Tomorrow Diya would marry Tariq. Diya and Tariq had never touched, they had never spoken. Their eyes had met just once. This was the way it was, the way things were meant to be. Syed was pleased with the wedding arrangements he had made for his daughter, and Diya would uphold her family’s honor.
Tariq was the son of a neighboring village leader, and the bond between the two families would bring respect and strength to both. Connections were important here in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan; they could save your life.
But still she was afraid. Tariq was a handsome man, and she knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. At fourteen she was really just a girl, but she could work and obey. She knew she could give Tariq sons if he found her acceptable. Tariq would teach her what she needed to know. She blushed at this thought.
With the ceremony a day away, neighbors offered their homes to friends and relatives who had begun to arrive. The village was in a festive mood with old friends meeting and laughing and singing. The dancing would be tomorrow. The women had been cooking for days, and Diya knew that somewhere nearby, the men would have some forbidden alcohol. This would be a joyful celebration!
High on a mountain ridge overlooking the valley and village below sat two men observing the preparations and new arrivals. They watched with the survivalist eye and calm silence of fighters. If the soldiers came, Atif, the younger of the two, had his escape route planned. He didn’t fool himself; he knew that one day they would catch him and he would die. But the war would go on. In the end his side would win. That was why he kept fighting, and that was why he could face death. Allah willing.
“It will be a big ceremony,” Atif said to Bashir.
Bashir responded, “Your brother Syed is well respected, an honorable man such as yourself.”
“Yes, but he will not fight.”
“Atif,” said Bashir, “not everyone carries the sword. Perhaps Allah has another purpose for Syed. We cannot know.”
“You are right, we cannot. In the morning I will go down and see my brother and my niece. I will see my uncles and cousins, friends, maybe an old enemy or two.” Atif put his hand on Bashir’s shoulder. “You, my friend, will stay here and watch for soldiers, to warn me if they are coming.” He nodded at Bashir’s rifle.
Bashir said, “They will not be. You know that they are searching elsewhere. You will be safe but I will watch. Now you must sleep. The village is still a three-hour walk away.”
When the sun rose over the mountains to the east, the villagers rose with it. Diya ate her final meal as her father’s daughter. She felt the giddiness, the nervousness, the fears, and the anticipation of a bride-to-be.
Syed knew it was a sin to be full of pride, yet he was proud of the marriage that he had arranged, proud of the fact that his honor had attracted a man like Tariq. Surely Allah would forgive him this sin. This alliance would help bring wealth and security to both families.
Atif had already been walking for an hour. High on the mountain ridge, Bashir thought of his friend. They’d fought together for twenty years, and Bashir had never seen a braver man. His courage under fire and his charisma away from battle had made him a leader among the fighters. This made him a marked man and continually hunted by his own country’s army and those of the west. He had become a liability. In this war, being invisible was best.
Atif was the battlefield commander but Bashir picked the battlefields. Bashir was the man in charge, the one who coordinated with other units, and the man who made the decisions. No one, not even among their fighters, knew this. It was as Bashir wanted it. Death follows notoriety; it was stalking Atif now.
Bashir watched through binoculars as the groom and his family arrived on horseback. Syed had indeed done well, thought Bashir; even the women were riding. Looking at the sun, he knew Atif had been in the village for over an hour. It was time. Digging into his pack, Bashir pulled out a satellite phone and, punching a button, spoke three words… “He is there.”
Across the border in Afghanistan, on another valley floor, in a remote hanger on a small airfield, Preston had been expecting the three-word message. The agency had approved the kill-order on Atif. The warlord had hurt them more than once. The bastard seemed to know where and when to fight, and was fierce when he did. He fought where he was the strongest and they were the weakest. But now Preston had him. Atif had gone to the wedding.
Preston himself had developed ties to this source and he was completely reliable. It had taken months but the source had finally gotten close enough to Atif to pinpoint his location. Now Preston would kill him. He took the target coordinates to the control room and handed them to a controller. “Now…Atif,” was all he said. Preston ignored the monitors and went back to his office. He knew the warlord was dangerous, and he knew he was saving American lives. But he could not watch.
In the beginning he had watched as the blood drained from the bodies and oozed away in the eerie, black-and-white thermal images. He had watched as the stain, and then the body, cooled and disappeared. In the bright light of day, he had watched small children run into the kill zone and die as they played, vaporized into mist, leaving behind no stain at all. He could watch no more.
Bashir was a good commander. He found the best end to the worst circumstance. Atif had become too big a man; they were hunting him. They would get him. He had become too dangerous to be around. Bashir had his replacement picked from among Atif’s lieutenants; a fighter other warriors would respect. Bashir would makehis star shine. The Americans had paid dearly for Atif. Money, enough to train many more rebels. And there would always be more men to train. Bashir had done the best he could. He turned his back on the village; he could not watch what he had done.
He heard the explosion as the drone-launched smoking spear crashed into Syed’s home. The terror from above seldom missed. Allah’s will: Syed’s purpose.
Diya and Tariq died ten feet apart; they had never touched. Atif and Syed died sitting face to face, Atif smiling while Syed spoke. Syed’s wife and two of her young children died making the last preparations for her daughter’s wedding.
Preston had his elbows on his desk and sat, head in hands, when the cheer erupted from the control room. His head sank deeper into his hands, forcing his lips back into the teeth-baring grimace of a man on the edge, losing his grip. His body swayed back and forth as his lungs exhaled in a tortured rush, then re-inflated with a frightened gasp. The sobs started deep in his soul and convulsed his body like Satan’s dance.
Bashir started down the mountain. He had done the best he could; they would stop hunting. He had seen enough men die, lost enough of his fighters to have a hard heart, but Atif had been his friend. He fought to control his grief, for he knew what he would find below.
He had been in Islamabad in April and watched the spectacle as the two mostly untrained pups had beaten the Americans in Boston. Even though the Russians had warned them! “They are as vulnerable now as they were for bin Laden,” Bashir said to himself, “still overestimating themselves. Atif and a handful of his fighters could have swept the streets clean of the western devils. Killed them on the corners where they stood.”
Bashir heard the pain as he neared the village. When he reached the wounded, he helped where he could. It wasn’t like it was in the west. There was no doctor, no ambulance, no hospital, no medicine; just dead, dying, and wounded men, women, and children: collateral damage. Bashir’s battle experience served him well closing wounds, setting bones, and removing useless limbs. He worked for hours and then, exhausted and bloody, went to sit in the shade of a tree beside the centuries-old well.
Bashir was a stranger in this village. No one knew him. But they knew he had been with Atif, they knew he was a fighter. He sat and waited in the shade of the tree. Now, Bashir thought, I will see what the Americans have truly paid for Atif’s life. I will see what seed has been planted today, and who will reap the harvest. They will come. If I was not here, they would come to the mountains.
He sat alone in the cool shade, watching the sun slide toward the mountains in the west, wondering when his time would come. “Allah’s will,” he spoke aloud, hoping The Prophet would hear.
They came to him through the village, six men and two boys followed by the remaining villagers, most still dressed in their bloody wedding finery. They stopped in front of Bashir, faces of shock and fear, and grief, hatred, rage, and determination. They stood disbelieving what had happened, yet knowing it had. One man stepped forward and spoke to Bashir.
“These two boys are Syed’s sons; they have a duty to their father. Three men from the village of Syed and three men from the village of Tariq will also go with you. We all have a duty to the families.”
“Debts will be paid,” Bashir said, and motioning to the six, he continued. “These men must train; in a few months they will be ready. The young ones, Syed’s sons, will take longer. Allah willing, they will go to America.”