At 3:37 AM Saturday, Cerise and I were asleep in the master bedroom of my home in Great Falls, Virginia when my land line rang. She naturally suggested that I let it roll over to voice mail, but Caller ID showed a satellite phone with a number I did not recognize. Based on my previous experience, calls like that should be answered immediately.
Tom: Hello, who’s this?
Ahmed: My good friend Tom! It is Ahmed!
Tom: It’s… about a quarter to four in the morning here in Washington, Ahmed. What’s going on?
Ahmed: Yes, yes, Ahmed knows this – here it is nearly fifteen minutes after one in the afternoon.
Tom: Here being where?
Ahmed: Here is where? Ahmed does not understand his good friend, Tom.
Tom: Where are you?
Ahmed: Ahmed is in Afghanistan.
Tom: What the hell are you doing that pathetic, benighted, pitiful excuse for a country?
Ahmed: Ahmed is doing what Ahmed always does – helping his friends.
Tom: Oh, right – so what is it this time, drugs, guns and ordnance or money laundering?
Ahmed: Please, please, my good friend Tom! Do not use such words! They hurt Ahmed’s ears! Ahmed has been helping friends in Afghanistan for over a year now; helping them do good things.
Tom: Like what?
Ahmed: Ahmed has been, how do you say… doing what needs to be done.
Tom: Doing what needs to be done for who? For the Taliban? For ISIS? For Al-Qaeda? For the Russians? For the Saudis? For the Chinese? For the Pakistanis?
Ahmed: My good friend Tom knows that Ahmed has many friends.
Tom: Jesus Christ Almighty, I bet you do!
Ahmed: Please, please… good friend Tom sounds… how you say… grouchy? Is “grouchy” the right word?
Tom: Yeah, after being woken up around four in the morning on a Saturday, that would fit. Look, Ahmed, you know what time it is here in Washington. Why couldn’t you wait to call me at noon, at least?
Ahmed: Ahmed does not have time. Ahmed cannot wait until noon your time. Ahmed must talk to you now!
Tom: About what?
Ahmed: Your president, Joe Biden, he has taken away the American troops! When the Taliban see this, they come and fight with the Afghan army. If the Afghan army soldiers… how you say… give up… surrender… then the Taliban is nice to them. But if they fight back, the Taliban does very bad things to them – they cut off the soldier’s hands and feet, they cut off the soliders’ heads, they cut open their… how you say… their bellies, their stomachs… and pull out what is inside, they burn the soldiers with gasoline while they are still alive! If they can find the soldier’s families, they do the same thing to their wives, their children! Then the other Afghan army soldiers find out about this, and when the Taliban attack, they run away! They take off their uniforms and pretend not to be soldiers so the Taliban will not do these terrible things to them! So the Taliban take over entire country of Afghanistan in one week!
Tom: So I’ve heard.
Ahmed: My good friend Tom, what is your president Biden thinking when he makes the Americans leave Afghanistan?
Tom: Many people here in Washington are asking the same question, Ahmed. Compared to our exit of Saigon, the Afghans are making the government and army of the Republic of Vietnam look positively noble and courageous. All I can figure is, the opinion polls say the public wanted the war to end, and Biden figured that he might as well do that now instead of letting the Republicans use Afghanistan as an issue in the mid-term elections. I suppose he thought that if there were any problems, he could rely on the legendary short memories of American voters to render the withdrawal a distant recollection by November, 2022. But he didn’t have a clue about what a total fiasco it would be. His advisors apparently convinced him that the Afghans actually had the will to fight for their country, which is total nonsense. The typical Afghan doesn’t have the vaguest notion of what a nation-state is – the only functioning concept of a political unit an Afghan has is the tribe – and their tribe is almost always the only one that matters to them. For some reason, Biden thought that having the Green Berets and Special Forces and so forth train the Afghan army, and giving them huge piles of twenty-first century armor, artillery, tanks and weaponry would somehow…
Ahmed: Yes, yes, that is the problem Ahmed has!
Tom: What? Explain, please.
Ahmed: Before your president Biden said US must leave Afghanistan, Ahmed makes many deals with his friends here in Afghanistan.
Tom: For huge piles of twenty-first century armor, artillery, tanks and weaponry?
Ahmed: Yes, yes, for… as good friend Tom says, for huge piles. Many big bucks given to Taliban by many friends in many places with much money to buy the big piles to kill many Afghan soldiers, traitors and American infidels. No offense.
Tom: None taken. Many friends? Such as?
Ahmed: You have said some of their names, just now.
Tom: Which ones?
Ahmed: Some of those; and some others, that does not matter because they are all the same in the end. Anyway, Ahmed took only very small commission, as usual.
Tom: Of course. And your problem is?
Ahmed: When Afghan army run away, they leave, as good friend Tom says, big piles of twenty-first century armor, artillery, tanks and weaponry. Taliban get all these things for free. Now, they tell Ahmed, since Ahmed has not delivered his big piles yet, they want the money they give to Ahmed returned!
Tom: And let me guess… you don’t have it.
Ahmed: Money is tied up in deals! Ahmed’s other friends, who supply Ahmed with the big piles for his friends like Taliban, they tell Ahmed “a deal’s a deal, sand monkey,” and things like that. And Ahmed has also paid much baksheesh to get his big piles to give to the Taliban, and he cannot ever get that money back, even if suppliers return what Ahmed has given them; and they will not do even this! And that would not be enough for the Taliban, even if they did, because of the baksheesh money missing, and Ahmed does not have enough to make up the difference!
