Thomas Rathsack’s explosive memoir, Jaeger: At War with Denmark’s Elite Special Forces is available now!
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, hooked nose. But my beard and eyebrows are now dyed almost black, and my face and hands are covered in brown skin cream. I am wearing a lungee, the traditional Afghani turban, on my head, and the equally traditional salwar kameez set, which consists of a khaki tunic and a baggy pair of trousers.
Under the tunic, I am kitted out with a bullet-proof vest, a belt carrying a 9 mm USP pistol, two extra magazines, a Gerber jack knife and a radio connected to a discrete, skin-coloured, moulded ear piece. The Lowa desert boots I am wearing are the only thing visible that could reveal me as a soldier. But if something goes wrong, I need to be able to stand firm.
After a few years away, I am back in Afghanistan. This country just will not loosen its grip on me. I am in one of the larger cities in the central part of the country with five other Jaegers, and find myself in the most anonymous and self-effacing role ever. The assignment is top secret. We are operating undercover amongst the local population.
No uniform. No visible weapons. No military vehicles.
With me in the car on this trip is Mikkel, my old friend from the reconnaissance operation in the remote Afghan mountains. We are in disguise and working, as always, at night while the city sleeps. In daylight, we would be exposed immediately. But at night, driving an old Toyota with dirty windows in poor street lighting, we rate our chances of evading detection. We have adorned the car’s interior with local gadgets and not washed it for months, making it merge seamlessly with the environment.
The car’s ramshackle appearance belies its tip-top mechanical state. Motor, gearbox, shock absorbers, brakes and tires are all relatively new. We have also pumped fluid into the tyres, enabling the car to continue for up to 20 kilometres with a puncture.
Our undercover status means we may only use weapons if we are under extreme pressure. Still, should the worst possible scenario eventuate, we would certainly put up a decent fight, despite our sparse set-up.
Our C8 carbines – Close Quarter Battle (CQB) versions with a shortened barrel – are ready for use, hidden under a dark piece of cloth between the front seats. I have an extra gun, a so-called third gun, in a holster between the seats. Six magazines, each containing 28 cartridges, are attached to the door and discretely covered by cloth. A number of hand- and smoke grenades are hidden under the seats. Our snatch-packs, containing extra ammunition, night vision goggles, a satellite phone, batteries, $500, water, and an emergency food ration, are also hidden under the seat. Should we be forced to leave the car, it is absolutely vital that we bring them.
This operation involves an intelligence gatherer; a secret agent in his mid-thirties whose cover name is Eric. His job is to gather intelligence for decision-makers at government level in the western military coalition. Information of this character is highly sensitive, and those holding it are often influential people, or have a close relation to influential people. Eric visits and seeks to gain the trust of these sources, which is not something that happens over a cup of tea in an afternoon. Such infiltration is slow and risky.
Eric’s job is often lonely and requires great cultural, political, linguistic and not least 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 depends upon his true identity not being revealed. He always travels incognito. Eric and his colleagues are subdued, not only professionally, but in private as well. Very few of their friends know what they do for a living. In Eric’s case, not even his own family knows.
Eric prefers to work alone, without us as a protective shield. The more people involved and the bigger the set-up, the larger the operation’s signature and the higher the risk of exposure. Being exposed puts both his and our safety at risk, and undermines his whole organization’s credibility. His organization has nonetheless judged Afghanistan to be so unsafe right now that is it has employed the Jaeger Corps.
Our task is to protect Eric and transport him to his meetings with informants. It’s pretty simple, but it puts demands on our creativity since we are unfamiliar with this type of operation.
Usually, we have numerous resources to draw on when things go wrong. Here, we are completely on our own. If something goes wrong, there is no Quick Reaction Force, no Gunship and no fighter jets we can call in over the radio. Our radios are only for communicating between our two vehicles. There is no one else to call. Nobody, apart from our most trusted colleagues, knows that we are in the area. And it is of course crucial that our identity is not revealed. Being recognised as western soldiers would endanger not just our lives; it would also make it impossible to resume working in the same area.
We put in months of training for this mission with the Jaeger Corps back home in Denmark. The main focus is how to operate in and from a car, which will be our operative platform to be vacated only in emergencies. We practice driving techniques in old beat-up cars. We have some fun with it, at times turning into wannabe racing car drivers as we pull high-speed 180-degree turns and various skidding and dodging manoeuvres.
We practice 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 learn how to take precautions to avoid being shadowed ourselves. If we are being followed, we 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 prepare for is picking up an informant at a particular location at a precise point in time. An alternative pick-up point and emergency plans must be organised. We also practice close-proximity battle techniques in the cars, in preparation for dealing with hostile, stubborn opponents.
We learn basic phrases and vocabulary in Pashto, the most common language in Afghanistan. Finally, we become the first ever Danish soldiers to complete a course in applying make-up, where we learn how to color our eye-brows, darken our skin and attach a fake beard with glue.
