Sniper’s Day: Chapter 7

7

Escape

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Beginning to think seriously about cutting and running, the east wind blowing down the Pamir Valley “talked” to him with a faint thrumming sound. He knew immediately it was a helicopter, probably an MI-24, what the Americans called a Hind, one of the world’s deadliest aircraft, likely from the Russian border base at the far end of Lake Zorkul.

So that’s why they wanted to keep me pinned down!

If there was any chance of prevailing against the remaining shooters – there was now no doubt these were Russian troops, maybe special forces – he had zero option against a Hind’s twin Gatling guns and racks of deadly rockets.

Jesus Christ, these bastards really do want me. A frightening thought, yet one offering at least a brief sense of satisfaction at being such a thorn in their side.

But it meant it was time to get the hell out, something a sniper finds hard to do. He put into motion his last resort exit gambit.

Pushing the gun further out from between the rocks – which is, of course, a big no-no for snipers; you never expose your weapon! – he squeezed off the last few rounds in the magazine in quick succession, hoping to give the enemy the impression he’d become desperate, panicked. A hail of return fire pinged off the rocks all around, the multiple echoes against the valley walls making it sound like a fierce firefight.

A couple seconds later he pushed the Barrett over the edge, followed by his Kevlar helmet, both clattering on the rocks as they bounced down into the gulch. Then he squeezed six-ounces of fake blood from a miniature version of a ketchup bottle along the edge of the gulch, leaving a visible stain.

The hope was the shooters might hesitate, wonder, be confused: Did we get him?

In the thirty seconds it took to execute the deception, the thwap-thwap of the helicopters – helicopters? Yes, it was now clear there were two – drew closer. He had at best three, or if lucky four minutes before they were on him.

Rolling to the back of the ledge, he retrieved his backpack and in a crouched position sprinted north, toward the head of the gulch, away from the river and the helicopters.

This is where the opponent’s up-angle position was an advantage; he was counting on them not being able to see him behind the lip of the ledge. His hopes were lifted when shots continued to ping off the rocks near where he had been hiding only a moment ago. He ran as fast as he could being careful not to stumble – a twisted ankle now would be almost as bad as his head being taken off by one of the shooters.

The hide had been at the south end of the ledge, the Pamir River gorge immediately to the left. The ledge, roughly thirty feet wide, ran for several hundred yards away from the river, narrowing at the north end until it dead ended against the mountainside. But it was the only available avenue to easily and quickly put as much distance as possible between himself and his former position without being exposed.

The seconds slipped into a couple of minutes; he knew he was eating up space; there was a glimmer of hope. As he ran, he kept an eye out for possible cover to dive into or hunker down behind; he would need it soon.

The distance grew; close to four-hundred yards now…

But sooner than expected the first giant helicopter emerged into the open, he could tell by the sudden roar of the copter’s big engine.

He didn’t pause to look back, though, hoping they would still be fixated on his former hide rather than checking several hundred yards up the ledge; maybe it would be enough.

At first, he was confused when the sound of the helicopter seemed to pass behind, moving further down the Pamir River valley. But when the engine pitch whined-up, it was clear they were just swinging around to fire on his presumed position from the front, rather than the side.

He was pretty sure they wouldn’t bother with the Gatling guns, why waste the ammunition? Instead, they would obliterate him by sending a couple of rockets screaming into the mountainside.

It turned out they’d done him a big favor, although they didn’t know it, with those extra few seconds to sprint another fifty yards.

But knowing time had run out, he dove into the only cover available, a shallow swale a dozen feet long and a couple of feet deep up against the mountainside.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed the backpack above his head, between himself and the old hide, hoping it might be a protective substitute for the now missing Kevlar helmet.

He did not need to peek up to know what was happening. He heard four whooshing sounds followed almost immediately by four thunderous explosions so close together it was like one huge blast.

The ground shook under him. A hot pressure wave washed over him, nearly dislodging the heavy backpack. There was a deep grumble as a big chunk of the ledge slid down into the gorge.