Tom: You don’t?
Ahmed: Ahmed has invested his profits in another deal already. In Brussels, with Iranians and Venezuelans.
Tom: And no way anybody in that deal is giving you any money back.
Ahmed: Good friend Tom is correct – no way.
Tom: So… let me keep guessing here… if you don’t get out of Afghanistan before the Taliban finds you, they’re going to treat you to some of the same… hospitality… they showed the Afghan soldiers who wouldn’t surrender.
Ahmed: Yes, yes, and this is why Ahmed calls you so early in the morning in Washington DC!
Tom: Okay. Where are you?
Ahmed: Good friend Tom, Ahmed has already told you! He is in Afghanistan!
Tom: Sure, but where in Afghanistan?
Ahmed: Ahmed is in Bamyan.
Tom: And the Taliban are holding the airport, I assume?
Ahmed: Good friend Tom is right, as usual.
Tom: Any chance of paying some baksheesh for a flight out?
Ahmed: If Ahmed could do that, he would not be calling his good friend Tom at four o’clock in the morning Washington DC time.
Tom: Ohh… kay… well, as I recall, there’s a road north through the Bande Pitaw wildlife refuge that connects with Route AH 76 at Mazar-i-Sharif. You could go north from there through Hazareh Toghay or Hairatan and cross over the Amu Darya River to Termez, Uzbekistan.
Ahmed: Ahmed’s friends in Uzbekistan are upset with him about… another deal.
Tom: All right then, how about if you head east on AH 76 to Kholm, then over to Kunduz, then take the road north from there to Shir Kan Bandar and cross the Amu Darya into Tajikistan?
Ahmed: Unfortunately, there is a reward for arresting Ahmed in Tajikistan.
Tom: I see. How’s your welcome in Pakistan, then?
Ahmed: How does good friend Tom think Ahmed can get there from Bamyan without going through Taliban checkpoints at Zarkhand, Ghazni, Bagram, Kabul, Qalat-e Gilzay or Kandahar?
Tom: I bet there’s no Taliban checkpoint a Gelan.
Ahmed: That is because there is no way over the mountains from Gelan into Pakistan.
Tom: There is if you walk.
Ahmed: Ahmed has flat feet; he does not want to walk over the mountains from Gelan to Angor Ada, Ajim Khan, Wana, Kan Kot, Spalipon or Zamilana.
Tom: Even if your motivation is to avoid the Taliban’s legendary… hospitality? Given that, it seems to me maybe you could find a way to do it.
Ahmed: Good friend Tom, just now, Ahmed remembers that West Pakistan has many Taliban… how do you say… hideouts? Places they ran to escape the Americans, yes? And near these hideouts, there are Pakistani tribes who are the Taliban’s friends. Ahmed does not want to walk all the way over the mountains from Gelan only to meet Taliban in Pakistan who will cut off his flat feet. Does not good friend Tom remember all the money Ahmed has paid him for advice, so many times? Cannot he think of something better? Ahmed will pay well later; but Ahmed cannot pay if he is dead.
Tom: Well, that leaves Turkmenistan and Iran. Could you head west from Bamyan on the A 77 to Dahane Aw?
Ahmed: Yes, Ahmed could do that. What is in Dahane Aw?
Tom: Pack animals and access to the Hari River. Bribe your way there, get a donkey to ride and follow the river valley west. You’ll have your choice of either country.
Ahmed: Is good friend Tom sure Ahmed needs a donkey and not a boat?
Tom: In most places, the Hari river is about ten inches deep, if that, At the end, the damn thing actually disappears into the Karakum Desert. So forget the boat, I doubt they will even have any in Dahane Aw. The only place you’ll be likely to encounter Taliban is where the river passes just south of Herat. You may need to spread some cash around with the locals to get past there; and I would also suggest you do so at night. You’ll come near the Iranian border first, at a place called Bunyad Khan. The river turns north shortly before there, parallel to the Iranian border. It flows right through the middle of town, so be sure to move through late in the evening. Just after you pass the last city lights on the eastern river bank, turn west toward a place called Pish Robat. Iran Route 99 is about five miles away. Now, if you prefer Turkmenistan…
Ahmed: No, no, Ahmed chooses Iran. He cannot go to Turkmenistan. There is a certain Minister of Internal Affairs there who says Ahmed still owes him much, much money from a deal in 2010; plus interest at thirty percent. But yes, Ahmed has many friends in Iran.
Tom: To whom, I assume, he does not owe any money… yet.
Ahmed: Yes, and once he gets to Iran, Ahmed will use his satellite phone to call his friends. They will send a helicopter for him.
Tom: Nice friends.
Ahmed: Yes, there is much money in the Brussels deal. This makes them very nice friends.
Tom: You have a smart phone with GPS?
Ahmed: Yes, Ahmed has one.
Tom: I suggest you charge it up and turn it off until you get to Iran. Then switch it on and use it to let your friends know where send the helicopter. And charge up that satellite phone and turn it off until you get to Iran, too.
Ahmed: Yes, yes, this is good advice. Ahmed does not want the Taliban, tri… uh, tri…
Tom: Triangulating on your signals.
Ahmed: Yes, yes, no tri… ang… ulating. Good friend Tom always has good advice. But now, Ahmed gets a text telling him the Taliban are doing a sweep through the neighborhood, so Ahmed must say goodbye to good friend Tom.
Ahmed: Many thanks, good friend Tom.
Tom: You’re welcome. Goodbye.