Charikar

Appearing in Issue 27 of 34th Parallel Magazine, this is my first published work of fiction.

Jason had the day off. This was new – since he arrived in Afghanistan he had worked every single day of the week. Not even Fridays, normally slower because it was the Muslim Sunday, gave relief: that was the day he caught up on paperwork.

He woke up really early, much earlier than he needed to, to make breakfast. Normally breakfast is not that big of a deal, but this was his day off and he could eat alone — no bullshit shop talk, no need to feel sociable and friendly to his compatriots, no burned-out husk of a security contractor eagerly catching him up on the latest travails of child support and alimony that could only be afforded by years of constant deployments. He was going to eat his breakfast in blissful silence.

It gave him a chance to think. Jason hadn’t had those since arriving at Bagram last month. He had spent Christmas at his computer, working to read mission reports when he coualdn’t interview soldiers, policemen, or prisoners at the scary CIA jail. At night, he Skyped home to say hi, which was enough even though the connection dropped halfway through. That was military life for him, or at least what passed for it as a civilian.

Jason occupied a funny middle place in the hierarchy of stereotypes in the war zone. He wasn’t a uniformed soldier, so he couldn’t skip to the front of lines (like when boarding the plane to get here from Ft. Benning), but he also wasn’t a dirty contractor so he wasn’t forced to be last for everything on the assumption that his life was otherwise perfect and without worry. Pentagon civilians are the Goldilocks of warfighting: just good enough to avoid active scorn, but not True Heroes like the guys in camouflaged uniforms with machine guns.

He rolled out of his bed – they had real mattresses here, and real sheets if you cared enough to ever launder them – and put on his slippers for the shower. This early, when the sun was only an ochre smear on the sawtoothed mountain skyline, there was still plenty of hot water and the bathrooms were empty. Jason hated the group showers. He never felt like a part of the comradery here; random bros seeing his dick as he toweled off held almost no appeal.

The horizon glow had brightened a tiny bit when Jason put his clothes on and headed down the gravel alleyway to the dining hall. As he walked along, signs of life stirred in the base: the rumble of trucks along Disney Drive, the main street that bisected Bagram into a town of sorts on one side and the airport that gave it its name on the other. Young women in Air Force sweatsuits jogging along the sidewalk. Enlisted teenagers speed walking into office buildings. Foreign Legionnaires catting about in sporty looking amphibious jeeps. Herds of identical looking men in their grey army workout suits queuing up to enter the breakfast area.

Jason got in line. He tried hard to look invisible. The actual soldiers always gave obvious civilians the side-eye in line, and he preferred not to attract attention to himself. Once, while he was taking a dump in the bathroom at a local brigade headquarters, he overheard two sergeants talking about the many civilians that had flocked here as Iraq wound down. “They’re like fucking ants, man” one had said, the other agreeing in between grunting as he squeezed out more poop. It stuck with him, this sense that so many of the bushy-bearded men – they were almost always men – in blue jeans and Han Solo-style pistol holsters and construction boots and khaki shirts were little more than pests to the troops.

By the time Jason swiped by access card to get into the cafeteria, waited in line for stale bacon and soggy hashbrowns and runny eggs and toast and partially frozen cantaloupe and burned coffee, the place had filled up. The only table was in the back, a cute little two-seater nestled between two groups of boisterous young men still sporting sweat stains from their morning run.

He sat, swirling creamer into his coffee before melting sugar in the styrofoam cup, splurting glops of ketchup on his plate in absolute silence.

At the table next to him the conversation had blurred into nonsense, the same sort of empty banter that accompanied any talking of shop in a war zone. It drifted at random, filled with forced witticisms and false charm, and put Jason into a dark mood.

He stood up suddenly, the screech of his chair on the linoleum floor startling the table behind him. He turned around sheepishly. “I’m going to go enjoy my morning.”

Jason left the dining hall and walked up Disney Drive, near the Burger King and the miniature strip mall the military had built to make soldiers feel homesick, along a line of shops bookended by a for-profit online college degree mill eagerly sucking up GI Bill money with Uncle Sam’s enthusiastic support, past the salon and massage parlor. He walked and walked. He walked all the way up Disney Drive to the northern end with the parked, ruddy C-130s and the rotting Soviet airplane corpses, and then he walked all the way back down the same dusty street lined with nightmarish, leafless, warped trees grasping for the air with their horrid finger-twig limbs, south past the Egyptian hospital, back past another dining hall, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the brigade headquarters, a third dining hall, all the acronymed buildings and miniature camps, the office building being finished by brave Tajik men dangling their legs over the five stories of brick, the Emirati clinic, the imposing jail run by the CIA, the other jail run by the American special forces (with the only scary guards on the entire base), past the Joint Operations Center where the generals and their attendant Colonels and attendant Majors never stain their crisply pressed combat uniforms with anything except food. He walked past the Czech camp buzzing with crystal meth for sale, past the KBR barracks everyone knew also fronted for a prostitution ring, south to the waiting area for the terminal for flights to other bases, the helicopter launch zone teeming with dozens of contractors, most working for KBR on their way to new construction sites, south past the Polish, the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Finns, the Jordanians, the Turks, south to just before the big curve in the road that leads to main gate, to the outside part where Afghanistan really exists.

What a fucking base. Jason was going to the bazaar. Bagram was a bazaar, the whole damn base. Hell, all of NATO was just one big bazaar of small dysfunctional countries begging America for overpriced consumer goods and military services they could probably find cheaper and better elsewhere. Jason wanted to buy something not western. He wanted to feel a twinge of connection to this place he’d lived the last year, something to connect him to the people he claimed to care about but hardly knew.

Nasreen was standing and smoking on the corner right in the nook of the curve of the road. Somehow, even though he was only assigned to Jason’s advisory team part time, Nasreen managed to know where he was headed. Their chance encounters on the street happened so often, Jason no longer thought them weird; he just accepted them as one of the surrealities that life in Bagram imposes. He’d play off his insecurities with a joke, sometimes a flirtatious one, but Jason was always a bit ill at ease for Nasreen. She just didn’t quite add up to him. Still, she served her purpose and helped Jason understand what he felt he needed to do his job.

“Well, fuck.” Nasreen grinned at the profanity, curling an unruly lock of hair behind her scarf. It was one sin in which she indulged prodigiously.

“Hey.” Jason forced a smile. “Let’s go buy some shit.”