He felt a hail of rocks raining down, like baseballs someone was throwing as hard as they could. He waited, expecting any moment for a watermelon-size chunk to crack his skull or smash a leg. If it was going to happen, the quickness of the first option was preferred.

Next: Stealth and Evasion

© 2019 Dave Lager

Why do we even need to defend civility?

“…(I)nstances where I don’t immediately agree that a word is harmful are the true test of my conviction (as a writer): It’s not up to me to ‘agree,’ but to listen.”

– Lilly Dancyger, from “The writer’s argument for political correctness,” June 2019 issue of The Writer magazine

Dancyger’s article talks about how writers need to be sensitive to a word’s meaning, not only in the context of their writing – for example, we want to share with our reader just the right nuance of description of a key scene – but how a word might have a certain negative connotation that, while we don’t necessarily see or agree with it, the reader or listener might.

While I found myself nodding and agreeing with what Dancyger was saying, at the same time, I found myself thinking, “Wait a minute: When did it become necessary to defend common decency and everyday civility from being sneered at as ‘political correctness,’ as if that had somehow become a dirty word?”

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 6

6

Ambush

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

He frowned, asking himself, What the hell are Russian soldiers disguised as ordinary Afghani smugglers doing out here?

Meese knew Tajikistan, once part of the Soviet Union, was now an independent nation. He also knew the Tajiks had “contracted” with the Russians – probably at Russian insistence – to still patrol their common border with Afghanistan.

The answer, of course, was obvious: Shit, they’re after me.

At first, he wanted to dismiss the idea. Why would the Russians commit a squad of men to aid the Afghanis, as there was little love lost between the two former enemies? Ah, but when a typical convoy carrying opium was worth tens of millions of dollars on the world market, and a bribe that might equal half-a-year’s pay for a Russian soldier was offered to let a caravan pass unmolested, or, in this case, eliminate a meddling American annoyance who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place… Well, it was an easy bargain to make.

The whole operation had been a trap, the realization prompting grudging respect for how effectively they’d pulled it off, had suckered the Americans with the prize of nearly three dozen donkeys loaded down with hundreds of pounds of drugs. While they may not have known exactly where the sniper would be, they had been sure he would be stalking them somewhere along the trail and were ready. And, yes, there was a bit of pride in they had decided he was such of a pain in the ass.

The few seconds of hesitation while he had worked this out had given the… They were no longer targets, but now serious adversaries… Time to retrieve their rifles and start firing. While the Druganov didn’t have quite have the range of a Barrett, in this situation it was certainly more effective than an AK. While their first few shots hit the cliff well below his position, they had clearly figured out roughly where he was and were much closer than they should have been.

But he was back in the hide, well-hidden, no barrel sticking out for them to spot, covered by a tarp with the dark brown, pale green and beige of the desert MARPAT (Marine Pattern) camouflage – what soldiers had nicknamed “coffee stain camo” – that blended almost perfectly with the mottled flanks of the mountain. Contrary to most people’s offhand impression, mountainsides are anything but a monotone gray, they have dark grays and light grays, blotches of tan and brown, smears of burnt orange and darkish green.

Meese was not at all rattled by the turn of events; quite the contrary. While he’d not had a problem taking down targets before, targets never considered as equals, this was exciting; a challenge; these were more worthy opponents.

He returned fire, but needed to be take more careful aim, as the enemy was now hunkered down, partially hidden behind the donkeys. While the poor animals were no match for the Barrett’s powerful slugs, it meant he had to use up more time between shots.

And, of course, their return fire was now zeroing in, hitting the rocks to his right and left and even above his head.

They traded shots, the reports echoing back and forth in the river gorge.

In the first few moments he took out three more of the eleven, but the remaining six proved harder to hit. For one, they would take a shot, briefly exposing themselves, but then roll to the right or left unpredictably, still hiding behind a donkey, so his aim had to be on the fly, reducing accuracy.

