Authors: Stephen Leather
By Stephen Leather
Shepherd shifted position slightly, trying to ease the pressure from the rocks
beneath him and the ammo belt pressing into his chest. He lay prone, scanning
the terrain through his sniperscope. A rough dirt road ran along the foot of
the hillside below their observation post, leading to the village away to the
east, a cluster of mud-brick buildings, surrounded by terraced fields, thick
with the vivid pink blooms of opium poppies. The heat was ferocious, rising in
waves from the stony hillside around them, while high above vultures were
circling on the thermals, the feathers at their wingtips extended like claws as
they flexed in the updraft. Shepherd could feel beads of sweat trickling down
his brow, the salt and the moisture attracting still more of the flies that had
been buzzing around them since they set up the OP.
‘Instead of lying
there scratching your arse, Geordie,’ Shepherd said. ‘Can you not use your
ninja skills to catch a few of these bloody flies?’
lying next to him on the rock ledge, gave him a sideways look. ‘No chance,’ he
said. ‘Your flies, your problem.’ He was in his early thirties but looked
older. His pale blue eyes seemed as sun-faded as his fatigues and the stress of
continual active service had etched deep lines into his face.
attracted to rancid smells,’ Jock McIntyre said in the gruff Scottish growl
that made every sentence sound like a declaration of war. ‘So it’s not
surprising they’ve gone for you.’ His round face and open features gave him a
guileless look that had led many to underestimate him. It was a dangerous
mistake to make for he was as hard as Aberdonian granite.
‘Anyway, pal,’ he said. ‘Look on the
bright side: if they’re buzzing round you, at least they’re leaving us alone.’
The fourth member
of the group, Lex Harper, a Para who acted as Shepherd’s spotter - part
target-spotter, part-bodyguard - whenever he was on sniper ops, smiled to
himself but didn’t join the banter, keeping his gaze ranging over the terrain,
alert for any movement or anything out of place.
himself again, gently placing his sniper rifle on the rock. He’d already zeroed
the rifle and scope but the least knock could throw it off a fraction of an
inch which would be more than enough to turn a kill into a miss.
Mitchell gave a
theatrical sigh. ‘You’re so precious with that bloody rifle it’s a wonder you
don’t raise your pinkie when you fire it.’
‘You’d be precious with
it, if I was ever dumb enough to trust it to you,’ he said.
‘It’s state of the art kit and it cost
the Regiment well over £20,000 but it’s worth every penny. I could drill you a
new arsehole from a mile and a half away with it.’
‘For fuck’s sake
don’t do that,’ McIntyre said. ‘He does enough farts with the one he’s already
got. I don’t think I could stand them in stereo.’
Mitchell chuckled. Banter and swearing was the norm in the Regiment – it
was the glue that bound them together.
Shepherd put the
spotter scope back to his eye. A temporary checkpoint had been set up on the
road directly below them, manned by two Afghan troops and four of Harper’s
mates from the Para Support Group, who always supported the Regiment on ops.
The site for the checkpoint had been
well chosen. It was set in dead ground, where the road dipped down to ford a
river that had been a torrent of snow melt in the spring, but was now as dry
and lifeless as the landscape around it. Hidden in the dip, the checkpoint was
invisible to people approaching from either direction until they were almost
upon it. If, as the Intelligence suggested, Taliban insurgents were planning a
raid on the village to kill or kidnap the local headman, they would have no
more than a few seconds warning of the checkpoint and no time to take evasive
action. If they then tried to shoot it out, they would be cut down in the cross
fire from the SAS and Para Support Group troops on either side, or the close
air support that they could call on.
So far only a few
men on foot and a handful of vehicles - and most of those were farm carts - had
passed along the road. Mitchell yawned. ‘Quiet out there, Tonto.’
‘Too quiet, Kemo
Sabi,’ McIntyre said.