The Bagram bazaar tried its best to imitate a real one in the countryside. If Jason hadn’t already been to one out in the provinces he might have even been charmed. It looked authentic enough: long lines of booths, decked out in florid tapestries and carpets propped up by roughly hacked up pieces of wood or metal – “The best from Pakistan, made in China,” Nasreen joked – and lots of glass and shiny trinkets that yelled I went to Afghanistan. Everything cost too much, nothing was hand made.

“How much do they sell here anyway?” Jason walked along, fingering random carved wooden figures, round pieces of topaz, the pile of a dark carpet hung over a lintel, a credit card machine that didn’t accept American Express (odd, he thought), bracelets made of stamped metal, necklaces made of generic swirly glass beads, gigantic movie monster-looking spiders and scorpions encased in acrylic, many things emblazoned with flags and the words Bagram or Afghanistan, all kitsch and trash stamped MADE IN CHINA and utterly worthless. The vendors made a killing off this stuff.

“I dunno. Enough to live on once they pay back their hiring fees,” Nasreen said, curling her lip in disgust at a wooden figurine of a mujahideen crouched, swaddled in flowing robes, holding a jezail pointed toward a matching figurine of an ancient British soldier. For as long as Jason had known her, she had been openly hostile to the British soldiers she met.

Jason looked back at her. “Hiring fees? Like they pay to get hired?”

Nasreen nodded. “Yeah, it varies but getting space on Bagram, with Americans and hard currency and a very captive audience, is like one of the best places to sell this crap.”

Jason grunted. Of course it was. He was amazed at how little the third world changed — everywhere the same mud walls, that stench of diesel and burning shit, the total corruption among the camp followers. It was like this in Burma, in Yemen, in Honduras, in Bolivia, in El Salvador, in Nigeria, in Tanzania. Every where he went, every shithole he used to visit, every reporting trip or research grant or article he tried to investigate, it was all the same. He knew these markets, the monopsony of idiot foreigners throwing too much cash for too much crap, the clever artistry of American containers being dressed up as Afghan bodegas, the vaudeville of salesmanship, all the white people made visibly uncomfortable by the thought of haggling (so they didn’t, and got ripped off). It was so… normal. It shouldn’t be.

“So how much do they pay? Can you ask this guy?” He pointed at the nearest stall.

Nasreen turned her mouth over and shrugged. She asked the old man selling small pieces of polished topaz something in rapid-fire Pashto. The man’s eyebrows shot up, first in annoyance at the young woman talking to him and then at the topic of discussion, and he began yelling, waving his hands. Nasreen giggled at first, then began to look alarmed. Jason got alarmed with her. The old man whipped his hands about, under his table, sweeping his scraggly white beard out of the way, and came up with a long swatch of wood. He began to swing, hitting Jason’s hunched up shoulders, then swinging at Nasreen’s head just after she ducked out of the way. The two of them scampered off while the old man continued to shout and stomp the ground.

At the end of the row of stalls they stopped, panting slightly. Nasreen laughed. “Yeah, he didn’t like my asking that,” she said, wiping off her brow. Jason nodded.

“Everyone else in this row looks really hostile.”

Nasreen grunted in agreement. “We were just chased away by an angry colleague. So yeah, they’re hostile. You’re onto them. No one likes some dipshit foreigner ruining all their profit.”

“But I’m not going to do that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nasreen said. “You’re not part of the club, so they don’t trust you. I’m not either, and they don’t trust me. They know it’s shady to run a stall here no matter how good the money is. Everyone compromises. That’s just how this place is. Afghanistan is all about the compromise.”

“No it’s not,” Jason said. He wasn’t sure why he was so defensive. “We’re sure as shit not compromising on much, are we?”

Nasreen’s brow furrowed. “Well. Yes, we are. Quite a bit, actually.”

Jason looked back at the stall owner. He was speaking to an Afghan in a crisp police uniform. “Since when do the cops shop here? Can’t they get better shit off-base?”

Nasreen turned her head toward the mysterious Afghan. “Usually.” She walked over the policeman, who gruffed at her approach.

“Salaam alaykeum, sahib,” Nasreen said.

Jason squinted. It was always hard for him to follow the rapid-fire Pashto. It was a… well, a bad language is the only word he could think of for it. Dari, a dialect of Persian, at least had rules and grammar. Pashto was a mess to learn, almost as hard as English. It used to give Jason a gut-thrill to warble a phrase or two. Now it just gave him a headache.

The policeman tilted his head just enough for everyone to see he was important enough for an American to know who he was. He walked toward them, arms outstretched, and grasped Nasreen’s right hand with both of his. Nasreen tried to translate: Hello, how are you, how’s your family, are you in good health? Pleasantries in any language are weirdly repetitive but charming. He made a fist with his right hand and touched his heart.

Nasreen asked if he’d care to join them for some shopping.

The policeman — his name was Bilal, Nasreen said — laughed, the first real emotion Jason had seen him express with his face. “Only if Red Hair promises not to shakedown any more merchants,” Nasreen translated.

Jason’s eyes grew wide. “No, no!” He stammered. “I wasn’t trying to shake them down! I just wanted to know about them!”

Waiting for Nasreen to translate, Bilal’s face grew hard again. “Well,” he said through Nasreen, “it’s close enough. You should tell them that next time. Poor Hajji Mohammed Jan almost had a heart attack you were going to take away his business.”

“God, no,” Jason said. He fucked up talking to the locals again. “I’m just trying to meet them. It’s our job here, we’re supposed to learn about normal people.”

After translation, Bilal laughed. “These people are not normal! Neither am I. It is good to be above normal.”

“Wait,” Jason was confused. “So they aren’t normal here? No one?”

Bilal said, weirdly in English, “Yes.” Then he continued in Pashto. These shop owners get to charge a lot more for the normal goods people sell at the real bazaar outside the base, he said. They’re privileged, they make much more money than normal shopkeepers and they usually live nearby. This is a rich part of the country: they have easy access to the roads and highways, and they grow a lot of things and have access to the internationals and clean water.

As they spoke, they wandered toward the other end of the bazaar. Jason found himself enjoying talking with Bilal; the policeman made the translation delays feel warm and not just awkward. Jason could tell he spent a lot of time talking to the internationals. And he thought: maybe Bilal could help him a bit in his quest to learn about these shopkeepers. Maybe the presence of two Afghans speaking Pashto would get Jason a fair price on something too. He saw a stall with intricately carved wooden figurines, helmed by a small middle aged man with jet black hair, acne scars on his cheeks, and shockingly green eyes.