A sniper of Meese’s caliber is deadly accurate at stationary targets even at distances approaching a mile; but hitting a moving target at anything close to that distance is ten times more difficult because you need to anticipate where they will be several seconds after pulling the trigger.

The shooters who were left soon revealed their strategy: The two in the center alternately fired to keep him pinned down while the other four broke for cover – two each in opposite directions. He may have hit one on the fly, but wasn’t even sure of that, and knew he’d missed three shots at the others.

But now they had secure positions for themselves and were more sure of his, and so started methodically zeroing in. Slugs gouged chunks off the ledge only a few inches below and to the right or left. Still relatively secure from a direct hit, the bigger danger was being struck by a rock shard, even a slight wound could be serious, to say nothing of possibly losing an eye.

He’d already expended half of a second ten-round magazine. For a sniper, who’s whole ethos revolved around one-shot-one-kill, swapping out the first magazine and being half-way through a second was not a good thing. Needing to get into a third was unthinkable, since he only carried five ten-shot magazines in the first place.

This is turning into a class-A shit show, he thought.

And it wasn’t a fight he could win. They still had at least five good shooters to his one, and while confident he might get a couple more, it still left him in a hopeless situation.

Meese and his enemies exchanged fire, but with long pauses in between, as if they were waiting…for what?

Next: Escape

© 2019 Dave Lager

On taking advice

“Beware of advice – even this.”

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) – Poet, biographer

Another way of saying ultimately we have to follow our own counsel.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 5

5

Targets (Part One)

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

The first of the smugglers emerged around the mountain’s shoulder opposite his position a little past ten in the morning, about when expected, as a sat phone update yesterday morning placed them only seven miles to the west. The situation for him was ideal. The sun was still at his back; they would be looking into it. A brisk wind from the east had come up, which meant it could help rather than hinder his shot, and the converse for theirs.

The lead smuggler was wearing a short gray Russian military parka that had seen better days, the bottom of his loose-fitting perahan overshirt poking out below, and a decorated, flat-top pakol cap favored by leaders. His face was swathed in a scarf against the chilly east wind. It struck Meese he seemed a little tall for an Afghani.

Meese watched as three donkeys he was leading emerged into view, then counted as the rest of the caravan followed. There were others with Russian parkas, a couple with what looked like their coat’s heritage was with the American military, and at least one that might have once belonged to a mountain soldier from India; their heads were covered either with turbans or trapper-style cold weather caps. Like the leader, their faces were mostly hidden by scarfs.

It took nearly half an hour for all eleven men and their thirty-four donkeys to round the shoulder. But they were still mostly moving toward him in a straight line, having yet to turn the corner skirting the edge of the gulch. He figured it would take another half-hour to forty-five minutes.

He studied them. A few with faces swathed in scarves was not unusual; but all of them being so masked was curious. He also had the impression looking at their eyes they were all young, also a bit odd, as there were usually at least a couple of grizzled older men, the leaders.

Meese had been in Afghanistan for a hundred and nineteen weeks, the equivalent of three tours for most other soldiers. He had lost count of his kills, but knew it had to be somewhere above eighty, unconfirmed, of course, because he had no spotter or other friendly to witness for him.

When the slow-moving caravan had moved up the trail and was now stretched out across his field of vision something else suddenly struck him as off; no one had an AK-47 hooked over his shoulder or cradled in his arms. But he could see what appeared to be rifle barrels sticking up from the donkey’s loads; maybe this crew was too lazy to carry the nearly eight-pound weapon, preferring to let the donkey’s do the work.

He should have paid more attention to the little anomalies piling up with this group.

He waited. He was good at waiting. On one level he waited for them to move slightly past his position on the other side of the gulch so when they turned to see where the fire raining down on them was coming from, they would be looking directly into the sun. But he also waited to savor the…What? Not the adrenalin surge you might expect before going into battle, in fact, quite the opposite, he was looking for the calm, the peace that always settled on him from a complete confidence he was in total command of his target’s fate.

