On the ground in Kabul, Malko reconnects with an old flame and hires a South African mercenary to assist with his mission. But Malko doesn't know whom he can trust. His every move is monitored by President Karzai's entourage, Taliban leaders, a seductive American journalist--and a renegade within the CIA itself. Before he can pull off his plan, Malko is kidnapped and nearly killed. When he finally manages to escape, he finds himself alone and running for his life in a hostile city.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The sun was just rising when the Qatar Airways flight from Islamabad landed at the Doha airport. It was 6:03 a.m. The plane had taken off from Pakistan a little more than three and a half hours earlier.
There were now four flights a week on a brand-new Airbus between the capitals of Pakistan and Qatar. This was a big improvement over Pakistan International Airlines’ old puddle jumpers and their haphazard schedules. As a result, the plane was full of Paki- stanis, rich businessmen and poor job seekers. The Qatari rarely traveled to Pakistan. With only a quarter of a million native-born citizens, Qatar focused on exploiting its gas reserves and the one and a half million Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, and Bengalis who did the work that kept the country running.
One of the first passengers to reach the immigration counter was a young man with a neatly trimmed beard wearing an ill- fitting suit, no tie, and a brown coat. He was tall and thin, with a shock of black hair, a prominent nose, high cheekbones, and a sharp, heavy-lidded gaze.
The Pakistani passport he handed the Qatari immigration officer was in the name of Gulbuddin Askari, businessman from Quetta, in Baluchistan.
“Where are you staying, sir?” asked the officer.
“At the Four Seasons,” the traveler answered in excellent Arabic. A rich businessman, then. Located on the corniche along West Bay, the Four Seasons was the best hotel on the peninsula. The immigration agent smartly stamped Askari’s passport. Wealth was appreciated in Qatar. Besides, the black crocodile leather attaché case the Pakistani was carrying showed definite class.
Pulling a small roller suitcase, the man calling himself Gulbud- din Askari made for the taxi stand, yawning widely. He was short of sleep. He’d come from Quetta the evening before and slept only three hours in a small hotel near the Islamabad airport before getting up at one thirty in the morning for his flight. He barely noticed downtown Doha’s skyscrapers glittering in the morning sun.
At the Four Seasons, Askari was grateful to reach his room. The first thing he did was to unfold a small prayer rug, face Mecca, and spend a long time praying. Then he got undressed, took a shower, and stretched out on the bed.
His meeting wasn’t until that evening, but it was essential that he be clearheaded. His soul at peace after a fervent prayer, he quickly fell asleep.
The fuselage of the private Grumman jet bore no markings beyond “Brown & Root, Inc.” in small blue letters above the airstairs. The plane landed at Doha airport at 5:45 p.m., twenty minutes ahead of the flight plan given to the Qatari authorities. A business flight from Dallas, with a refueling stop in Madrid.
Besides the crew, there were two men on board. On landing, they handed the immigration service American passports in the names of Carl Gorman and James Ganlento. A pair of ordinary businessmen, a little weary after their seven-thousand-mile trip.
Less than an hour later, they were settling into their rooms—at the Four Seasons.
At 7:30 p.m., Askari appeared at the entrance of the bar and was immediately spotted by the two Americans. The white-haired man calling himself Ganlento stood and approached him.
The men exchanged a long handshake. They had already met three times before, and they liked each other.
“I’ve reserved a private dining room in the Fortuna,” said Ganlento. “Shall we go there, or would you like to have a drink here first?”
“Let’s go to the restaurant,” said Askari. He didn’t drink alcohol and was uncomfortable in public spaces with scantily dressed foreign women.
The men headed for the Italian restaurant, the pride of the Four Seasons. Their table was already set, with wine, mineral water, and fruit juices. Before sitting down, Ganlento turned to his companion.
“Carl, I’d like you to meet Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar. He’s a member of the shura in Quetta and has Mullah Omar’s full trust.”
He then turned to the young Pakistani.
“Mullah Beradar, this is Carl. I’m not authorized to reveal his identity, but I can say that he has come from Washington especially to meet you. He’s very close to the president and is here on his behalf.”
The two men shook hands. The white-haired man—who was actually Clayton Luger, the CIA deputy director in charge of clandestine operations—gestured toward the dining table. The men sat down and helped themselves to drinks. Luger had asked the restau- rant that they not be disturbed and had a silent buzzer under the table to summon the waiter.
Luger now turned his blue eyes to the mullah. He was a big man, taller even than the young Afghan, and his white hair inspired respect.
“Who on your side knows about this meeting?” he asked.