“How much are these?”

Nasreen translated. “For you, thirty-five dollars.”

Jason laughed. “Thirty-five? Have I insulted you?” Nasreen translated. The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow. “I’ll give you ten.”

Outrage! The man used both hands, held together with palms up, almost scooping supposed value from the figurines onto Robert’s chest. He was speaking so fast Jason couldn’t even catch the occasional word like he normally could.

Nasreen was smirking a bit. “He says he has to feed his family, how could you insult him with such a low offer. And, umm, other stuff.”

Jason gave her a look. He saw Bilal was suppressing a smile. Nasreen looked uncomfortable. “It was kind of vulgar.”

“Well tell him to offer me a fair price and I won’t have to be insulting.”

The man spoke. “Okay,” Nasreen said. “He said you’re clearly a smart man so he can offer twenty-five dollars.”

Jason shook his head. “I could never pay more than fifteen.”

The man had become serious. “No,” Nasreen translated. “Twenty.”

Jason leaned in. “On what planet does this represent twenty American dollars worth of work?”

The shopkeeper spoke again. He looked deadly serious. “I can’t go below twenty,” Nasreen translated. There was no light in his eye this time.

“Why did he become so serious all of a sudden?”

Nasreen looked over at a grave Bilal. “I don’t know exactly. But they tend to get unhappy when Americans try to really haggle here.”

“Why would they care?”

“Because this is where they make all their money.”

“You mean they rely on Westerners being too stupid to talk them down to a reasonable price?”

Nasreen shrugged. “Basically. That’s why I don’t buy stuff here.”

“Can you ask him how much this stall position cost him?”

Bilal was looking at them both, trying to understand enough of the words. Nasreen caught his eye.

“I’d rather not, that other guy was unhappy about it.”

“What if Bilal does the talking?”

Nasreen shook his head. “No, that’s asking for trouble.” As Jason opened his mouth Nasreen cut him off. “The police can’t and shouldn’t ask about that. That is just an entire universe of trouble we want to avoid.”

“So how can we figure that out?”

“Does AAFES know?”

Jason smacked his lips in frustration. “AAFES, like the contractor that runs these bases? They don’t talk to auditors. They don’t talk to journalists. They sure as shit won’t talk to us, we’re DOD.”

Nasreen pursed her lips in frustration. “Can’t you just pay twenty to the guy? It’s not like you’re hurting for money.”

Jason considered this. It’s true, he made more than enough – the deployment bonuses and danger pay alone would make $20 immaterial. But the principle of the thing, of letting some dude in an open-air market swindle him out of money like an idiot just didn’t sit with him. It used to be kind of fun to overpay for things at the bazaars, to pretend like he didn’t know any better and to wink and to nod at the sellers’ avarice. It was his little way of helping the economy, of giving back to the country.

Of course it was utter horseshit. Jason knew that all he was doing was confirming the worst stereotypes about himself, about Americans, about the West, the rest of the world. Foreigners are suckers, that’s what those stall men say about us, he thought. But how else could this man possibly be convinced to talk to him?

Dammit. Besides which, Nasreen was right: the shopkeeper needed the money. And she had never steered him wrong before.

“Alright,” Jason said. “I’ll pay twenty.”

Nasreen translated. The man’s brow unknotted when he saw the bill and handed over a figurine. Jason put it in his pocket.

“Nasreen,” he said, “can you ask him his name? Give him my name and say I’d like to get to know him.”

The man looked wary. Why would the American want to know anything about him? Nasreen said the man’s name was Afzal.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Afzal.” Nasreen translated. Afzal looked abashed. It was nice to meet him too.

“Afzal,” Jason continued, “where do you live? Do you have to travel far to come here to sell?”

“He says his family is in Charikar, the capital.”

Jason asked him if he liked living there. The man said yes. Would you mind if we visited your neighborhood in Charikar to talk to people about their opinions?

The man was clearly uncomfortable about it.

“Please forgive me if I’m being forward,” Jason said. Bilal, silent as a canyon, had cocked his head in interest. Afzal looked at the policeman. “But I’m just curious about this land. I’d like to know more about it.”

Reluctantly, Afzal opened up, bit by bit. Jason learned of the man’s family, his brother and two cousins who lived with him, his three sons and two daughters and two wives, and his mother. They all lived in a house in a well off part of town except for the oldest son who was working in Dubai. They’d lived there for decades. Afzal’s father had worked with the Soviets at Bagram and now he was doing the same. He liked the Soviets, he said: they educated his children for free and they didn’t steal from him. The Taliban did not come to Charikar until fairly late in the civil war, and he had kept his family out of sight, trading old music cassettes for food and clothes. They mostly hid, while Afzal and his brother, both of whom were old enough to grow thick beards, eked out a living trying to smuggle textbooks from Pakistan to sell to underground booksellers in Kabul. Two of his sons had died — one in crossfire between a Northern Alliance militia group and the Talibs during their final push through the area, and the other when the religious police caught him with cassette tapes in his bag. The beatings were too much for him and he died at home, bleeding and bruised and sobbing in agony. Afzal’s eldest son went to Dubai in 2001, long before any troops came nearby, and now sent back enough money for them to buy food, so he was trying to save money from his shop at Bagram to send his other two sons to school in the West. “America is our future,” he said, in Pashto of course because he couldn’t speak English but his sons sure as hell would, he assured them, inshallah. English was how you got rich in America, it was how you got a job with the NGOs clogging downtown Kabul where all the Westerners lived inside barbed wire guesthouses and saved their enormous deployment bonuses for home purchases back in the West, it was the only way to make connections and get ahead.

Two hours went by this way, Jason greedily consuming as much information as he can. As they spoke other westerners came by to buy Afzal’s figurines for $35, not realizing how much they overpaid. He and Nasreen and Jason and even Bilal all shared a small smile, knowing he could be talked down but wasn’t.

Afzal was like an earthen dam: impossible to weaken or move, but the slightest disturbance for water to seep through made it all come gushing out, a furious rushing derecho of pride and hurt and longing and regret and hope. Jason was never very good at this (breaking the ice can be awkward) but it was exhilarating. Afghans of all stripes are desperate to be heard, for someone from the outside to care about what they say and think and want. Afzal got frustrated explaining this in exacting detail. Jason couldn’t fathom the utter helplessness that came from being someone else’s pawns for so many years. And how did Nasreen keep up with the translations?