Which is how he thought of them: not as human beings, but simply as nameless, soulless targets. He was not shooting at people; it wasn’t a question of not allowing himself to think of them as people, the thought never even occurred to him. His job, his purpose, his mission, his reason for being here was to eliminate targets. In a way, the tiny figures reminded him of ducks crawling across the back of a shooting gallery booth at a carnival.

When the lead man reached ten yards short of a cover opportunity, and the last man had passed the rear cover spot, for some odd reason Meese reversed his planned procedure and sighted in on and squeezed his first shot off at the last man. The rifle made a deep, thud-like report and the built-in recoil absorption system meant all he felt was the kick equivalent of a twelve-gauge shotgun, even though the Barrett had many times more power.

Meese didn’t wait to see the man go down – there was no doubt in his mind he did – and instead swung the rifle a short arc to the right to bring it to bear on the lead man. He took the shot in less than three seconds but did linger long enough to see the man thrown forward, then stumble and pitch over the edge of the trail into the gulch.

Bringing the rifle back to his left, Meese expected to see the remaining men frozen in place, staring in his direction with expressions of surprise and fear, trying to figure out where the deadly slugs and following loud booms had come from.

But what he saw were not frightened smugglers, but men who had quickly moved around behind their donkeys and seemed to be working on something… Working to disengage their rifles from the side of the donkey pack where they had been hidden from view. Because as each man brought the weapon up, Meese recognized they were not AKs, but Russian Druganov sniper rifles, a weapon with fire power much closer to his own.

While it was possible one or two could acquire a Druganov on the black market, that all of them had the more powerful weapon said these were no ordinary smuggler types, these were trained men, probably Russian soldiers.

Next: Ambushed

© 2019 Dave Lager

Our path

“Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Natalie Goldberg (1948- ) – Author, artist, Zen practitioner

The idea that we have paths to follow in life – we can, of course, choose to take them or, on the other hand, can ignore them and even refuse them – is a recurring theme in my Ro Delahanty books; perhaps that’s why this Goldberg quote struck me.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 4

4

Reading the Mountain

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

To most people, a mountain is a mountain is a mountain… They are momentarily awestruck by its immense grandeur, its sheer sides, its starkness, but rarely notice much more than that and are soon bored by its seeming sameness and ready to move on. To Wade Meese a mountain was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces needing to be meticulously studied, so his place and his target’s place in the big picture could be understood, his moves carefully planned out, his adversary’s counter-moves anticipated and his responses to them determined. A man of infinite patience, he wasn’t at all bothered by the mountain’s loneliness and desolation, he embraced it, he felt at home in it.

You might assume selecting the best hide from which to make a shot would be at the top of a sniper’s agenda, but that decision comes much later, after spending many hours lying on his belly in his mottled desert camo cold weather suit surveying every minute detail of his surroundings through his rifle’s scope, executing a step-by-step preparation process he’d learned in sniper school and honed over more than a dozen previous missions into the Kush.

His first need was to simply get a “feel” for the mountain. Even though it was only a great pile of rocks, to Meese a mountain had a personality, a mood. It could make you feel welcome, inviting you to explore and admire its power and beauty – people like John Muir and Ansel Adams understood this. It could be unwelcoming, even hostile to your endeavors – Mt. Everest climbers were well-acquainted with this feeling. For a sniper, an unfriendly mountain was to be avoided if possible, as bad luck seemed to flow from its flanks. Or it could be an impersonal mountain, indifferent to your presence. He spent many minutes with his eyes closed, reaching out with his feelings, letting the mountain touch him, eventually deciding this one was pretty much uninterested in him, a good thing.

Next, he listened to the wind, or as his mountaineering instructors had said, “Let the wind talk to you.” Yes, he needed to keep careful track of its direction and speed, as wind was the number one factor affecting the trajectory for the kind of long-distance shots he planned. While there was no vegetation at this high altitude, like trees or grasses whose swaying he could monitor, what might surprise the untrained observer was there was always some wisp of dust that could be used to gauge the wind.

