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.