A buzzer sounded: 3 pm. Time for the bazaar to close. “May I buy you some chai?”

Afzal looked surprised. “No, sahib, I should buy you chai instead, you are my guest here!” Jason and Nasreen laughed.

“Well,” Jason said, “I’m sure I can get out to Charikar sometime soon.” And he knew he would. Might as well build on an informant who is so helpful.

As it turned out, he only needed to wait until the (American) weekend was over: Monday morning they got an email from the local Provincial Reconstruction Team that they were going to patrol through Charikar, and because it had been quiet for a while they’d love to have the team come along.

So the team packed up: Jason, his laconic and fiery ginger-haired team leader Robert (oh the Afghans loved his dark auburn hair), and Nasreen each stuffed huge bags with clothes, toiletries, their computers, notebooks, their cellphones, a Thuraya in case they got lost, a GPS transceiver, digital cameras, power bars, pencils for the kids, lots of hand sanitizer, sunglasses, an extra fleece, a poncho for the rain that looked about to pour down from the grey sky, and spare boots. Don’t forget the armor; the Army won’t let you outside the base without armor and a helmet. It was supposed to be a day trip, but you never knew. Robert, obsessed with the film Black Hawk Down, lectured Jason constantly about preparedness whenever they left the base – those guys thought it was a quick afternoon jaunt, and look at what happened to them! Never mind that it was clearly not 1993 anymore, Jason would pur into his own beard. Robert always heard it and always pretended not to. Never mind that this bullshit isn’t required by the troops. It wouldn’t change the lecture anyway.

Nasreen was something else. She was too boisterous to be a local, yet tried really hard to dress like an urban kid trying to be western: brightly patterned scarf atop a raven’s nest of black hair, oversized sunglasses, a baggy shirt or even sometimes a shalwar over jeans, and sneakers. She spoke flawless Pashto, a consequence of being raised by refugees of the Soviet war in 1980s California. Though Nasreen could never quite insinuate herself to the little bacheh hurling misogynist jokes from the front of every shop and restaurant they’d always find dotting the road, Nasreen could turned on her femininity to charm the officials and policemen they interviewed. Her backpack was probably three sizes too large for her body, making her into a lumpy hunchback of a figure balanced on stick legs like a Star Wars tank.

The trio trudged up Disney Drive to the PRT base, looking damned foolish.

They were late, as it turned out: by the time they got up to the PRT building there was already a briefing going on. They saw Colonel Jessup, the PRT commander, surrounded by a circle of rod-backed officers and a retinue of enlisted teenagers fanned out around them like a seashell of camouflage. Several Humvees were idling, and some of the soldiers were strapping things onto the sloped trunk covers. Hurriedly, the three civilians dropped their bags on the outside of the circle and tried to get close enough to hear.

This wouldn’t do.

“Who the fuck is that?” Jessup had raised a finger toward Jason, Robert, and Nasreen. The three looked at each other then back at Jessup. Jason saw Jessup’s left hand move to snatch the printed map up off the hood of the Humvee. The header and footer were marked with a blood red SECRET.

“What?” Robert said, looking around the three of them. “Who?”

Jessup walked across the semi-circle of people and poked his finger right at Nasreen’s neck where her scarf folded underneath her fleece jacket. “That local woman, who the fuck is she and why is anyone letting her look at this?”

She flustered. “I speak English, Colonel, I’m their terp.”

Jason stepped between them. “Sir, I think you’re confused. Nasreen is on our team.”

“I don’t care who the fuck she’s with, get her out of here.”

Jason looked back at Robert, face imploring for an idea of what he should do about it. Robert hesitated. “Colonel Jessup, that’s our terp. She’s with us, and that’s a weather map.”

Jessup looked around the circle of soldiers. “Lieutenant Jarman, please escort her away from the briefing area.”

A young blonde solder walked up.

Jason interjected. “Colonel, this is not a good idea.” Jessup gave him a death look. The shark was hungry.

The soldier with bright blonde hair sidled next to Nasreen. The humiliation on his face looked unpracticed, like he never felt it before. “Hey Nasreen? Let’s go, okay? I’ll tell you what you need to know later.”

“You know she’s not a local, Colonel.” Jessup snapped his head back around to Robert.

“You want to clue me in, son?”

The briefest flash of anger passed over Robert’s face. It made his dark eyes, which normally exude boredom and mischief, glow. It was terrifying and utterly appealing. “Colonel, sir, Nasreen is an American citizen. She’s from Virginia.”

“I haven’t kicked her off the patrol yet, Bob. But she has no business being here.”

“Colonel,” Robert said, hissing. “She has every right to be here. She’s on our team. She’s cleared. She has a secret clearance. And that’s a fucking weather map.”

Jason left the two older men to their argument and walked over to Nasreen. Jarman put his hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off. She was staring at the ground, nervously tucking some stray black hairs away from her face and back under her scarf. Jason remembered their conversation about California, how her parents were pressuring her to go to grad school and get married and she wanted out, how she was there to escape her parents and the men she was paraded in front of, like they were buying meat at the local Whole Foods. And why not, she could get better about her native language and maybe learn a bit about where she came from.

“What a fucking asshole,” she murmured to both of them. Jarman flattened his mouth. That, too, looked uncomfortable. Empathy didn’t seem to come simply to him. Jason leaned down in front of her.

“Nasreen, are you okay? We can sit out this patrol if you don’t want to deal with it.”

Nasreen’s face darkened. “No, I’ll go. I don’t let dicks like that get ahead of me.”

Jason squeezed her other shoulder. “I’ll go see where things lie,” he offered.

By the time he had walked back to the circle of humvees, Robert and Jessup had raised their voices.

“I don’t give a fuck where she was born, she can’t see that.”

“Jessup, she is a citizen. Jesus Christ she has a clearance!”

“Bob I have no way of knowing that. I’m not going to take a chance and break OPSEC.”

“Jessup, your own men post their patrols to Facebook! Give me a fucking break!”

“ENOUGH! She is not seeing that briefing! And you’re one step away from not tagging along!”

“Colonel,” Robert intoned, “You’re making a mistake.”