“I was sent by Mullah Omar himself. Nobody in the supreme shura knows about it.”
“What about the Pakistanis?”
Beradar hesitated slightly before answering. It was an open secret that the Taliban’s Quetta assembly was carefully monitored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It was even said that an ISI officer sat in on all its meetings.
“They know I’m here, of course,” he admitted.
“What do you plan to tell them?”
“That I came here to meet some Americans to ask that the drone strikes in the tribal areas be stopped, as part of an eventual accord. They know that this is under discussion.”
Luger nodded approvingly. It was a credible cover story. As the CIA deputy director, he was in charge of the supposedly clandestine program of killing al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders with drone strikes. The program cost far less than traditional military opera- tions, produced better results, and was strongly endorsed by the White House. President Obama never hesitated to sign an executive order in support of the operations, though unofficially they didn’t exist.
With the Pakistan question resolved to the two Americans’ sat- isfaction, the men started on their appetizers.
They had chosen to meet in Doha instead of Dubai because the ISI didn’t have a network here, whereas the Pakistanis were particularly well informed in Dubai. Given what was to come, it was essential that no one know of National Security Advisor John Mulligan’s presence here.
Mullah Beradar had finished his plate of fried vegetables, and Luger gave him time to drink some mango juice before asking, “What’s your opinion of the Chantilly meeting a few weeks ago?”
At the initiative of the French government, representatives of various factions in the Afghan conflict had met in a Chantilly hotel for informal talks in late December 2012. They included representatives of the Quetta Taliban, the Massoud Tajiks, the Afghan government, and the Karzai opposition, but no one from the Haqqani network, and no Pakistanis or Uzbeks. The goal had been to find a way to resolve the conflict without too much damage.
“We didn’t make much progress,” Beradar said with a frown. “There were two main sticking points: the withdrawal of coalition troops—”
“We have made progress there,” Luger pointed out.
The Pashtun smiled. “Yes, but only between ourselves. Nothing official.”
“We have given you our word that we will leave by the end of 2014,” insisted Luger. “We will keep our promises.”
“I can confirm that for the White House,” said Mulligan, breaking his silence.
“I don’t doubt you,” the mullah said smoothly. “But what if President Karzai asks that some troops stay after 2014? You would find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.”
A silence followed, eventually broken by Clayton Luger.
“President Karzai can’t run in the presidential elections set for April 2014,” he said. “He’ll be out of the game.”
Mullah Beradar shook his head, smiling. “We don’t trust Karzai. That was the second point raised at the Chantilly meeting. As long as that man is around, we can’t foresee any agreement. He’ll either rig the election or run one of his loyalists, who will then do whatever Karzai says.”
“Why do you hate him so much?” asked Luger. “After all, he’s a Pashtun like you, from the Popolzai tribe in Kandahar.”
“Hamid Karzai is a corrupt man and a traitor,” said the mullah sharply. “If he doesn’t leave in time, he will wind up like Shah Shujah.”
That was the worst insult anyone could hurl at an Afghan. Shujah had been put on the throne by the British occupiers of Afghanistan in 1839. When the foreign troops left, the Afghans lynched him. Forever after, he was seen as the model of a traitor to his country.
“You’re very hard on Karzai,” said the CIA deputy director with a slight smile. “He isn’t our unconditional ally. After all, he’s the one who stopped the coalition offensive in Kandahar in 2010. It would have done you tremendous damage.”
Beradar grimaced scornfully. “Karzai is a good tactician. He pretends your leash on him is longer than it really is. He also tries to appease us. But we aren’t fooled. He knows that nothing can happen in Afghanistan without us. He is a weak, hypocritical man, which you yourself recognize.”
Luger went back on the offensive. “President Karzai has his faults, but I don’t think he wants to see a bloodbath in Afghanistan.”
“We don’t either,” said the mullah, “and we aren’t trying to seize complete power. All we want is our legitimate place at the table.”
“I can understand that,” said Luger cheerfully. “And now I think it’s time to tackle our dinner.”
He pressed the hidden buzzer, and in moments, two Pakistani waiters came to clear the appetizer plates and bring in the entrées. When they did, the three diners were in an innocuous discussion about the fall in Kabul real estate prices caused by the many foreign companies leaving ahead of the coalition’s imminent departure.
The dinner plates had long since been cleared, but the men hadn’t touched the dessert, an excellent tiramisu. The mullah, because it contained alcohol; the two Americans, because they were focused on their topic.
The meeting had been difficult to arrange, and it had to pro- duce results. But they were going around in circles. The mullah kept dodging, coming back to his usual positions. His two interloc- utors were becoming visibly annoyed.
