Military history

CHAPTER 8

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Many Afghans were not happy with the direction the country was heading, especially conservatives. And in the middle of this disgust, Abdul Jabar Sabit, a windmill-slaying Afghan lawyer, saw an opportunity. As legal adviser for the Interior Ministry, his job description was somewhat vague, so he decided to declare war on alcohol and brothels, to stem the tide of foreign excess. He had launched a one-man anti-vice mission, a pared-down version of the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Ministry, that notorious charm offensive responsible for enforcing the regime’s straitjacket-like morality rules. And in so doing, Sabit had seized on the mood of many Afghans, who felt that the Westerners were just too much—too free with their booze, too loose with their morals, and too influential over young Afghans.

Even though alcohol was illegal, the Afghan government had permitted a two-tiered society—one for Afghans, and one for Westerners. Foreigners could buy booze at two major stores that required passports at the door. Restaurants could serve alcohol to foreigners but not to Afghans, which meant most restaurants that served alcohol did not allow Afghans. The contradiction fueled resentment from everyone. Many Afghans viewed alcohol as more pernicious, more Western and un-Islamic, than opium or hashish. More liberal Afghans figured they should be allowed to drink alcohol inside the restaurants, which were, after all, in their country. Every time Sabit announced another booze battle, Farouq would shake his head.

“The price of raisins is going to go up,” he would say. Raisin wine was a concoction made popular during Taliban rule, along with antiseptic and Coca-Cola.

I had first met Sabit in the spring of 2005, in the office of the Interior Ministry spokesman. He had left Afghanistan during the late 1970s and landed first in Pakistan, then the United States, where he worked for Voice of America before moving to Canada. He had joined Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s fundamentalist Islamic party, Hezb-i-Islami, back when Hekmatyar was on our side against the Soviets and before he had turned into a renegade. After the Taliban fell, Sabit, a lawyer by training, had come back to Afghanistan, part of the flood of returning Afghans who claimed they wanted to help rebuild their country. He was an ally of Karzai’s—kind of—although he complained all the time about Karzai. Then again, Sabit complained about a lot. He was a human volcano, constantly threatening to explode.

Sabit, who was in his sixties, was a bizarre combination, sporting the long white beard of an Islamic fundamentalist and the bespoke gray suit of an English gentleman. He was an ethnic Pashtun, and he looked it, with wild white hair, bright hazel eyes, and exaggerated features—big ears, big fingers. He reminded me of a skinny yet somehow menacing Santa Claus. Sabit had asked where I lived, and after I told him how often I traveled, he grunted. He quoted a Pashtun proverb about never being friends with a traveler. But that didn’t stop him from trying. At our first meeting, he invited me to his house to meet his wife, a raven-haired woman about my age. Although she was fluent in at least three languages, including English, and had been working on a doctorate degree in Canada, she was not allowed to work. For appearance’s sake. Whenever she went out in public, she wore a black abaya that covered everything but her eyes.

During that first dinner, Sabit had agreed to take me along on a raid of bars and brothels on the coming Friday night. But when Friday rolled around, I had forgotten about our date, and by the time his driver called, I had already downed a glass of red wine. Regardless, I jumped in the backseat of Sabit’s SUV, filled with his flunkies. We then picked up Sabit, who on this night wore a long cape-like green coat with purple stripes, similar to the coat favored by Karzai. We went from brothel to bar to restaurant. Everywhere, Sabit was the customer no one wanted. As soon as he knocked on a gate, whoever answered shouted out warnings. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and pushed his way inside, flanked by his minions—and me, of course.

At one dark brothel with bordello-red walls, a Chinese woman had dressed in a fur jacket, fishnet stockings, a white miniskirt, and white boots—a bit of overkill, given the all-encompassing burqas that many Afghan women still wore.

“Look at that,” Sabit muttered. The only customer was a Western man, sitting by himself.

At another fully stocked bar, Sabit insulted the Turkish manager.

“You are Muslim, aren’t you?” Sabit said. “You aren’t allowed to serve this liquor.”

