Dragons over Waziristan


Zach Lisabeth


… My name is Sarbaz Karlani. In the High Pashto tongue of Kandahar it means “descendant of Sarbaz.” My father was called Shpoon Ghilzai, which was a good name for him because he was a goatherd and a coward. I was named for my grandfather, Sarbaz Ghilzai who was called Abdul Mohammed Ghilzai after his death. It was common for men to take new names after they joined the Great Struggle. I chose to keep mine because my grandfather was a famous martyr. His name meant something to the old warriors whose hands pulled the strings of jihad, and it meant something to me.

Sarbaz Ghilzai fought the Soviets during the first occupation. He was a Mujahideen of Kandahar and he was remembered as a great warrior. The old Mullahs who came to power after expelling the Soviets gave him his martyr name. They told tales of how he downed seven Soviet planes with RPGs before one finally sent him to Allah. My grandmother fled Kandahar after her husband’s death with that story and my young father. At that time, the border was more of a suggestion. Truth be told, it’s not so different today. She crossed over into Pakistan and settled in a small tribal village called Ashakhel.

Ashakhel was quiet then. It’s even quieter now, but for altogether different reasons. My grandmother raised my father by the banks of the Gharoshji River. She called him Shpoon so that he might not share his father’s fate, and it must have worked for, as I mentioned, he was a coward.

Those were peaceful times in the tribal regions. All the trouble simmered on the other side of Pakistan, where the Hindus fought to oppress our Muslim brothers. My father grew up in Ashakhel, raised goats in Ashakhel, married my mother in Ashakhel and eventually sired me. He grew up hearing the same stories about the great Abdul Mohammed Ghilzai. I think my grandmother would have preferred not to tell them, but boys are curious about their fathers and Allah looks poorly on selfish lies. When I was born my father gave me my grandfather’s honored name. He might have sealed my destiny then just as my grandmother sealed his. It was the one thing for which I would have thanked him.

One day when I was eleven, my father and I left Ashakhel to find new ground for our livestock to graze. I remember now, hearing the Yankee planes overhead. I didn’t know then what that sound portended, but my father must have because he rushed us back to Ashakhel. The village was gone by the time we arrived. Total annihilation. Homes reduced to rubble. Over two hundred lives replaced by a single inky smudge. I helped my father put out a small fire that burned where a grain loft used to be. I’m sure that I was crying. We searched the wreckage for survivors, but all we found were limbs. I wanted to keep looking for my grandmother’s body, to bury her, but my father said it was too dangerous to stay.

I found out later that it was a Yankee plane that silenced Ashakhel. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. A drone. Apparently, a jihadi on the American kill list had taken to ground with one of our neighbors. My father and I thought it was a lie at the time, but now I’m sure that it was true. In their propaganda, the Yankees said that collateral damage from the attack was “within acceptable limits.” Of the two hundred forty-three people living in Ashakhel, only my father and I survived.

I was radicalized that day, though it would take me three more years to work up the courage to abandon my father and join the Great Struggle. My father never stopped running from the ghosts of Ashakhel. He jumped at every buzzing sound that might have been a Yankee drone. Some time around Ramadan when I was fourteen years old I finally got sick of running.

Aaqib al Peshawar found me in a nameless camp of herders hundreds of kilometers away from Ashakhel. We were the same age, but the Great Struggle had made a man of him whereas I was still a boy. Aaqib spoke of jihad, of mighty war camps along the Afghan border where boys were trained to kill infidels. They had guns there to spare—M16s and Kalashnikovs. He said that we could be martyrs for Islam, and I believed him. Aaqib al Peshawar was an assumed name. I never learned what his mother called him, but I followed him away from the herders one night to join the jihad.

We travelled together for weeks, often on foot but hitchhiking when we could. Aaqib navigated using a small compass and the stars. He led us all the way back to the Gharoshji Plain and from there we found Shina Pal Algad. Shina Pal Algad was a jihadi training camp named for an intermittent stream in the tribal regions of Waziristan. There we joined forty-seven of our brothers in the Struggle and were welcomed into the fold.

It’s a strange thing, the camaraderie in a jihadi camp. Everyone is of an age when making friends still comes easy. We were all boys united by passion and pain. The Yankee drones orphaned many young Wazir boys. Two in three of the martyrs-in-waiting at Shina Pal Algad told stories similar to mine. None of us were born to kill for Islam, but we had been driven to a jihadi camp by death that rains from the sky. We shared so much in common that the friendships came naturally, but there was always a distance. Martyrdom waited on every horizon. It was the only ending for a jihadi. Friendships had to be expendable. We learned.