As they watched
and waited in the OP, an old man passed through the checkpoint, herding a small
flock of scrawny goats, followed a few minutes later by a peddler with a donkey
cart piled with cooking pots, bowls and water vessels, cut and hammered out of
scrap metal. Shepherd noticed the faint markings on one large bowl and nudged
Mitchell. ‘Look at that,’ he said. ‘We’re fighting a war that even
environmentalists would approve of - the muj are recycling the bombs the Yanks
drop on them.’
‘The VC used to
do something similar in Vietnam,’ said Mitchell. ‘They turned shell casings
into lamps for their underground bases. Waste not, want not.’
Two Afghan men
carrying AK47s provoked a brief heightening of tension as they approached the
checkpoint, but it was far from an unusual sight - every Afghan male carried a
weapon of some sort - and after being searched they were allowed through the
cordon and walked on towards the village.
The road was now
empty save for a heavily pregnant woman in a faded blue burqa, carrying a
bundle wrapped in a shawl in her arms, and making her slow way on foot along
the road towards the checkpoint. Shepherd’s gaze had moved on, scanning the
area relentlessly, eyes never still, always searching for potential
Then the hairs on the
back of his neck stood up. ‘Hold it. An Afghan woman traveling alone?’ he said.
‘Something’s not right.’
his gaze. ‘Doesn’t walk like a woman either.’
The woman –
if it was a woman - was now close to the checkpoint.
Shepherd’s shoulder and gestured back along the track. Shepherd shot a glance
that way and saw that a Toyota pick-up had appeared on the brow of the hill a
mile and a half away. The pick-up stopped but the engine was still running
because they could see the blue-grey haze from its exhaust. The driver was
making no move to continue along the road. Shepherd swung his scope onto it.
Four figures were visible in the back of the pick-up, the barrels of their
weapons outlined against the lapis blue of the sky. As he peered into the
shadowed cab of the pick-up, Shepherd saw twin discs of reflected light as the
man in the passenger seat trained binoculars towards the checkpoint ahead.
Shepherd barked into his throat mic.
‘Abort! Abort! Abort! Suicide bomber!’
The guards at the
checkpoint started to shout as they swung up their weapons, but the figure had
now almost reached them. Shepherd was already on auto-pilot, running through a
sequence of actions so often practised that they were almost instinctive. The
head of the burqa-clad figure now filled Shepherd’s sniperscope - only a head-shot
would stop a bomber triggering a device. He took up the first pressure on the
trigger, but even as he exhaled, squeezed the trigger home and felt the recoil,
he saw that he was too late.
micro-second before the shot, the burqa-clad figure’s had slapped against its
chest and in that instant, there was a blinding flash. A moment later Shepherd
heard the thunder-clap of an explosion and the shock wave swept over them in a
whirlwind of dust and dirt. There was the whine and whirr of shrapnel fragments
overhead and then the spattering sound of softer, human debris falling to earth
his head. The site of the checkpoint was now as blood-soaked as a halal
butcher’s yard. A pall of oily smoke was rising from a crater in the centre of
the dirt road where the burqa-clad figure had been standing when the device
detonated. The man – for Shepherd had no doubt that it had been man
passing himself off as a woman - had disappeared completely, with only a few
shreds of blood-stained and smoke-blackened blue fabric to show he had ever
existed. The troops who had been manning the checkpoint were sprawled around
the crater, their bodies contorted into unnatural positions by the force of the
blast. The two men who had been closest to the bomber were so mangled as to be
almost unrecognisable as human. Partially shielded by their dead comrades, the
four others were still alive - so far at least - but all were wounded. Shepherd
knew that suicide bombers routinely packed shards of steel, sharp stones and
fragments of broken glass around their devices to increase the carnage from the
blast. All the men were bleeding badly, one with blood pumping in spurts from
the stump that was all that was now left of his right arm. Nearby, the severed
limb was dangling obscenely from the branch of a stunted acacia tree.