And the wind could even warn you of danger if you “listened” carefully: the boot scrape of an enemy sneaking up on you; the distant rumble of an engine; perhaps the braying of an unhappy donkey.

He spent more than an hour considering the position of the sun and clouds and the shadows they would cast at different times of the day: shadows that could mask possible cover his targets could retreat to; shadows that could be used to hide their approach; shadows that could distort their position and throw off his aim.

On this mission, though, he would be in luck relative to the sun; for most of the day it would be at his back or off to his left, offering little chance a reflection off his scope might give away his presence.

One of his most important assessments was identifying any potential cover his targets might seek to use when they came under fire: the rocks they could retreat behind, the depressions they could throw themselves into, the crevasses they could hunker down in. He found half-a-dozen good cover spots and many more not so good spots, but they were clumped, leaving an open gap along the trail across from him with relatively little cover.

And, of course, he checked for any possible escape routes; running back the way they had come; scrambling up or down the mountainside; charging him.

There was reviewing the angle of his shots. A down-angle shot was good, because gravity was your friend, because your high position gave you the best overview of the field of fire and because any adversaries had the distinct disadvantage of an up-angle shot. A flat angle shot was nearly as good, as this was the most common angle and what they mostly trained on. As a sniper, if you could possibly help it you passed on up-angle shots, as they were the most problematic; gravity was not your friend and your field of vision was restricted.

It took six hours for him to catalog and assess all these factors, which then became the basis for the two most crucial decisions in his process, first, selecting his best possible fire zone, as well as a couple of alternatives, and then deciding on the ideal hide from which to take his shots, along with at least one alternative.

In this case though he found only one ideal fire zone, a stretch half again the length of a football field on the opposite side of the gulch; all thirty-six donkeys and their handlers would fit in the section and be in the open. The trail there was narrow, only six feet wide, and hemmed in by a steep drop-off into the gulch on one side and a severely angled, gravel-strewn upslope on the other, neither offering much of an escape route. The good cover spots he’d found were at the opposite ends; if he could drop the lead and last man with his first two shots, the remaining targets would have trouble gaining the safety of cover.

Finally, for his primary shooting position he picked a spot between two rocks a foot apart. That wide an opening gave him an ideal ninety-plus-degree field of fire yet would present a small opening for any return fire. A secondary hide thirty feet to his right was a ledge from which he could shoot down but that had the disadvantage he would be partially exposed. He thought if by chance they zeroed in on his first hide, he could scramble to his second and continue firing.

Next: Targets

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 3

(NOTE: We’ll be out of town this coming week, “iffy” Internet connection, so publishing this chapter a bit early.)

3

In the Kush

Monday, July 4, 2005

The only paved and drivable road into the Wakhan Corridor ends at Khandud, a quarter of the way up the panhandle; from there two trails lead to the east. One is a wide, fairly flat wagon route through the corridor’s central valley following the Little Pamir River and ending at the Chinese border.

Then there is the narrow and much more rugged donkey track through Tajikistan Meese now watched. Although at Khandud there is a bridge over the Pamir, it has a checkpoint and so is avoided by smugglers.

Aerial photos and satellite surveillance of the panhandle had mapped the two main trails, including identifying a pair of remote fords of the Pamir on the northern route. But it had also marked numerous faint footpaths meandering up and over the mountains, sometimes using passes as high as fourteen-thousand feet. It was these paths Meese used to move around, undetected.

According to the informant, the caravan was scheduled to leave Khandud, a hundred miles to his west, during the third week of June. Thirty-six donkeys and their dozen handlers would be lucky to average six miles a day on the twisting, up-and-down trail, while Meese, who could travel lighter and faster and average ten, even twelve or more miles a day, could arrive at a pre-selected strike point a couple days ahead of the column.