“We are Muslim,” the man replied. “But this is business.”

The night ended in violence, as did so many things in Afghanistan. After we checked on a guesthouse, even inspecting the bedrooms, a cop on the street failed to properly address Sabit and show him enough respect. Sabit yelled and screamed at the man. I hopped in the backseat of the SUV. Sabit continued to yell, and then started punching the younger man repeatedly in the face, the body. I watched through the window.

“You have to help him,” his driver told me. “Mr. Sabit is a crazy man. I’m too scared.”

“No way,” I said. “I’m going nowhere near him.”

Sabit climbed into the passenger seat after making sure the ignorant officer was carted off to jail for the night. He adjusted his coat and looked forward.

“Write that in your story, and I’ll kill you,” he said.

I wasn’t stupid. And I knew a good connection when I found one. From then on, whenever we planned an occasional gathering at a brothel or a major party, I would call Sabit and ask him what he was doing. If he planned to go on raids, I planned to stay home. And that’s how I knew that The Delicious Barbecue was a safe bet.

But Sabit required a lot of care and feeding, and he was often impossible to please. Even showing slight annoyance with Sabit’s demands sent him into months of silence and furious complaints about me to mutual acquaintances. Just after I returned to India, Sabit flew to New Delhi to have surgery for something related to his ability to digest, a procedure he was incredibly explicit about. He demanded that I pick him up at the airport. I spent five hours waiting for him inside the Indian capital’s dingy airport before he finally wandered into the lobby, several hours after all the other Afghans. Only then, I found out that the Afghan embassy had also sent a welcome delegation and a car. After Sabit was admitted to the hospital, he expected me to visit every day, a time suck of at least three hours. I was his lifeline in Delhi, the only person he seemed to know, despite the fact that the embassy treated him like royalty. Deferential men with beards always sat in his hospital room.

“You have lived over here long enough,” he admonished me from his hospital bed. “You know Afghans. You know the culture. You know you need to come see me.”

“I also have to work,” I said. “It’s kind of the reason I’m here.”

“Work. You’re always working.”

Even the surgery didn’t calm him. “This green tea is awful,” he complained from his bed. “Bring me some new tea.”

Eventually, after helping sort out his tea and his visa, I sent my driver to take Sabit to the airport to fly home. But he was annoyed because I did not ride along. Over the winter, I heard rumors that Sabit was upset with me. “She’s a bad friend,” he told an official at the U.S. embassy. I called Sabit from India repeatedly, and he repeatedly hung up on me. When he finally answered, he sounded as hurt as a spurned lover.

“I am so angry at you!” he said, more than once. Sabit often talked in exclamation points. “You are a very bad friend!”

But he eventually forgave me. And our uneasy acquaintance had payback. Sabit had turned into my eccentric grandpa. When I arrived in Afghanistan in March 2006, Sabit sent a VIP bus to pick me up. A few days later, he said he wanted to shoot guns with me. He liked guns. Most places I visited him—work, home, a Turkish restaurant—a gun leaned against some wall. He kept guns like other people keep plants. I accepted his invitation, as shooting guns in Afghanistan sounded like a fine diversion from work. Sabit’s new driver picked me up one afternoon in March—his driver was actually his secretary, who had been drafted into driving because Sabit had fired seventeen drivers in the previous year. We picked up Sabit from his office. Sabit had two guns with him, a .22 and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The driver drove the SUV out of Kabul, south for about thirty minutes, toward the edge of Kabul Province and Sabit’s home village.

“Watch the road,” Sabit told the driver.

“There’s a pothole,” Sabit told the driver, pointing at a black dot on the beige horizon.

“You’re going too fast.”

“You’re a horrible driver.”

“Slow down.”

“Speed up!”

“Be careful over the pothole! You’re an idiot!”

The driver/secretary said nothing. He knew better.

“Pull the car over,” Sabit demanded after one poorly executed pothole. The driver, white-knuckled, thin-lipped, and staring straight ahead, pulled over on the side of the road.

“Get out,” Sabit hissed. “I bet Kim could drive better than you.”

