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I do not look like an Afghan—never have, never will. My heavy build, broad jaw, and Scandinavian facial features are far removed from the typical Afghan’s narrow face and long, crooked nose. But I’d dyed my beard and eyebrows almost black, and covered my face and hands in brown skin cream. I wore a lungee, a traditional Afghan turban, on my head and the equally traditional salwar kameez set, which consisted of a khaki tunic and a baggy pair of trousers.
Under the tunic, I was kitted out with a bulletproof vest, a belt carrying a holstered 9mm H&K USP pistol, two extra magazines, a Gerber jack knife, and a radio connected to a discreet, skin-colored, molded ear piece. The Lowa desert boots I wore were the only thing visible that could reveal me as a soldier. But if something went wrong, I needed to be able to stand firmly.
After a few years away, I was back in Afghanistan. This country just wouldn’t loosen its grip on me. I was in one of the larger cities in the central part of the country with five other Jaegers, and had found myself in the most anonymous and self-effacing role of my career. The assignment was top secret. We were operating undercover amongst the local population.
No uniform. No visible weapons. No military vehicles.
With me in the car on this trip was Mikkel, my old friend from the reconnaissance operation in the remote Afghan mountains. We were in disguise and working, as always, at night—while the city slept. In daylight, we would be exposed immediately. But at night, driving an old Toyota with dirty windows in poor street lighting, our chances of evading detection increased dramatically. We adorned the car’s interior with local gadgets and left it unwashed for months, making it merge seamlessly with the environment.
The car’s ramshackle appearance belied its perfect mechanical state. Engine, gearbox, shock absorbers, brakes, and tires were all relatively new. We also pumped fluid into the tires, enabling the car to continue for up to 13 miles with a puncture.
Our undercover status meant we could only use weapons if we were under extreme duress. Still, should the worst possible scenario eventuate, we would certainly put up a decent fight despite our sparse setup.
Our C8 carbines—close-quarter battle (CQB) versions with shortened barrels—were ready for use, hidden under a dark piece of cloth between the front seats of our car. I had a backup gun in a holster between the seats. Six magazines, each containing 28 cartridges, were attached to the door and discreetly covered by cloth. A number of hand and smoke grenades were hidden under the seats. Our snatch-packs, containing extra ammunition, NVGs, a satellite phone, batteries, $500 in cash, water, and an emergency food ration, were also hidden under the seat. Should we be forced to leave the car, it would be absolutely vital that we bring our supplies with us.
This operation involved an intelligence gatherer; a secret agent in his mid-thirties whose cover name was Eric. His job was to gather information for decision-makers at government level in the western military coalition. Information of this nature was highly sensitive, and those holding it were often influential people, or had a close relation to influential people. Eric visited and sought to gain the trust of these sources, which was not something that happened over a cup of tea in an afternoon. Such infiltration was slow and risky.
Eric’s job was often lonely and required great cultural, political, linguistic, and a large amount of social, insight. Knowing the technical aspects of the job is one thing, but an agent who lacks the social skills needed to work the source will fail to deliver. While some informants have no principles and gladly accept payment for information, the most valuable are the ones driven by ideology. And they require a refined approach.
Naturally, Eric’s success depended upon his true identity not being revealed. He always traveled incognito. Eric and his colleagues were subdued, not only professionally, but in their private lives as well. Very few of their friends knew what they did for a living. In Eric’s case, not even his own family knew.
Eric preferred to work alone, without us as a protective shield. The more people involved and the bigger the setup, the larger the operation’s signature and the higher the risk of exposure. Being exposed would put all of us at risk and could undermine his entire organization’s credibility. His organization had nonetheless judged Afghanistan to be so unsafe at that point, they employed the Jaeger Corps to protect their man.
Our task was to protect Eric and transport him to his meetings with informants. It was pretty simple, but it put demands on our creativity since we were unfamiliar with this type of operation.
Usually, we had numerous resources to draw from when things went wrong. Here, we were completely on our own. If something went wrong, there was no quick reaction force, no gunship, and no fighter jets we could call in. Our radios were only set up for communicating between our two vehicles. There was no one else to call. Nobody, apart from our most trusted colleagues, even knew we were in the area. And it was, of course, crucial that our identity not be revealed. Being recognized as western soldiers would not only get us killed, but would also make it impossible for our comrades or allies to work in the same area.
We put in months of training for this mission with the Jaeger Corps back home in Denmark. The main focus was how to operate in and from a car, which would be our operative platform—one to be vacated only in emergencies. We practiced driving techniques in old beat-up cars. We had some fun with it, at times turning into wannabe racecar drivers as we pulled high-speed 180-degree turns and various skidding and dodging maneuvers.
We practiced shadowing a car on country roads and in larger provincial towns in Denmark. Using several vehicles and overlapping one another reduces the chances of being noticed when shadowing a car. We also learned how to take precautions to avoid being shadowed ourselves. If we were being followed, we learned to flee at breakneck speed. Enjoying that particular procedure on the small, dark country roads left more than a few of our dummy agents white-faced and cowering in the back seat.