I learned to shoot. I learned to hide. I learned to pray like I never prayed before. The jihadis were all pious men. Our leaders bowed to Mecca five times a day and they expected us to adhere to the same stricture. So immersed was I in the promise of martyrdom that I dreamed of my grandfather almost every night. In my mind’s eye I saw the great Sarbaz Ghilzai fighting the Soviets in the mountains south of Kandahar. I saw him immolated by Soviet planes and reborn to exact his holy retribution. Each morning brought me firmer resolve.

I trained twice as hard as the other boys, twice as hard as Aaqib even. When it came time to mount our first skirmish, the clerics selected me to lead the attack.

“If you succeed tonight they will know your name in Yemen. The Great Leaders will know that Sarbaz Karlani brought jihad to the Yankee occupiers.”

I nodded to the cleric, but I didn’t smile. I never smiled. Recognition was the ultimate earthly reward in Shina Pal Algad. Any time we did something well the clerics told us our names would be read in Mir Ali or Islamabad, in Yemen or Riyadh. All would-be martyrs crave attention.

The attack was a disaster. I led twenty young jihadis across the border into Kandahar Province and attempted to ambush a Yankee encampment. We fired plenty of shots, but I doubt we hit a single American. The rednecks fired back, of course, and with remarkable haste they launched one of their black helicopters to rain bullets on us from behind. Eighteen of us were killed that day. I prayed to Allah to spare his loyal servants, but when push came to shove I trusted more in my feet and ran. Aaqib hobbled along with me. He had taken a piece of shrapnel in the skirmish and was bleeding through his pants by the time I reached him. I scooped my friend off the ground and forced him to run beside me. I wasn’t trying to save his life, I don’t think. I just needed a partner in cowardice. My father’s son after all.

We made our way back to Shina Pal Algad. Aaqib lived, though he would later lose a foot to gangrene. The clerics were furious with us. I never quite understood the depths of their rage. We were trained to martyr ourselves for Islam and that day in Kandahar I sent eighteen new martyrs to Allah. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, only seventeen of those martyrs arrived. The Yankees captured one of our soldiers alive and he told tales like Scheherazade. He fingered me as a leader of the jihad at Shina Pal Algad, and that is how my name made it onto the American kill list.

“You cannot stay,” the cleric told me. “You are a danger to the camp.”

“I know,” I said. “I am ready to be a martyr.”

“That is good. Your time is fast approaching,” said the cleric. “But first you must go to Mir Ali.”

I looked at the cleric quizzically. “Why Mir Ali?” I asked.

“You must meet with a general of the Great Resistance. He will draw you a path to Allah.”

We left that night. The clerics didn’t waste any time shipping me out. They sent Aaqib as my driver just to be safe. The foot he lost wasn’t his driving foot, so he was still able to work the peddles on our Jeep. We followed the tribal roads out of Shina Pal Algad and found our way to the Mirranshah Bannu Highway, which led us east into Mir Ali.

Outsiders and infidels think that the leaders of the Great Resistance are living on the margins, in campgrounds, in caves, in squalor. Many soldiers of jihad live this way, it’s true, but the highest leaders among us live right under the infidels’ noses. They’re in Islamabad, in Riyadh, in Sana’a and Benghazi and Manama. In Paris and Munich and London and New York. They wear suits and ties instead of Shalwar and Chaddar. They’re everywhere and nowhere, for no one knows them true.

Our closest leader was a cleric named Mohammed Amin. He lived in luxury in Mir Ali, which was the nearest thing to a proper city in all of Northern Waziristan. He was a veteran of the Soviet war like my grandfather, a Mujahideen. After the second occupation began and the Americans stormed Kabul, the Mullahs sent Mohammed Amin to the tribal regions of Pakistan to spread jihad. I was nervous to meet the man, who must have been favored by Allah to survive so many rounds of the Struggle. I hoped that he would recognize my name, that he might have known my grandfather as Sarbaz before he was reborn as Abdul Mohammed. As it turns out, my hopes were half-founded.

