.”

“Ahmadzai’s got the damn Afghan National army in his back pocket,” commented Selderhuis.

“Not quite the entire army, but you’re right about a bloodbath. What the chief prosecutor wants to do is build a case on him for what we suspect are horrendous crimes against his own people and then nab him with SAS or Navy Seals.”

“À la Drago and Krajiŝnik,” stated Dr. Anderson.

“Precisely, but hopefully without a hitch.” Jürgenmeyer was aware that Drago’s bodyguards managed to kill a EUFOR commando and wound another in the course of his abduction on the western border of Serbia.

“Good luck with that,” said Dr. Anderson.