Another procedure we prepared for was picking up an informant at a particular location at a precise point in time. An alternative pick-up point and emergency plans needed to be organized beforehand. We also practiced close-proximity battle techniques in the cars in preparation for dealing with hostile, stubborn opponents.
We learned basic phrases and vocabulary in Pashto, the most common language in Afghanistan. Finally, we become the first Danish soldiers ever to complete a course in applying make-up—learning to color our eyebrows, darken our skin, and attach a fake beard with glue.
Training exercises are one thing; real operations are something else. I was behind the wheel of the old Toyota as we drove out from the hangar and up a small gravel road, which lead to a gate in the far corner of the base. When not in use, the cars were parked in the old, abandoned hangar, which nobody but us had access to. That was also where we changed our clothes and applied makeup for our nightly journeys.
Mikkel was in the passenger seat, discreetly checking the GPS and map of the city. I was in good hands with Mikkel and had absolute faith that he would, as always, perform his task flawlessly. Some years ago, he was my partner on an extreme and exhausting operation in the mountains in the southeastern part of Afghanistan. Back then he won my utmost respect. He was a unique partner.
After the gate, we turned to the left and headed to the city center. The four other men in our team were a few hundred feet behind us, out of sight, in an old Toyota HiAce minibus, which was in the same fine mechanical state as our car. It had curtains in the rear windows, which was normal around these parts and gave us the opportunity to speak with some of our informants in the car without being seen.
Eric was at a meeting in the city and needed to be picked up from a small alley. The trip to town took us down dark, potholed, and often unsealed, roads. It was a peaceful and quiet location with almost no traffic. It would actually be an advantage though if there had been more cars to hide amongst. There were no mullahs calling the faithful to prayer. No lights on in the houses. And we saw only a few men on foot with the exception of the occasional weary figure pedaling an old bicycle. No women or children. But there were lots of dogs roaming the streets in search of sewage water and food scraps.
Mikkel had his hands full keeping an eye on the planned route. I kept our speed slow so he’d have time to check the map and GPS using a small flashlight. We more or less knew where the Afghan government forces had their checkpoints set up, but we still kept a wary eye out in case they’d been moved. It’d be bad news if they had; a surprise checkpoint could prove disastrous to our mission. A flashlight in my face would almost certainly uncover my disguise. If a checkpoint guard turned out to be obstinate, insisting on knowing who we were and what we were doing, it could escalate to a confrontation, even though we were fighting the same enemy: the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The other car, the minibus, followed a route parallel to ours. We had charted some orientation points on the map, which we referred to over the radio. This ensured that we always knew where the other car was. We did travel together along some stretches, and had unscrewed the bulbs in the left taillight and the right headlight on both cars, so we could identify each other in the dark. There was no great risk of getting stopped for driving without correct lights on the car here in Afghanistan.
Mikkel instructed me to turn left down a street with a big intersection. About 300 feet down the street we saw the outlines of military vehicles and chicanes, which funneled oncoming traffic. It was a checkpoint not on the map. Mikkel cursed. There was no way to turn off or around. If I reversed or turned around, it would indicate we had something to hide. We had no option but to continue.
Mikkel hid his map and GPS under the seat while I checked that my third gun was in place. The time was just past 1 a.m. I hoped the Afghan guards would be tired and would just wave us through. But as we approached, a guard armed with an AK-47 stepped onto the road and motioned for us to stop. Mikkel and I both cursed. I winded down my window and drove slowly toward him.
“Salaam Alaykum,” he greeted us.
He was young and had a light, clear voice. And he had not yet seen my face.
“Wa Alaykum as-Salaam,” I returned softly, hoping not to expose my accent.
He got out his flashlight. I prepared for the worst. He switched on the light and shined it into the car. The beam found Mikkel, but the guard seemed uninterested in him, instead moving the beam back to me and pointing it directly into my face. It rested on me for several long seconds, and I felt like a small child that had been caught stealing—exposed, vulnerable, and awaiting the inevitable punishment.
Then, the guard said something that I did not understand. His tone was friendly, though, and he didn’t appear aggressive. He leaned toward my face and must have been able to see that I was not a local.
“Tha tsanga ye?” I asked in a friendly voice. “How are you?”
He nodded but said nothing. There was no doubt that he had seen right through my disguise. I would only appear more suspicious if I continued with my limited supply of Pashto phrases.
I reached for a small bunch of $50 notes, hidden in a crack on the dashboard. My trouble money.
I gambled, slowly handing him a note and switching to English. “Thank you.”
He remained silent, but shined his light on the $50 note, scrutinizing it with interest. The money was probably equivalent to several months of wages for him. The flashlight switched off. He glanced at the other guards, who suspected nothing and were chatting away by a military jeep. Then, he pocketed the note.
“Okay,” he said quietly.
Luckily, he saw no reason to create problems, and secured himself a nice little personal bonus.
“Tashakkur,” I said, thanking him. I put the car into gear and proceeded slowly down the street.
Mikkel and I let out huge sighs of relief. Long live my trouble money.