“It’s done.” Jessup’s face turned to stone. His shoulders visibly clenched. Jason thought they were about to hit each other. “Alright,” he said to the rest of the soldiers milling about. “Keep her back there while we finish.”

Robert made eye contact with Jason. His lips were thin; he was clenching his jaw hard enough to make his red sideburns rustle. Jason could hear Jessup intoning the rest of his briefing to the assembled drivers – the weirdly Americanized names of driving routes, the gist of where they were going and who they would talk to, and, alas, the weather.

As they walked away, Robert motioned at one of the humvees. Jason looked around. Jarman was waving from the top of the trunk of a humvee. “Hey, come on we have a free seat!”

Jason went over. He saw he was out of earshot of Nasreen. Jarman had cocked a hip truckside. Jason looked at him a second. “What the fuck was that,” he said, to Jarman’s raised eyebrow. “I mean, really, what the fuck is he thinking?”

Jarman sighed. “I dunno man, he’s just like that. It’s harmless.”

Jason shook his head. “No it’s not. That attitude, and the way he treats people who look like they belong here, will have consequences for us.”

Jarman shrugged. “I dunno, man.” He finished strapping a box down and hopped to the ground. “Come on we’ll share the back.”

Jason climbed in to see a pair of booted feet standing on the center console. “Who’s this?”

Jarman poked his head in from the other side of the humvee. “Oh that’s Slayton, the gunner. He’ll keep watch for us.” Jarman handed him a pair of headphones. “Put these on.”

Jason got settled into his seat. “Umm, what are they?”

Jarman gave a half-smile. “Just wear them, trust me.” He plugged the jack into the center console. It was a radio system. The outside world went dead. So they canceled noise too? Jarman stuck out his hand as the headset clicked. “I’m Pete,” he said through the mic.

“Jason.”

The headphones clicked. “Press the button to talk, Jase.”

“It’s Jason.”

“You new here?”

“Yeah, got here two weeks ago.”

“First time outside the wire?”

“Yeah.”

Pete smiled. “Don’t worry, this area is pretty calm.”

Jason couldn’t get the headphones adjusted. He tried to fit them around his helmet, but they wouldn’t touch his ears. He had to take his helmet off, wrap the headphones around his head, then push the helmet back down over his pate. It was not comfortable. Pete Jarman was smirking.

Their driver got in. The gentle rumble of the engine, which Jason hadn’t noticed before, suddenly became shattering. The trucks all revved, shaking the air with subaural vibrations, and slowly rolled into a line to head onto Disney Drive.

Patrols off Bagram always started slow. There was the inexorable traffic of Disney Drive, though most of the Hiluxes and gators learned very quickly to get out of the way of any patrol convoys. At the northern end of Disney drive, the line of Humvees peeled off the main strip of asphalt, near some 30-year old rusting Soviet transport aircraft no one had yet removed.

“Why are these still rotting alongside the road?” Pete clicked his thumb up and down. Jason fumbled along the mic wire. “Why are all those planes still rotting alongside the road?”

“They have to leave most of them there,” Pete said. His voice was tinny in the earphones. Click. “Afghanistan used to be covered with trash the Soviets never took back with them. We cleaned up some of it, but the Afghan government passed a law a few years back that made everything left a monument to the war, no matter where it was.”

They drove past more rusted cargo aircraft, the shattered husk of a battle tank, filthy trucks leaking decomposed diesel from punctured fuel tanks. It looked like a movie set or one of those first person video game shooters set in a desert: everything painted onto a rolling canvass to evoke every cliché everyone had about the country. Pete continued, “When the first SOF teams cleared out Bagram, they found old machine guns just lying around. It’s like the hajjis had so many guns they didn’t need to scour the old Russkie bases anymore.” Jason curled his lip. He didn’t like it when soldiers called the Afghans hajjis. “The air traffic control tower didn’t have any equipment left inside. They even took the windows! This place used to be so dangerous to walk around. There was glass, random mud fucking huts for the local workers no one had ever searched, old Pravda newspapers, Russian training manuals, a telescope, even UXO that had leached chemicals into the local water.”

“UXO?”

“Unexploded ordnance. Land mines. Artillery shells. Bombs and shit. Didn’t they brief you up on this stuff?”

Jason ignored him. “Jesus, bombs just lying around? Like people could get blown up on base?” Jason saw the vehicle commander smirking. All of the forgotten trivia militaries need to fight their wars, left behind in such haste and into such chaos that it stuck around forever. The Soviet war was no longer a tragedy, it was a weird, dangerous farce. What would America leave behind?

“Pretty much,” Pete said. “The first few years we didn’t even have proper racks to sleep in — people would set up tents right by the runway. Workers coming onto the base would trigger mines and lose their shit. I heard it sucked.”

“I guess no one thought of the message they’d send by reviving the Soviet bases?”

Pete looked over. “I dunno, man. Where else would we set up shop?”

Jason thought about that for a second. Across the country, from Mazar-i Sharif to Kandahar, from Jalalabad to Khost to Herat, America found, occupied, and restored the Soviet military apparatus in Afghanistan. They even relied on the Soviet-trained military officers left over from the late 1980s and early 1990s — grizzled old veterans witness to so many horrors it shocked everyone they could even smile anymore — to start rebuilding a professional army.

“Maybe. But I mean, isn’t it like we’re trying to bring back the 80s? Soviet bases, old Soviet officers, stuff like that?”

Pete shrugged. The vehicle commander in the front seat had stopped smirking. Jason went on, “The 80s were bad enough, but I mean we’ve also teamed up with some really sketchy fucking guys, right?”

The vehicle commander — Jason couldn’t see his name — snorted into his mic. “That’s fucking war, man. You can’t choose your friends.”

Jason decided not to push it. It wasn’t a productive conversation. American heroes like Ahmed Shah Massoud had ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of women and children for the crime of living in the wrong part of Kabul, and American soldiers appealed to Massoud when trying to win over his victims. American favorites like Abdul Rashid Dostum, the infamous drunk who exalted in the slow, suffocating bleed outs of his enemies, poked full of bullet holes and left to rot in airless containers in the hot desert sun, got vetted by senior officials. Now he was running the north like nothing had changed. Child rapists like Gul Agha Sherzai, so hated and corrupt the Taliban was invented to displace him, were lavished with truckloads of American cash to retake his old child raping chambers.