Multiple high-altitude photographs of several possible ambush sites were fed into a computer, converting them into detailed topographic maps. Meese and his superiors then spent hours studying the maps, finally selecting a site on the side of one of the Alichur Mountains forty-five miles west of Lake Zorkul, the headwaters for the Pamir. While not his first mission into Tajikistan, it was the furthest east he had ever been in that country.

The op plan was to set-up on a ledge twenty feet above the trail, find a narrow gap among the rocks through which he could fire, but at the same time offering him good cover. The narrow trail came around a shoulder of a mountain above the Pamir not quite two miles to his west, so he would have plenty of warning of the caravan’s approach. The trail then swung north, to his right, to skirt around a deep gulch, then curled back to the south, passing below his position. In other words, he should have a wide, unobstructed sight line for his shots.

He was to wait for the donkeys and their handlers to be lined up in the open across his field of vision on the other side of the gulch, a shot of thirteen-hundred yards, well within the Barrett’s effective range.

Since the Barrett’s slug traveled at more than double the speed of sound, it would take three seconds for the smugglers to hear the rifle’s deep boom after having been hit. The plan was to first take out the point man, then swivel to the back and take down the last man within those three seconds, in effect hitting them even before they even knew they were under fire. He would then select targets of opportunity among the rest of the convoy.

While they would likely return his fire, the effective range of the AK-47s most smugglers carried was at best six hundred yards, less than half the distance to his position; he should be relatively safe from shots by untrained smugglers who were themselves under attack.

He arrived late in the afternoon of the eighth day and called in on a secure satellite phone – the surrounding high mountains made conventional radio useless – to report his arrival and receive an update. The convoy had been spotted by aerial surveillance the day-before-yesterday still twenty-five miles to his west. He had two days, at least, to wait, except for him it didn’t mean time to kill, it meant plenty of time to get ready.

After a beef jerky snack – one of the survival tricks he learned at mountaineering school was you don’t think in terms of three meals a day, you instead have snacks every couple of hours – he set-up camp under a nearby overhang offering some protection from the overnight dusting of snow – yes, in the Hindu Kush it can snow even in July – bundling up in a zero-degree sleeping bag he’d ordered online. Another thing the mountain-fighting veterans had taught him was government issue sleeping bags were too heavy and only okay down to temperatures in the low-twenties; anything in the teens – and yes, it could drop into the teens here in the summer – and you were shivering through the night. So, officers sort of turned a blind eye if out-in-the-field types like Meese bought top-of-the-line backpacker’s down bags with their own money.

The first thing he did on the morning of his ninth day, July Fourth, was gather hands-full of snow and pile them in the shade under the overhang, protected from the sun, then use a small propane stove and his ten-ounce stainless steel cup to melt the snow and top-off a pair of two-liter water bottles he carried. Here in the parched mountains, water, not bullets or food, was his single most crucial commodity, because a dehydrated sniper had trouble concentrating and could make fatal mistakes.

The next thing on his agenda was to literally learn inch-by-inch the mountainside on the other side of the gulch.

Next: Reading the mountain

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 2

2

A Country He was Not Supposed to be In

July 2005

Harmon’s hunch proved fortuitous for both the Air Force and Meese, W. The Air Force because he’d uncovered a potentially valuable new asset; the recruit because it gave him the purpose he’d been searching for.

When Sgt. Delarosa came back three days later to report recruit Wade Meese had not only equaled, but beaten his earlier score, hitting thirty-seven out of forty, including being perfect at eight-hundred meters, the young man’s fate was sealed, at least as far as the Air Force was concerned.

Based on Lt. Harmon’s strong recommendation, following basic training Meese went to the Air Force’s eleven-day Advanced Designated Marksman School (ADMS), followed by the even more intense nineteen-day Close Precision Engagement Course (CPEC). While he could have washed out of either, he didn’t; instead finishing both near the top of his group.