Aaqib followed the directions from Shina Pal Algad with precision and left me at Mohammed Amin’s doorstep as instructed. I entered the building with my head held high. It was important that Mohammed Amin see that I was brave. At that moment, I didn’t know what my mission would be, only that I would martyr myself for Islam. I had no fear of martyrdom. My name had landed on the American kill list, so my life was already forfeit. Better to go to Allah with a hundred infidel souls in tow.

Mohammed Amin received me alone in his study. I met the man for the first time in a bright room among pages and pages of Sunnah and Hadith. He was smaller than I pictured, older too but not frail. He had the deep brown skin of the southern Pashtun. Bright, intelligent eyes burned behind his glasses. His skin resembled the land he spent his youth defending: barren, dry, lined with breaks and worried creases. It was an appearance that one earned.

“Sarbaz Karlani, khushala shum pa li do di.” Those were the first words Mohammed Amin spoke to me, and aside from my name I didn’t understand a single one. I looked at him blankly and he might have taken me for a deaf mute. My grandfather was Pashtun, of course. My father and I were also, by blood. But we were raised in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions of Waziristan. We spoke the mongrel tongue of Peshawar Wazir, a southern dialect of Pashto, but one that was mutually unintelligible with the High Pashto spoken in Kandahar and Kabul.

“Tsk tsk,” Mohammed Amin shook his head at me. “A tragedy that the grandson of Abdul Mohammed Ghilzai does not speak Pashto.”

So he did know my grandfather. That wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was that he recognized me. Aaqib was the only one at Shina Pal Algad whom I told the story of Sarbaz Ghilzai. As it turns out, he shared that story with the clerics at the camp and they in turn wrote to Mohammed Amin, no doubt to verify its veracity. Amin must have confirmed my tale, because I was never flogged.

Despite all my brazen posturing, I think I looked like a frightened child in that moment. Mohammed Amin gave me the first smile I had seen in years and extended his hands to me. I took them and we walked together around his study.

“You look like him,” he said. “You have the same eyes. Noble, Pashtun eyes.”

“Yes, cleric,” I said. “My grandmother often told me the same thing.” And so she did.

Amin nodded thoughtfully. We walked together for a time, making small banter as if our meeting marked the reunion of two old friends. I don’t remember feeling suspicious of Amin’s demeanor, though perhaps I should have been. Our interaction was the most amiable and natural discourse I had enjoyed since before the attack on Ashakhel. Amin was unlike the clerics of Shina Pal Algad. He had an easy way about him that I suspect was at least partially artifice.

Hindsight is a powerful kind of wisdom. Mohammed Amin’s pleasant disposition brought me to heel quicker than any brutal stick or inspiring line of scripture. Amin spoke to me like a son and, I’m embarrassed to admit, I looked to him as a father figure quickly and rashly. I would have done anything for the old cleric in that moment. I see now this ploy was all part of his plan. His pleasantries and platitudes were jihadi pheromones, expressed to lure me farther into the Great Struggle’s web. Amin’s casual way was as much a trap as the fiery rhetoric uttered in Shina Pal Algad. One might be able to catch a few flies with vinegar, but honey is always quicker. Amin knew.

When the cleric was finished bating the hook he sat me down and studied me across his table.

“Have you ever heard to story of your grandfather’s bravery in Kandahar?” he asked. “His final act of martyrdom?”

I had heard the story from my grandmother and my father too many times to count, but I asked Amin to tell me anyway.

“I fought with your grandfather,” said Amin. “Our battalion had made a horrible miscalculation after a skirmish outside Kandahar. We sustained heavy losses and fled with our backs to the southern mountains. The Soviets launched fighter planes to chase us down. They pinned us against the mountain. We thought our fate was sealed, but Abdul Mohammed Ghilzai, in one final act of heroism, led the Soviets away from our position. He drew the planes out into the open and met his death under aerial fire.”

Amin must have seen my dismay, because he stopped the story there and frowned.

“With all due respect, cleric,” I told him. “This is not the tale as I have been told. My grandmother said that my grandfather took down seven Soviet planes with Yankee Stinger missiles before the Soviets finally sent him to Allah.”

“Ah,” said Amin. “The story as your grandmother tells it is correct but for the order of events. Our battalion had no American munitions. We had been cut off from the strength of the Mujahideen for months. We fought the Russians with standard rifles.”

“I don’t understand.”

Amin nodded thoughtfully. “Nor do I. The hand of Allah was at work that day, Sarbaz Karlani. Seven Soviet planes did come down, this is true, but after your grandfather martyred himself and not before.” …