In the little bit he had studied Afghanistan Jason only saw the worst sort of myopia: picking whomever is most convenient, rather than whomever is the most likely to help the cause.

Then again, that’s the Army.

It’s funny: whenever Jason read the classified message traffic, back in their analysis center in Northern Virginia, a couple of themes always came out from the human sources. Everyone in Afghanistan hated the Taliban. But they also hated these other guys, these warlords the U.S. was funding and arming and had assigned as viceroys over vast swaths of the country. Some had been defanged, some disarmed, but lots were just made into governors and given their own personal police forces.

When compared to the horrors these new government officials had visited on Afghanistan, the Taliban were only the most recent footnote to such grinding atrocity, a brief flurry of vicious order imposed on a blood-drowned hell of chaos and tyranny. And then the towers fell and the Taliban were swept aside, leaving only the mujahideen behind, free to revise their own histories to appear reasonable, selfless fighters who, whatever their other crimes, were at least not the Taliban—at least they, no matter how much misery and blood and death they rained down upon Afghanistan, they were not terrorists in the eyes of America. And so the Americans loved them, ignored whatever the wishes of the normal people of Afghanistan might be, and put them into power.

Jason had no idea how to say this to the four soldiers in his Humvee. He had no idea how to communicate it to the military leadership he and Robert and Nasreen supposedly advised, even though that was their job. Jason had no idea what he was doing there. He felt like a tourist, some fraud taking an adventure vacation on the government’s dime. Maybe that’s all this was anyway: an adventure tour. It was for everyone else — the journalists writing the same three stories as if repeating the talking points of the public affairs office would matter, the think tankers zipping around on luxury helicopter tours with the generals, the “advisors,” most of whom were barely out of the military and knew nothing of this country, not even the basics, offering sage advice as if they really believed their own bullshit. Maybe he should shut the fuck up and try to enjoy the adventure while it lasted.

The Humvees were now at the jersey barriers near ECP-10, the Entry Control Point—why doesn’t the military just call them “gates” like normal humans?—at the north end of Bagram. These were splayed in a zig-zag pattern across the road, which snaked out from an imposing double-stacked wall of Hesco barriers dotted with mirror-windowed guard towers keeping the extreme north end of the runway and the rest of the base safe from ever witnessing Afghanistan or the mortars it seemed to lob inside so regularly. Left, right, slowly keep it moving, bitch and moan over the headsets about how much bullshit this is just to go visit some piss-ant town 2 miles away. Beyond the jersey barriers was a simple chain-link fence topped with razor-wire. The road ended in a rolling gate, so plain as to look out of place, except for the two Afghan policemen stationed as guard. They didn’t have armor, or fancy machine guns, or mirrored sunglasses. Just a cloth uniform, a little green hat, and an AK-47 with a single clip of bullets. Jason pressed his helmet against the thick bulletproof glass of the rear window:  Bilal didn’t work there. Of course, Bilal was washing tables today, not policing anything.

Jason could smell Charikar before he could see it. They were driving up to a line of low hills, hollow square housing compounds dotted along the road, when a wall of burning charcoal smoke hit them. Jason actually gasped at how strong it was, all soot and shit and food and trash and dirt coursing into his nostrils like the breath of Mordor. Then they rounded a bend, and etched into the sides of the hills, spilling down to the streets, and forming a loose, informal grid was Charikar. They slowed as they approached a police checkpoint; all Jason could see out his window as they drove past was a bored-looking officer staring vacantly at the space behind the Humvees as they rumbled past. He didn’t even acknowledge their presence.

What was he thinking? Jason needed to get used to seeing Afghanistan through ballistic glass. He had to salvage something from this lunacy. He knew he’d never learn anything this way. It was the opposite of research, it was anti-learning — a physical representation of the distance they already felt sleeping in their heated dorms and eating fried chicken while starving, anemic children almost blue from hypoxia begged for scraps a hundred yards up the road. But that’s what they were reduced to. Afghanistan used to be a freeform playground for hippies and hitch hikers, all hash and adventure and sodomy. Now it was police checkpoints, car bombs, military bases, and acid-washed girls hiding their facial scars. Physically experiencing the country, not as an object to be controlled but as a place to ingest and digest and adopt… that just didn’t happen for them. It couldn’t.

The Humvees pulled up to a yellow building. Snowy mountains ringed the building seemingly on all sides. Mist floated between two nearby ridges. Mordor in winter. “This is the Provincial Center,” Pete said through the intercom. “It’s where the Colonel will meet with the governor and stuff.”

Jason unclicked his seatbelt and pushed the door open. It was heavy, disconcertingly so. He didn’t think he was that weak but the other soldiers heaved those doors around like they were nothing. He looked around for Nasreen and Robert. They were four vehicles up, adjusting their helmets. Between them, one of the Afghan interpreters hopped out of his Humvee. He looked back at Jason, then up at Nasreen and Robert. The four them of them all wore jeans and Army-issue green fleece jackets over their body armor.

The soldiers had begun greeting the Afghan men streaming out of the Provincial center. Dust clung trapped on boots and car doors and the walls of the district center building, making a thick, phlegmy filth. It was sticking to everything, turning everything dirty.

“You okay?”

Jason looked over. He’d been staring off into the mountain peaks that were hidden by an encroaching fog. “Yeah, Nasreen, I’m fine. Why?”

“You look like you’re in pain.”

“Just the air out here.”

They began walking over to Jessup. “I hope Ghulam Sediq shows up to this meeting,” Jason said. “I’d love to ask him about this area.”

Nasreen cleared her throat. “He probably won’t talk to us. He likes people with ranks, people who matter.”

Robert had walked up to them both.  “What if we offer to clear up some road projects?”

“We can’t actually do that, can we?” Jason asked.

“You mean build the roads?”

“Yeah.”

“So what?”

Jason and Nasreen looked at each other. He coughed. “Umm. I don’t want my first field trip to be lying to these guys.”

Robert clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on man. Everyone is lying to each other here. It’s how we get stuff done.”

“It shouldn’t be.” Jason had crinkled his forehead toward Nasreen. “Robert, can’t we just be truthful about stuff?”

Nasreen shook her head. “He’s actually right,” she said. She sounded tired. “This guy Jessup is meeting” — She spat the colonel’s name — “Is a total asshole. A pathological liar.” Jason’s brown unclenched. “I just don’t like talking to him.”

