Operation Afghanistan: Corban Dowler Undercover
by D.I. Telbat
“Who are you?” a gunman demanded, speaking the Dari language.
An AK-47 rifle was aimed at Corban Dowler. His three Afghan escorts, also armed, faced off with the Taliban force of six.
“You know who I am,” Corban said in Arabic, scowling at the leader of the opposing band. They appeared to be wilderness thugs in rags, but Corban knew better. This was a Taliban patrol for a larger force certain to be nearby. Their ancestors had pushed out the Soviets, and now they warred with the US. “Let me pass. I am on a holy mission.”
The overcast sky seemed to merge with the jagged, gray landscape of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The leader slid down a short rock slide to the ravine wherein Corban stood.
Now more than ever, the slightly overweight, middle-aged Corban prayed that his disguise held. A thick beard and heavy brows were applied with skin epoxy. Thick-rimmed glasses completed his identity. The disguise had never failed him before, but this was the first time he’d hiked thirty miles with a beard glued to his cheeks. If something went wrong now, he’d never see his wife and daughter back in the States again.
“Am I supposed to know you?” the patrol leader asked, this time in Arabic. “Your accent—Libyan?”
“Egyptian. I seek Imam Zia. He knows me well. I am Muhammad ibn Affal. These three are my humble servants from Kabul. We mean no harm.”
The leader studied Corban’s face for a few seconds, then flipped open a satellite phone as he turned his back. Corban didn’t know Dari well enough to listen in. He gestured to his three escorts to lower their weapons. They obeyed, and the Taliban fighters relaxed as well.
If trouble started, the Taliban party would triumph. Though no longer a CIA agent, Corban still relied on misinformation and covert diplomacy to achieve his goals.
“I am sorry, Muhammad.” The leader faced Corban and pocketed the phone. “The enemies of Allah have many deceptions. Imam Zia is my tribal elder. You will be his guest tonight, your men also.”
Corban acknowledged the order as if it were a granted request, then fell in behind the fighter as they started northeast, with the three Afghan escorts following.
His three escorts had been hired three days earlier to complete Corban’s facade. They were doing a splendid job, as oblivious as the others of Corban’s true identity. The three from Kabul passed around snacks from their packs to the Taliban soldiers as they hiked. Tensions were left behind.
Three hours later, they reached a large encampment that lined the bottom of a cliff facing east. The opposing slope was high, offering little sunlight but providing excellent cover from spy drones and US bombers. A muddy creek trickled along the cliff where over one hundred men cleaned rifles, cooked over propane stoves, and slept. There were no tents, only dirt-brown tarps that could be rolled and packed quickly.
Corban’s escorts were absorbed into the camp. The mountain fighters for Allah were anxious for news from civilization.
Imam Zia sat under a small lean-to with a fire and an assault rifle before him. Heavily armed bodyguards glared at Corban and blocked his way, but the patrol leader pushed them aside. Looking up, Imam Zia revealed intense brown eyes on a leathery face. But the harshness seemed to evaporate when he saw Corban.
“Allahu Akbar.” They greeted one another with a kiss and embrace, then Imam Zia offered a seat at his fire. Cakes and tea in plastic cups were served as soon as they sat down.
“Have you changed your mind, Muhammad? You will finally sell my clan weapons after all? You know I will pay you well. It was a good poppy season.”
“I wish I were here on business.” Corban sipped his tea, which was barely more than tasteless, scalding water. His persona as an Egyptian arms dealer was known in the darkest corners of the world. He avoided actual sales by claiming he had a contract with an exclusive client. Nevertheless, buyers still vied for his attention. “Rather, I am here to warn you of danger.”
“Warn me?” Imam Zia waved his bodyguards out of earshot. “It is no small thing for you to be here, Muhammad. I am honored you have traveled so far to warn me.”
“I was in Kabul already. I am honored by you.”
“But a warning of danger? I know danger every day. You see these men. We are outnumbered by hundreds, yet we are not defeated. I have become a great man of my clan since you and I met in Islamabad many years ago. What is the nature of your warning?”
“You are a man of wisdom.” Corban nibbled on a cake. A jet flew high in the evening sky, perhaps taking photos of that very canyon. “The refugees north of Peshawar in Pakistan were attacked last week. Many were killed. Shelters were burned. My sources say you were there.”
“It is true. I was there, Muhammad. They were Christians, a curse upon us all, spread from the West.” Imam Zia spit into the fire. “What are they to you? We are both seeking Allah’s way, are we not?”
“There is a story of a powerful master who beat his servants.” Corban paused and brushed the dust from his sleeve. Was it Afghanistan or Pakistan dust? There were no borders in those mountains, and he had no idea how far he’d traveled. His last radio contact with his organization was from Kabul three days ago. A cargo plane was due in northern Pakistan any day now. That was his ride home—if he made it out alive. “The servants hated their master for beating them. Only when the master began to show the servants compassion, did the servants begin to adore their master and follow him with eagerness.”
“I see.” Imam Zia nodded as he stared at the fire. He combed his beard with his fingers. “It is a fine story, but not a warning.”
“The warning is this: the servants will choose another master if the current master does not stop beating them.”
“Truly?” Imam Zia’s eyes widened. “I will crush anyone who comes into my mountains!”
“In time, yes, but the Christians grow weary of your raids—though deserving they may be. Potential clients of mine cannot be so reckless. Word has reached me that you will be ambushed if you attack the Christian refugees again. When I heard this, I came right away to warn you. I do not want you harmed any more than I want your reputation sullied by entering a trap.”
“But it is for Allah that I punish that disease, not for myself!”
“Of course. You are a faithful example for all, my friend, but the resources that Allah has given you—are they for harmless old men, women, and children in the camps? Or are your resources for the warring infidel? We are both jihadists, Imam Zia, but I am a simple man with no clan to look after. Give me your wisdom.”
Imam Zia drew a map from a pack and traced his finger along several mountain ridges. He looked at Corban, his eyes narrowing.
“Do you have interests north of Peshawar? Tell me your mind, Muhammad. Why do you care about the Christians in my region?”
“I see the promise of enterprise, my friend. Nothing more.”
“I do not believe you.” Imam Zia stowed the map. “I am not convinced you are telling me everything, but I trust you. For the sake of our past and for the sake of our future together, I will not raid the refugees again.”
“Thank you. Your superior force is best displayed elsewhere.”
Sipping his tea, Corban wanted desperately to be on his way, now that his mission was over, but he’d have to stay the night. Tomorrow, he would march east for an extraction. For now, he’d bought the refugees a little respite. Corban raised his cup to Imam Zia, hoping that this brutal leader never found out that no one was really watching over the Christian refugees, other than God Himself.
“To friends near and far.”
Imam Zia drank to the toast, then they shared another cake. Corban’s fake beard itched. He hoped the epoxy lasted through the night.
This story was inspired by character and themes in The COIL Series. Thanks for reading!
Subscribe here to have weekly short stories, or related posts, delivered directly to your inbox! Subscribers will also receive an exclusive PDF gift, “Between the Pages: Other COIL Stories.” Come join the adventure!