This was an amazing insult—the idea that a woman could drive better than an Afghan man, let alone a Pashtun Afghan man, was beyond offensive. Only a handful of Afghan women drove, so few that they were celebrities, that Afghan men actually knew personal details about them. But Sabit followed through on his threat.

“Kim. Drive.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I haven’t driven a car in almost two years.”

“But you know how to drive, right? It’s the same side of the road as the U.S. Just drive. I’m sure you’re better than this idiot.”

I got out. The driver got out. “I’m not even supposed to be the driver,” he whispered, as we walked past each other on the side of the highway. “I’m the secretary.”

I jumped into the driver’s seat, a watchful Sabit next to me. I hit the gas and pulled back onto the highway.

“Watch the pothole!” Sabit barked. I slowed down. “See, she is a better driver than you,” he told his secretary/driver, now slumped in the backseat.

“Turn here,” he demanded.

I turned right off the paved road, onto a dirt road, into a large expanse of dirt that Sabit planned to turn into a fruit orchard. Sabit’s servants waited for us. This was just outside his home village, an area where Sabit was also a tribal chief. Here, he was king. His servants had laid out carpets in the dirt for us to sit on, along with a pot of green tea and bowls of chewy fruit candies and almonds covered in a sugary paste. The men looked vaguely surprised to see a Western woman step down from the driver’s seat. Sabit talked briefly to them.

“I told them that you are a better driver than my real driver!” Sabit told me. His secretary pouted.

Sabit grabbed the guns. I may have grown up in Montana, but I had little experience with weapons. I had fired a .22 only once before, while visiting a friend in Idaho, and I had never shot a Kalashnikov. Yet I had honed my aim on plenty of video games. Sabit told the men to set up targets. They ran out to the ridges of dirt and set up different targets—mostly clumps of dirt.

“I can’t tell what the targets are,” I said. “They all look like dirt.”

“Pay attention!” Sabit said. He ordered his lackeys to put some coins out. We sat cross-legged on the carpets. I leaned down, fired the .22 and hit a few clumps of dirt, which exploded. I was not really aiming, as I could not tell one clump from another.

“You’re not bad,” Sabit said.

We kept firing. He passed me the Kalashnikov. The kickback bruised my chest, and the first shot missed all the clumps wildly. Bang, bang, bang. Every bullet sent up a puff of dust. This was much more fun than playing video games. I traded guns with Sabit and shot the .22. A man came running up near Sabit’s fence, to our right. He started yelling in Pashto. Sabit leaped up and started running toward the man, screaming and waving his Kalashnikov. The man ran away. Sabit turned around and walked back toward me.

“He told me it wasn’t safe and it was too loud,” he said, laughing. “I threatened to kill him.”

Finally, when Sabit’s men moved a coin to a ridge about ten yards in front of me, I hit it with the .22. Not a bad shot, but much more impressive if I hadn’t been at point-blank range. Sabit decided to leave. “Come on, you’re driving.”

I managed to get us back to Kabul, where I somehow maneuvered through the free swim that passed for Kabul traffic, merging around traffic circles, avoiding donkey-pulled carts, all while trying to slow down over potholes. I dropped Sabit off and planned a lunch date the next week. His driver/secretary then drove me home. “He’s fired every driver he’s ever had,” the man told me. “Driving for him is just not possible.”