Training exercises are one thing, real operations are something else. I am behind the wheel of the old Toyota as we drive out from the hangar and up a small gravel road which leads to a gate in the far-corner of the base. When not in use, the cars are parked in the old, abandoned hangar to which nobody has access. That is also where we change our clothes and apply make-up for the nightly journeys.
Mikkel is in the passenger seat, discretely checking the GPS and map of the city. I am in good hands with Mikkel and have absolute faith that he will, like always, perform his task flawlessly. Some years ago, he was my partner on an extreme and exhausting operation in the mountains in the south eastern part of Afghanistan. Back then, he won my utmost respect. He is a unique partner.
After the gate, we turn to the left and head to the city centre. The four other men in our team are a few hundred metres behind us, out of sight, in an old Toyota Hiace minibus, which is in the same fine mechanical state as our car. It has curtains in the rear windows, which is normal around these parts and gives us the opportunity to speak with some of our informants in the car.
Eric is at a meeting in the city and needs to be picked up from a small side-street. The trip to town takes us down dark, pot-holed and often unsealed roads. It’s peaceful and quiet, and there is almost no traffic. It would actually be an advantage though if there were more cars to hide amongst. There are no mullahs calling the faithful to prayer. No lights on in the houses. And we see only a few men on foot plus the occasional weary figure pedalling an old classic bicycle. No women or children. But there are lots of dogs roaming the streets in search of sewage water and food scraps.
Mikkel has plenty to do keeping an eye on the planned route. I keep the speed sufficiently slow so that he can manage to check the map and GPS with a small torch. We more or less know where the Afghan government forces have their check points set up, but do sometimes get caught out when they have been moved. That’s bad news, because we want to avoid check points. A torch in my face would almost certainly uncover my disguise. If a check point guard turns out to be obstinate and insists on knowing who we are and what we are doing, it could escalate to a confrontation, even though we are fighting the same enemy: the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The other car, the minibus, follows a route parallel to ours. We have charted some orientation points on the map, which we refer to over the radio. This ensures that we know where the other car is. We do travel together along some stretches and have unscrewed the bulbs in the left tail light and the right headlight on both cars, so we can identify each other in the dark. There is no great risk of getting fined for driving without correct lights on the car here in Afghanistan.
Mikkel instructs me to turn left down a street with a big intersection. About 100 metres down the street we see the outlines of military vehicles and chicanes, which force the traffic to slow down a zigzag. It’s a check point that is not on the map. Mikkel curses. There is no opportunity to turn off. If I reverse or turn around, it would indicate we have something to hide. We have no option but to continue.
Mikkel hides his map and GPS under the seat while I check that my third gun is in place. The time is just past 1 am. I hope the Afghani guards are tired and just wave us through. But as we approach, a guard armed with an AK-47 steps out on to the road and motions for us to stop. Mikkel and I both curse. I wind down the window and drive slowly towards him.
“Salaam Alaykum,” he greets us.
He is young and has a light, clear voice. And he has not yet seen my face.
“Wa Alaykum as-Salaam,” I return softly, hoping not to expose my accent.
He gets out his torch. I prepare for the worst. He switches on the torch and shines it into the car. The beam finds Mikkel but the guard seems uninterested in him, instead moving the beam back to me and pointing it directly into my face. It rests on me for several long seconds and I feel like a small child that has been caught stealing – exposed, vulnerable and awaiting the inevitable punishment.
Then the guard says something that I do not understand. His tone is friendly though and he does not appear aggressive. He leans towards my face and must be able to see that I am not a local.
“Tha tsanga ye?” I ask in a friendly voice. “How are you?”
He nods but says nothing. There is no doubt that he has seen right through my disguise. I would only appear more suspect if I continued with my limited supply of Pashto phrases.
I reach for a small bunch of $50 notes, hidden in a crack on the dashboard. My trouble money.
I gamble, slowly hand him a note and switch to English.
He remains silent, but shines his light on the $50 note, scrutinising it with interest. The money is probably equivalent to several month’s wages for him. The torch is switched off. He looks at the other guards, who suspect nothing and are chatting away by a military jeep. Then he pockets the note.
“Okay,” he says quietly.
Luckily, he sees no reason to create problems and secures himself a nice little personal bonus.
“Tashakkur,” I thank him, put the car into gear and proceed slowly down the street.
Mikkel and I let out huge sighs of relief. Long live my trouble money.
The colleagues in the minibus, who took another route, have become worried about us. But we can now inform them over the radio that everything is okay. We continue to our reference point, a small street where we are picking up Eric, arriving half an hour early.
The minibus carries on down the street. Its task is to make certain there are no potential threats on the street or on the route we are following away from the area. These might be parked cars with people in it, or people moving up and down the street. Any activity at this time of night would appear suspicious. If we suspect the pick-up point to be unsafe or compromised in any way, we send a signal to Eric that we are activating our alternative plan.