He was unhappy with that answer. There had to be something more

The three civilians followed the soldiers inside the arched stone entranceway, their jeans clearly out of place in a crowd of camouflage and shalwar kameezes. Behind the archway there was a courtyard filled with several rows of rose bushes denuded of color for the winter. Sediq came sauntering out — there was no doubt he was in charge — bronze wrinkles soaring above a tightly cropped white beard. The pale green karakul gave his head a flat top, his hands curled inward like gnarled willow roots. A stunted tree grew in the middle of the courtyard, misshapen and terrible with grasping limbs. Here, too, pieces of tree had been lobbed off for tinder; even the wealthy government officials didn’t spare their environment. Pockets of snow peeked out from the corners where sunlight never touched. A small crew of two elderly men and three very young boys luffed around the outside of the meeting room offering tea and apples to the Americans. None of them made eye contact with Nasreen, who grew visibly annoyed. Only Jessup accepted the offer of tea. He sat down on the far end of the room on an expansive rug; the Afghan men arrayed themselves in a wide circle along the edges of the rug. Sediq squatted next to Jessup, munching on an apple.

“Sir,” Jessup began. A local interpreter stood behind him, translating, trying to be heard about the lieutenant-colonel’s boot camp voice. “We’d like to talk about building a road.”

In short order, Robert and Nasreen grew tired of the pretend-shura. Jessup was never very good at dealing with Pashtun social rituals: too much deference for a man too used to it from others, too much politesse for a self-styled “no bullshit” straight talker, too much circling the vultures before going in for the kill. It was painful to watch. Fatima was visibly restless, picking at the stray raven lock tumbling from her scarf. Robert’s fingers audibly rasped back and forth on the front of his jeans in a graceful swirl around the curve of his balls. Neither was paying attention to the discussion.

Jason was grossed out by both of them. Nasreen should know better — she always spoke about how much she liked learning about this country, learning new words to shout at her mother back in California, how weird it was to see what she was rescued from when her parents fled in terror. Now that he thought of it Robert should, too, but Jason also wanted to pay attention to the meeting. Even knowing it was just a ploy — Jason suspected Sadiq knew the role he needed to play to get to his concern — the back-and-forth on road construction was fascinating. Every minute detail, from its precise location (on a map Jason was certain Sadiq could not read), to its width, to which contractor would perform the work, was worked out in exhaustive detail.

“Such bullshit,” Robert whispered to Jason. “That contractor is going to pay his cousin to do the work, who will pay his cousin, and so on, for like six or seven layers of contracting. Then it’ll be shittily built, it’ll fall apart in like two years, and then we’ll be back here negotiating another multi-million dollar paving project that should cost a tenth as much without the graft.”

The two men, Jessup and Sediq, reclined on the dusty carpet, had barely gotten down to business. And already it was time to go. “Alright men,” Jessup intoned. “We’re going.”

Robert stood up first, all knee cracks and grunts. Jason hadn’t been paying attention to the end of the talks but it had become heated. Sediq was easing a beat up photograph with a man’s face on it into the folds of his shirt. He asked Nasreen what it was.

“That’s his son,” she said. “He doesn’t care about the roads. He just thinks that if he cooperates on the roads, then Jessup will get his kid out of jail.”

His astonishment made her smirk. “Look, Jason, most of the young men near here have been arrested at some point or another. Mostly they’re just held for a few weeks and let go. It’s not that big of a deal.”

That didn’t sit right. “Why can’t we at least ask?”

She shook her head. “Don’t ask. It’s not worth it.”

Jason watched everyone file out of the room. Outside, in the depressing rose garden, he saw an old man sweeping. Motiong for Nasreen to follow him, Jason walked up and greeted the man.

He laughed. Jason wasn’t expecting that. Nasreen translated, “oh, hahaha! Umm, your Pashto is really terrible.”

Red flared in his cheeks. “Well, at least I’m trying.”

Nasreen shared the old man’s laughter. “Umm,” Jason began. “What do you here?”

The conversation flowed awkwardly from there, the old man seemingly more interested in an American taking interest in him that any exchange of information. Jason quickly began to sweat — speaking to people off the cuff like this was exhausting — and he hadn’t learned anything. His report, when he got back, would be NFTR, nothing further to report. He had nothing to show for all of this expense and , leaving this meeting,

After making the politest farewell he could, halting Pashto and all, hand in fist over heart, Jason left the courtyard. The air had turned luminescent silver as sunlight poked through the cloud cover, burning back the fog to the ridgelines between mountain peaks.

Pete called out: “C’mon, Jason, we’re getting out of here.” He was standing on a door sill of their humvee, leaning out of it like a circus act. As Jason started walking toward him, he got an uncomfortable realizing: he quite desperately had to pee. But how to bring that up? The soldiers had a bad habit of urinating onto the side of the road, onto buildings, even (in one particularly humiliating and incendiary incident) a mosque. But Jason wouldn’t dare do that. He was supposed to be an example of how to behave properly. But the local Afghan latrines were unspeakably disgusting, often little more than shit-soaked holes in the ground surrounded by mud.

He decided to just hold it. As he climbed into the humvee, looking back on the spooky landscape he realized that the meeting — the “shura,” as the military condescendingly referred to meetings with Afghans — had lasted barely thirty minutes. How much could they possibly work out in such a short time?

He didn’t have an answer. Toward the end of the meeting, Sediq had brought out a small pile of low-resolution photos and handed them to Jessup. Nasreen had explained that this was a routine of his; at every meeting Sediq would go through ritualistic pleas, after asking for what he thought the Americans wanted — to build roads — he would segue as quickly as he could into discussing what he really wanted — to get young men from his town out of American jail. Jessup knew this, of course, and they both performed their ritual exchanges to flawless precision.

Was that all this war was? Empty rituals, performed for months on end before going home? It was too depressing to ponder, so Jason set it aside.

The humvees started rumbling. It was time to head back to base. Pete slammed shut the other door, making Jason startle. “So how’d you like it?”

Jason shrugged and clicked his mic. “I dunno, it didn’t seem like much happened.”

Pete laughed into his headset. “Yeah, it never does. But at least we got off base, right?”

He couldn’t argue the point. The lead humvee began gingerly easing out of the compound. The sky had clouded a bit more darkly now, and the mud was becoming thick and gloppy. A light drizzle began, not enough to bog anything down, but just enough to make everything moist, slippery, and unpleasant.