In his earpiece,
Shepherd heard Mitchell, the patrol medic, calling in a casevac as he broke
cover and sprinted down the hillside towards the bomb-site, where the Paras’
own medic was already working frantically to tie a tourniquet around what was
left of the soldier’s arm.
his rifle back towards the brow of the ridge, and caught a glimpse of the
pick-up as it reversed back out of sight. He squeezed off a quick shot but he
was at maximum range and with no time to aim it would have been a miracle if he
had hit the target. A moment later he saw a cloud of dust billowing above the
ridgeline as the driver span the pick-up around and raced away.
already hear McIntyre in his earpiece, calling in an air-strike on the pick-up,
but he knew that the response, whether a Warthog - an A10 Thunderbolt with a
rotary cannon that could spit out almost 4,000 rounds a minute
- or a stub-winged Blackhawk firing
chain guns and Hellfire missiles ,would take four or five minutes to reach the
area. By then the Taliban killers who had sent the suicide bomber to his death
would already have hidden their vehicle from sight in some cover or abandoned
it and gone to ground.
They saw the
distinctive shape of a Warthog in the sky to the west a few minutes later but
there were no rumbles of explosions nor bursts of distant cannon-fire; the
Taliban had obviously made good their escape.
The helis arrived
soon afterwards to casevac the dead and wounded. Shepherd and his team helped
to load them onto the casevac helis and then clambered into the Chinook that
would fly them back to the base at Bagram. Bagram was home to more than seven
thousand troops, most of them American, housed in huge tented compounds.
And while the area surrounding the base
was nominally controlled by the coalition forces, it still came under daily
As soon as they
landed back at Bagram they went into an immediate debrief with Major Allan
Gannon who had been in overall charge of the operation.
Gannon was a big man with a strong
chin, his hair bleached from the unrelenting Afghan sun.
He was in his shirtsleeves and had a
black and white checked keffiyeh scarf tied loosely around his neck as he led
the debrief in the windowless, underground briefing room, its air-conditioning
a welcome respite from the furnace heat of the Afghan summer.
As the others
focussed on the implications of the Taliban’s new tactic of disguising suicide
bombers in burqas, Shepherd found himself thinking through the sequence of
events he had witnessed. As he did so, he felt a growing sense of unease. ‘How
did they know?’ he said eventually.
frowned. ‘How did they know what?’ he asked.
‘It wasn’t a
regular checkpoint,’ said Shepherd.
‘We’d never had troops there before and we hadn’t been in position for
more than an hour. So how did the Taliban know we were there?
They don’t have suicide bombers
wandering around the countryside on the off chance they’ll bump into a patrol
or a checkpoint. They target them at places where they know troops will be.’
in agreement, his face still blood-spattered from working on the casualties.
‘So the intel was
planted?’ said the Major. ‘They lured our boys out there to blow them up?’
‘Or the op was
bubbled,’ Shepherd said. ‘Compromised before it had even started. Either way,
there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.’
‘It’s not the
first time either,’ said Mitchell.
everything’s being bubbled at the moment,’ said The Major. ‘It looks as if all
our air and ground movements are being monitored.’
surprising,’ McIntyre growled, ‘given the small army of domestics, barbers,
cleaners, washers up, dhobi wallahs, chai wallahs, et bloody cetera, that we
have hanging around the base.’
‘You’re not wrong
there,’ said Mitchell. ‘There are fucking hundreds of them kicking around
Bagram. No one notices them, they’re just part of the furniture, which makes it
all the easier for them to pick up information and pass it on to the Taliban.
It’ll only take someone to leave a memory stick lying around and they’ll have
the crown jewels.’
‘But our ops are
getting compromised too’ Shepherd said. ‘And our compound is a self-contained,
sterile zone. We don’t have any domestics because we do our own chores, so
whatever the source of today’s compromise, it didn’t come from us.’ He looked
over the Major. ‘I think you’re right, Boss. I think they’re clocking our
flights in and out.’