Mikkel and I park in a dark corner of a small open space. We cannot see the pick-up point from here but we are fewer than 15 seconds from it. Every fifth minute we receive an “all okay” message from the minibus, and as we near the pick-up time, it reports over the radio: “Minus two minutes to pick-up. All okay. We are continuing.” It then leaves the area to wait further along the route that leads us back to the base.
Precisely 30 seconds before the agreed time I start the car, and 15 seconds later I put it in gear and drive to the pick-up point. Eric steps out of the dark bang on time, to the second. Had it not been for his way of walking, I never would have recognized him in the local clothing and with his big beard. I stop in front of him, he gets in and sits in the backseat, says “thank you” and reports that tonight’s meeting has been extremely rewarding.
Eric is an astute type with a dry sense humor, which I find entertaining. He does not participate much in our “ass and tits talk,” and he is not accustomed to being surrounded by a bunch of energetic, restless Jaegers. I think it is a bit strenuous for him at times. We get along well though and often talk, eat together and watch movies with each other.
I have a fair amount of one-on-one time with Eric, who tells me about his fascinating and unusual life. He is very pleased at the moment, because one of his informants is an absolute goldmine. He believes the source has so much valuable information that he is making history in his field. Many of his international competitors have expressed great admiration and recognition for his work.
The intensity of our work with Eric fluctuates. During some periods we are making trips every evening and night, while at other times nothing much happens. It depends entirely on Eric’s sources. Typically, they can meet only at certain times and we just have to yield to that.
We have no problems staying focussed. We know Afghanistan is a dangerous place and that we must remain disciplined when we are solving tasks in the city at night. We must under no circumstances drop our concentration levels or underestimate the abilities of the Taliban or al-Qaida. Four Canadian soldiers were recently killed not far from here. They had been speaking with local children when a suicide bomber on a bicycle came up. Several children were also killed.
Even though we operate undercover, there is no guarantee that the enemy cannot hit us. He is out there, albeit not always visible to the naked eye. Calm circumstances can suddenly transform into a battle field. A single rotten informant can lead us into an ambush. In our soft cars and with our limited fire power, we have poor chances of survival.
Last year, a British team similar to us from the Special Boat Service (SBS), ran into an ambush in a city not far from where we are. Two of the five men died and one was critically wounded. And a couple of months after our departure, a number of Taliban fighters disguised as Afghan government forces managed to enter one of the city’s bigger hotels, where Eric has a lot of his meetings and security seems good, armed with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades. One of them was wearing a vest full of explosives, which he detonated in the hotel lobby. Six to eight people were killed and a higher number injured.
Beyond the trips with Eric, we pass the days at our base sleeping, eating, jogging, lifting weights, playing volleyball and shooting. We drive into the mountains and set up cans and other improvised goals. Then, like a bunch of shirtless rednecks, we let rip with our guns and carbines. We appreciate the absence of restrictions and rules.
Now and then, we get the opportunity to drive to the city during the day in our armoured Land Cruisers. We normally do it in civilian clothing, but of course carrying weapons and wearing bullet-proof vests. The many western NGO’s in their four-wheel drive vehicles are prominent in the city, so we do not attract a great deal of attention.
The last time I experienced city life in Afghanistan was in Kabul under the Taliban regime with all its horror and oppression. No longer do I see corpses hanging from lampposts, patrolling black-clad Taliban, or people being beaten with clubs. It pleases me to see kites dancing above the city roofs, children playing and eating ice cream, smiling beardless men buying grilled kebabs from the many small booths, to hear music from shops and cars, and to see women with children shopping in the colorful markets. On the whole, I sense a mood of reconciliation and hope for the secure future that I wish upon these people.
My last mission in Afghanistan becomes yet another dog rescue.
Some time ago, a female American officer found an eight week old puppy in a far corner of the base. It was lying on the edge of the landing strip and smeared with tar. She saved it and got it back on its feet. When she had to return home, I offered to take care of Kaja, as we named her.
This complicates a few practicalities for me. Especially when I decide that she must come to Denmark, where I have found a home for her. First, I have to bribe a Greek veterinary doctor with dollars, gin and vodka to vaccinate her and do the necessary paperwork. She cannot travel with me on the specialized aircraft taking me home, so I donate six bottles of red wine to an obliging Danish soldier, who assumes responsibility for transporting her in a homebuilt travel box with a Turkish airliner. Finally, a Turkish captain with a big grin on his face has to be bribed with a fine bottle of Scotch whiskey before letting the dog onboard against all regulations.
Kaja is hard to hide though. Despite two powerful tranquilisers, she barks and howls in her box on the Danish soldier’s lap. No one onboard doubts that something unauthorised is going on. But Kaja makes it to Copenhagen, where she is smuggled through customs in the bottom of a bag and quickly whisked away by her new owners to her new home in Vejle.
I am myself replaced after another successful mission.
Eric is not replaced. He continues his lonely job undercover in the anonymous secret agent world.
Read the rest of Jaeger: At War with Denmark’s Elite Special Forces today!