I certainly didn’t want the gig. In the following days, I focused on my real job. I worked on a story about three Americans jailed twenty months earlier for running an illegal jail for Afghans under the guise of an import-export business. The team, led by a litigious former U.S. soldier named Jack Idema once convicted of fraud in the States, had actually grabbed Afghan men off the street, accused them of being terrorists, and held them in a makeshift prison. Why? I wasn’t certain, but I believed that Idema craved the glory and embraced the messianic ideology of the anti-jihad. He was the kind of guy who would write a book and call it My War without irony, the kind of guy who thought he would be the one to bring down Osama bin Laden single-handedly, ideally using a piece of duct tape, staples, and other tricks of his tradecraft. Idema was an embarrassment for almost everyone—mainly because many people had bought his story. U.S. forces held one Afghan turned over by Idema for two months. International peacekeeping forces helped Idema carry out three raids on houses where he captured Afghans. Several Afghan officials were videotaped meeting with Idema, who many people assumed was a member of the U.S. special operations forces because he acted and dressed like one. For years, Idema had been a legend on the Kabul scene, so often at the Star Wars–like bar in the Mustafa Hotel that a cocktail was named after him, that two bullet holes in the ceiling were supposedly made by him. He was known as “Tora Bora” Jack, for his tales from 2001 and 2002 when he allegedly hunted bin Laden, which won him a starring role in Robin Moore’s book The Hunt for bin Laden. A lot of sketchy foreigners had flooded Afghanistan, but Idema was one of the sketchiest. He was known for insinuating that he was a spy. He had tried to hire Farouq to work with him, but Farouq was suspicious of Idema’s actual mission.

In July 2004, Idema and the two other Americans were arrested, their jail dismantled, their prisoners freed. Idema and a younger former U.S. soldier claimed to be on a sanctioned supersecret U.S. mission, hunting down terrorists. The third American, a TV cameraman, said he was simply filming a documentary on the hunt for Al-Qaeda. The United States denied any connection to the men, other than admitting they were private American citizens. The trial was hardly fair, the translation atrocious, and Idema kept interrupting with various outbursts. At one point, the lawyer for the cameraman asked the prosecutor, “Can you handle the truth?” On the day of sentencing, in September 2004, Idema wore his traditional black sunglasses and khaki outfit and smoked cigarettes near the judge. When told he could not testify because he was not Muslim, Idema demanded to be sworn in on the Holy Quran, which he then kissed. The audience, mainly Afghans, including those Idema had once locked up, applauded and cheered. One former prisoner jumped up, punched his fist in the air, and launched an impromptu audience cheer of “God is great!”

In his testimony, Idema described a world of spies and intrigue, of good guys and bad ones. He talked about his missions, of his efforts to deliver a “package,” which was “tradecraft” for a “high-value target.” His passport was issued by a “special agency in Washington,” which he could not name. One video featured a blacked-out person, whose face could not be shown for “national security reasons.” After the men were sentenced, to as long as ten years, Idema suggested he might kill a couple of people before any appeal and mentioned a “bloodbath.”

Since then, the Americans had been held at the Pul-i-Charkhi prison, a sprawling concrete-and-brick complex outside of Kabul, scarred by bullets and rockets and filled with two thousand inmates, including Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents and drug dealers. The Americans’ sentences had already been drastically cut, and they were nearing freedom. But jail had taken a toll on one man. The journalist had attacked guards, converted to Islam, and adopted the name Najib, guards said. He lived in his own cell. Idema, the other American, and their translator lived a comparatively posh life. They had a wing of the prison to themselves, which was furnished with red Oriental carpets and hand-carved sofas—a similarly sized prison wing across the hall held five hundred and fifty inmates. The men also had cell phones, computer access, and frequent contact with whoever ran a website called superpatriots.us. The site supported the men’s mission, featured pictures of them inside their “cell,” and at one point quoted Idema as saying that he could drink alcohol and had “a laptop, a phone, private bedroom, private bathroom, two houseboys, one water boy, satellite TV with the Playboy Channel,” along with other perks.

“They are treated differently than anyone else,” acknowledged the general in charge of the jail. “They have carpets, they have phones, they have special food. Not because they are Americans. Because they are our guests.”

Keep in mind, the other guests at the jail were kept like dogs at a pound. So for the Afghan jailers, the Americans had become a major hassle, more so than any terrorist. That’s why I wanted to revisit their story. Recent prison riots had been described, hour by hour, on the superpatriots site. The website said it had received reports that the journalist had joined the terrorists and was yelling “God is great” with them. At another point, the journalist was described as a hostage.