“We aren’t enemies, as you know very well,” Mullah Beradar reminded them. “In 2000 we were the ones who responded to your request to eradicate poppy farming. It was the Taliban’s way of showing that we were reliable partners.”
The national security advisor looked at his watch.
“I’m very sorry, but we have to take off in an hour at the latest,” he said. “I have a meeting with the president in Washington tomor- row morning. I came here to try to find an area of agreement.
“As you said, we were friends back in 2000. We can be friends again, under certain conditions. Here are ours. The first is very simple: the movement headed by Mullah Omar must formally and in writing renounce terrorism, meaning al-Qaeda.”
Beradar drew a notebook from his pocket and started taking notes.
Mulligan continued. “The second point is just as important: Afghanistan post-Karzai must remain an Islamic republic, not an Islamic caliphate, even if the Taliban movement participates in political life.
“We very much hope to have a candidate who will bring about some national unity between the Pashtuns and the former members of the Northern Alliance. This will avoid bloody clashes between Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns. We aren’t asking to partic- ipate in the elections, only to vet the candidates who represent your way of thinking.
“In exchange, we are willing to take Mullah Omar off our blacklist. What do you think?”
Mullah Beradar finished taking notes and looked up. “That’s not a very generous offer,” he said in a neutral tone. “But can you agree to the main points?” asked Mulligan. “I don’t think there’s anything unacceptable in your plan,” said the cleric. “But you haven’t mentioned one thing: How many soldiers would you be leaving in Afghanistan after 2014? You know that the presence of foreign troops is a red flag for us.”
Mulligan was unruffled.
“The president now feels that six thousand troops would be enough to continue training the ANA”—the Afghan National Army.
“That’s still too many,” said Beradar, shaking his head. “There can’t be any troops left in the country.”
“This is something that can be discussed,” said Mulligan. “Let’s be clear. I know you don’t have the military strength to seize Kabul or any of the big provincial cities, even if coalition forces aren’t present. But the U.S. doesn’t want to see a terrorism campaign launched right after our departure. It would make us lose face.”
“I understand,” said the mullah, smiling amiably. “But you haven’t addressed the Karzai issue. The engagements we have reached can be enacted, but only on one condition: that Hamid Karzai is no longer part of the Afghan landscape, in any capacity.”
“You commit enough attacks!” snapped the CIA deputy director. “Why don’t you eliminate Karzai, if you hate him so much?”
Mullah Beradar smiled regretfully.
“We don’t have the means,” he said. “He rarely leaves his palace, where he is very well protected. Anyway, you brought him in after the Bonn Agreement in 2001. It’s up to you to rid us of him.”
“How? We can’t very well put him on a plane and dump him in the ocean. He is the president, after all. He may have been elected by fraud, but he was elected.”
The Afghan made a vague gesture. “That is a process we don’t care to be involved in. We know that you dislike Karzai as much as we do. Even his fellow Pashtuns don’t like him. All I can say is that for Mullah Omar, this point is nonnegotiable. Karzai must be gone before any agreement between us can be reached. As long as he is in place, there’s no use having any further talks. Karzai isn’t our problem; he’s yours.”
Beradar turned to Mulligan and added, “I apologize for being so blunt, but I am expressing the will of our leader, Mullah Omar.”
A long silence followed.
Luger realized that further discussion was pointless. He forced a smile and said, “Thank you for making your position clear. We will consider the Karzai question carefully.”
Beradar stood up and the Americans followed suit. After lengthy handshakes, the three men left the private dining room. The mullah slipped away toward the elevators.
“So do you think we’ve made headway?” Mulligan asked Luger when they were alone.
The CIA deputy director nodded thoughtfully.
“I think we may have the makings of a solution here, provided we can resolve the Karzai problem. The Taliban are taking a more moderate position than they have in the past.”
Mulligan’s head jerked up in surprise.
“Moderate? They’re throwing acid at girls who want to go to school!”
“I meant moderate politically. They aren’t demanding total power. They’re prepared to leave room for the Tajiks, the Hazara, and the people who aren’t too compromised by Karzai. That could mean an almost peaceful transition.”
Another long silence followed, broken by the national security advisor.
“Clayton, do you have any ideas about how to solve the Karzai problem?”
“A few, and none of them very good. It’s a political matter that only the president can decide. But I’ll try to think of some practical solutions.”
In fact, the CIA deputy director had only one in mind, and it posed a major ethical dilemma. Since September 2001, the United States had killed many of its adversaries, including Osama bin Laden.
But never a sitting president.