They took a different route out of town, traveling south instead of back east the way they’d come, along a surprisingly smooth paved road lined on both sides by merchant stalls and billboards advertising cell phones, the local police chief, and things Jason could not identify because of the Persian script. The mountains loomed high on the right, a blue EKG above the haze of diesel. A small tricycle trundled past, the put-put-put of its tiny motor gently sifting the veiled riders underneath its canvass roof. The man driving, perched delicately above the single front wheel, glared at them.

South and south they drove, trying to speed (“to avoid any VBIEDs,” Pete had said, using the military’s weird jargon for a car bomb), often being stuck behind bicyclists, Toyota Corollas, motorbikes trailing women in burqas, men trudging their sandaled feet through thick muck, the dark green Ford Rangers used by the Afghan police (whose tail gunners religiously clutched their gigantic machine guns to avoid being flung from the flatbed), the occasional emaciated cow. The trees clenched the dark clouds above, begging for moisture and oxygen to turn green again.

They reached the edge of town and began to speed up. Jason was looking out the front windshield, trying to divine when they would have to turn left to head back into the safe, surreal blandness of Bagram. Where the sky met the ground, black smoke began to rise. A humvee further up the convoy swerved to the right suddenly, catching a wheel in a ditch and turning on its side. Jason’s driver yelled “Oh shit!” and stopped on his brakes as another humvee disappeared into a skyscraper grey cloud, lit underneath by fire and sparks. It emerged milliseconds later, tumbling off the left side of the road trailing flames and belching smoke.

Jason registered this motionlessly as he pressed against his restraints. The headphones, filled with excited chatter he couldn’t follow, went mute for several seconds as the truck filled with dust and convulsed with a whumpf from the bomb. Something slammed into him from the back, and his neck cricked onto the side of the door. They had been rear-ended.

The soldiers inside scrambled out, shouting orders and positions to each other. Pete turned back. “STAY INSIDE!” he screamed, loud enough for Jason to hear through the earphones. His pulse quickened as he saw the fear drive everyone into defensive crouches. How could he possibly be safe here? He pulled off the earphones. A staccato plink-plink-plink waved across the roof, becoming a sharp crack as it impacted the bulletproof window by his face. They are shooting at me, he thought, still in his seat. Should he get outside?

A muffled explosion carried into the humvee interior, and smoke rose from a nearby hillside. An airstrike. It was over. Jason glanced out the window, his eyes begging for permission to leave. Pete came up and opened the door. “It’s okay, Jase, we got ‘em. Stretch your legs for a second, we’ll be here.”

With a panic he hadn’t realized until it was already upon him, Jason undid his seatbelt and stumbled out of the humvee. There were a few crackle-pops of gunfire up in the hills. A few soldiers were already sauntering back down to the line of humvees. Jason walked to the back of his truck and saw Robert and Nasreen both standing there, looking dazed.

Jason noticed a nagging feeling in his ears, and realized it was the whoosh of a fire. He rounded the truck and saw the upturned humvee just up the road, flames belching out of its undercarriage. Someone was screaming and rolling around in the wet mud. The flames were bright, burning after images into Jason’s eyes. One soldier was kneeling down by another one, who laid prostrate, his head propped up on an embankment on the side of the road.

Pete came around the wrong of their humvee. “What happened?”

Pete shook his head. “VBIED,” he said, matter-of-factly. He was panting slightly and kept fidgeting his index finger around the finger guard of his rifle. “I don’t know how complex, but it looks like they targeted the first two vehicles and then shot down at us from those hills.”

The screaming up ahead had stopped. “Can I help,” Jason asked, completely flat-toned.

Pete shook his head. “Let the medics work. We’ve cleared out the enemy.”

Jason walked up to the next humvee and leaned against the hood. He stared. He stared as the screaming man was approached by another soldier, who put his arms around the man and calmed him down. He watched as the man lying prostrate on the side of the road stopped gurgling. He watched as that man’s watcher gingerly placed two fingers over his eyes to close them. He watched as the rain opened up, washing the soot and embers and still-burning oil and shit and blood down the gullies into a nearby creek. He watched as the helicopters flew overhead, occasionally firing their guns into the mountains. He watched as the Quick Reaction Force rolled into the area, set up its large MRAPs into a circle, and bundled up the injured and dead soldiers to be carried back to Bagram for treatment and burial. He watched as Colonel Jessup, his face red with flushed blood flow, ordered everyone back into their humvees to start the drive back to Bagram.

He watched Robert walk over, a drowned puppy up on two legs. Robert enveloped Jason in a hug and whispered into his ear. Jason had no idea what Robert said, but he said it so earnestly Jason assumed it was meant to be comforting. When he pulled away he left a streak of blood on Robert’s face blending into the red of his beard. Robert used a sleeve to wipe off Jason’s face. It hurt, but he wasn’t cut. It was someone else’s blood. Robert slowly turned him around by the shoulder and nudged him back to the humvee.

Jason watched himself climb back into the back seat, he watched his headphones wrap around his head, he watched the door clang shut, and he watched the seat belt fit itself around his waist. He watched the smoke discharge from the trucks ahead as their drivers pressed down the gas pedal. He watched the countryside slowly slide past once again, the traffic, the men walking non-chalantly down the side of the road as if nothing happened, the motorcycles with women in wet, clingy burqas perched dangerously on the back slid past.

And he watched the hills, first seeming so close by, slowly recede as they drove closer and closer to the fences and walls and Hescos and guard towers and fast food and yoga classes and fried chicken and ice cream and hospitals of Bagram. And those hills, which he had only registered with the briefest of interest before, no longer looked so boring. They were dark, filled with death and terror and blood and bones and mud.

Blood was spilled today, on a normal day, on a quick day trip to talk to some technocrat who’d never change anything and about whom they never cared. Jason couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe how close he was to being hurt or murdered, couldn’t believe how little he felt about it. “Shamrock red, shamrock red” someone intoned into the radio, military jargon to tell the medics they had wounded. There were some smears of blood along the bumper of the Humvee in front of him, turning ochre and the edges washing away as the rain poured down.

And as the windshield wipers in the Humvee began to squeak loud enough to be heard over the whine of the diesel, and the rain pattered down on the metal roof, and the roof gunner twirled in circles, watching for whoever might shoot them as they slowed down to enter the barbed wire fence at the edge of Bagram, Jason began to cry.