I managed to jump through all the cumbersome Afghan hoops to get access to the Americans. I walked up the dank, cold stairs with Farouq and a couple of police officials. We stood outside Idema’s cell. Idema’s soldier sidekick, looking skinny and wearing a “Special Forces” T-shirt, opened the gate a crack. I gave my business card to him, and he took it to Idema, who grumbled that he did not want to talk to me. The younger soldier returned to the door.

“I do apologize,” he said.

“If he changes his mind, call me,” I said.

I wrote the story anyway, focusing on the riots, the problems of caring for the Americans, and the amazing website, crammed with information and links. Here, I could peruse the Geneva Conventions, order “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” see “the top 10 lie-slinging journalists,” and read the men’s thank-you notes to people for various gifts, including tuna, ramen noodles, Gummi Bears, Slim Jims, blankets, gloves, and Dinty Moore beef stew. And there were warnings. “A whirlwind is coming, and hell is coming with it,” the website said, near a picture of Idema with his fists up and the title “Fighting Jack.”

The day the story ran, I went to Jeremy’s house for an early dinner. He had moved to Kabul, and we had picked up our awkward fling, fueled by nice gestures on his part such as calling to tell me about a suicide attack I hadn’t heard about. I liked him, even if he was slightly moody. That night, after a losing game of poker, Jeremy and I went to sleep early. At 3 AM, my phone started ringing. I picked it up and looked at the number, which I didn’t recognize, and didn’t immediately answer. The ringing stopped before starting again. I reluctantly said hello.

“Who is this?” I asked, feigning gruffness.

“Listen, you little cunt,” an American man’s voice said.

“Oh good,” I said, and hung up.

Idema. Had to be. I had heard he was vindictive. I also knew he had powerful friends. The phone started ringing again. I turned it off and tried to go back to sleep, slightly nervous. I tapped Jeremy. “Hey. I think Jack Idema just called me.” He grunted and rolled over. We would break up the next month, out of ambivalence as much as anything else.

Across the city, Farouq’s phone then started ringing. Farouq’s number was the second on my business card.

“Is Kim there?” the man asked Farouq.

Uncertain of whether this was a rude friend of mine or bosses from Chicago, Farouq opted for a polite response. “No, I’m Farouq, the translator for Kim and the Chicago Tribune. She’s probably asleep.”

“If you ever work for that fucking cunt again, I’ll have you thrown in prison,” the man explained.

“Is this Jack? Is that Jack?” Farouq said, his anger rising. The caller hung up. Farouq called him back.

“What kind of language is that?” Farouq asked. “Who do you think you are? What kind of a way is that to behave?” Farouq threatened to come to the prison and hurt Idema if he insulted me again. The caller hung up, then turned off his phone. In a fight between a macho Pashtun and a macho American, I knew who would win, every time.

The next afternoon, I drove to the Interior Ministry for my kebab date with Sabit. I was mildly concerned because the caller had seemed slightly unglued. Idema was extremely connected with the Northern Alliance, the Tajik-dominated militia group that had been the last holdout against the Taliban and that now held key positions with the police and in the prison. Idema had contacts with the police and even sent them out from the prison to run errands for him, friends told me. And the police knew where I lived. So I told Sabit about the phone call. Sabit’s eyes narrowed.

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “The police will do nothing to you. Jack can do nothing to you. I won’t do anything unless you ask me to, and if you want, I’ll stand guard in front of your door all night.”

“That’s probably not necessary,” I told Sabit. “Let’s just wait to see what happens.”

For days, nothing happened, so I told Sabit to forget about it. The last thing I needed was another confrontation between another angry Pashtun and Idema. Then I found out what Idema had done. I had become a star on superpatriots.us. My mug shot from the Chicago Tribune website had been copied and stretched horizontally, making my face look very wide. The picture and my name had been added to the superpatriots’ journalist Wall of Shame with the caption “Cub Reporter.” And in front of the world, I was accused of sleeping with Farouq. Within months, I would be unceremoniously retired from the wall, and this would all seem quaint, a silly game, any fear of Idema ridiculous. Idema and his buddies would all eventually be released and leave Afghanistan quietly. But Jack was right about one thing—a whirlwind was definitely coming. Hell was riding shotgun.

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