After graduating from CPEC in the fall of 2002 he was deployed to Afghanistan and assigned to a security detail at Bagram Airbase, the center of U.S. presence in the country and their battle with the Taliban.

For six months, between October 2002 and March 2003, Meese and his spotter spent eight hours a day behind their respective scopes. In those months they wracked-up sixteen confirmed kills of snipers either seeking to damage the F-16s, Huey helicopters or giant C-130 cargo planes parked on Bagram’s vast runways or harass American security patrols on the outskirts of the base. But Meese was only one of nearly a dozen other sniper teams competently executing similar duty, so his superiors agreed they could spare him for a “special” assignment.

Because it had not escaped their notice that in the CPEC he had not only demonstrated deadly accuracy at long distance shots, but surprising skill at field concealment; in other words, he could keep the enemy from even knowing he was there until it was too late. Which is why, in the spring of 2003 he went back to the U.S. for the crash, two-week Basic Military Mountaineer Course (BMMC) at Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Returning to Afghanistan in May, while he was still officially based at Bagram, Meese found he’d been reassigned to a Special Operations Group (SOG) – it was never quite clear if they were still under military supervision or if somehow “another government agency” (nobody ever said CIA, of course) had taken charge – to address a different and more challenging problem the Americans faced.

***

The northeast corner of Afghanistan is a narrow spit of land a little over two-hundred miles long, east to west, varying from a mere eight miles to up to forty miles wide, north to south. On maps it’s called the Wakhan Corridor, but informally is known as The Panhandle. It is sandwiched between Pakistan to the south, China to the east, and Tajikistan to the north. And it also happens to be along the northern edge of the Hindu Kush, some of the most remote and rugged mountain terrain in the world.

Remote except for one factor, two of the northern spurs of the fabled Silk Road pass through it. Where in past centuries it was spices, silk, gunpowder and gold moving over its rugged trails, now it was drugs; raw opium or its refined end-product, heroin and hashish. While the United States military wasn’t bothered much by small parties of a few smugglers for local benefit, either consumption by family or friends or sale for needed cash, they were more than a little troubled by the caravans of three or four dozen donkeys whose payloads, worth millions, ended up helping buy arms and equipment for the Taliban.

They would learn about the caravans either through Afghani informants or by spotting them already on the mountain trails with high-altitude aerial surveillance.

So, starting in late May, 2003, equipped with a Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle, which had a longer effective range, to say nothing of a great deal more hitting power than the American military’s standard M24 sniper rifle, now Airman First Class Wade Meese was sent into the Wakhan Corridor on “missions of opportunity” to interdict and disrupt the drug convoys.

He would be helicoptered to a remote location in the western parts of the corridor, then make his way overland alone and on foot – an understatement if there ever was one – to intercept the caravan. Each mission meant he might be in the field for two and sometimes three weeks at a time.

***

In May of 2005 an informant shared with his CIA handler rumors of a large caravan supposedly originating in Afghanistan carrying more than a ton of raw opium through Tajikistan and into Russia to be sold. For the Americans, it was too tempting to pass-up.

Which is why in early July, Meese found himself perched on a shoulder of the Alichur Mountains at not quite twelve-thousand feet, watching a narrow donkey trail paralleling the Pamir River, the common border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Unfortunately, the south side of the Pamir River butted hard up against the steep flanks of the Nicholas Mountains and so the trail – one of the Silk Road’s northern routes − sat on the north side, which meant both the trail and he were in Tajikistan.

It was not the first time he had pursued targets into a country he was not supposed to be in.

Next: In the Kush

© 2019 Dave Lager

Learn as you go

“Life’s a dance you learn as you go, sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow; don’t worry ’bout what you don’t know, life’s a dance you learn as you go”

“Life’s A Dance,” Allen Shamblin & Steve Seskin

In my head I just substituted the word “writing” for “life” and “skill” for “dance,” and suddenly these lyrics from a counrty-western song seemed awfully relevant.

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