Mustafa Karami had not slept well the night before. The old nightmares returned. He awoke in a cold sweat, walked over to the window and looked out on the quiet London night. The image in his mind barely faded. He could still see the Soviet Hind Gunship bearing down. He could feel the sharp pain as the lead ripped through his leg shattering his bones. He tasted the dirt crawling, his body pressed to the ground, through the underbrush away from the Soviet outpost after the attack failed. He remembered the sound of the copter blades as the ship made a wide arc for another pass. In his mind, he saw the American Colonel running across the open field, zigzagging as the gunship peppered the ground around him. The vision ended suddenly as he had passed out from loss of blood just as Reinhardt reached him.
In the morning, he asked the Pakistani cook to prepare a proper English brunch for his guests. After preparing the food, he gave the staff the day off for he never fully trusted the men and women who worked for him. What he would say to the General was best said in private without anyone around who could understand Pashtun. Earlier in the week, he had the house swept of electronic devices. Two had been found, one on the phone line and another in the sitting room.
“You knew Mustafa from when you fought with the Mujahedeen, didn’t you?” She asked as they rode over in the cab the next morning.
“We fought the Russians there using proxies. I think President Kelly was a romantic. He’d probably seen Gunga Din a hundred times. And the others, the Texas oil men allied with Vice President Sanders, saw the possibility of gaining access to Central Asian oil once the Soviets lost control of the territory. Their dream was a pipeline across the country, over the mountains, to Pakistan and the world beyond. The Secretaries of State and Defense wanted to drain the Soviet swamp, robbing them of money and men by keeping the low intensity war that the Mujahedeen had been fighting for a couple of years going. It was payback for Vietnam and Russian support for the North.”
“Mustafa”, she asked.
“He was an elder in the largest Pashtun tribe living in the frontier region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a political leader, not a military commander, one of the seven groups based in Peshawar recognized by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.”
“And your job Helmut?”
“Make sure they faced the Russians, not faced off against each other.”
“America provided the weapons and supplies to keep them fighting. Did you have to fight?”
“They would have preferred that I didn’t, but you know me Kate. There are men alive now, who should be dead, because of what I did. One life I saved I regret saving.”
“It was dangerous. Weren’t you scared?”
“Sometimes, but honestly, war is strangely invigorating. The helicopter gunships, the Hinds, were deadly, and what they lacked in precision, they made up for in sheer volume of lead. They could destroy a whole village in less than five minutes. My job was to train the Afghans and the Arab recruits in guerilla tactics, and in the use of the Stinger missiles Kelly agreed to supply once he was convinced that the best way to drive the Russians into the tank was to draw them in and raise the costs of their involvement in Afghanistan. The cost to the Soviets of playing the Great Game, as the British called it in Central Asia, turned out to be enormous and I was a part of that effort, a bit part too. I also built several hidden supply depots close to the battlefields and organized supply routes. All in all, I was there for about three years between 1982 and 1985.”
“The first night,” she said thinking about when they’d first known they could be lovers, not close cousins only, “when you came back late from that meeting at the White House, what happened that upset you?”
“It was 1988, after the peace had been signed in Geneva earlier in the year. I was ordered by the President to return to Pakistan and break the news to the Mujahidin that America was pulling out. I had to undo our relationship, cut off their oxygen stopping the supply of weapons and money. We walked away and Ibrahim and the Taliban walked in.”
“What happened afterwards?”
“The war dragged on for another four years. The government knew how to fight, but the various resistance groups also didn’t trust each other. So when the government in Kabul failed, it was a free for all. By leaving when we did, we opened the door to religious fanatics. The Taliban and Ibrahim moved into the void we left. Mistakes we made then fed Ibrahim’s hatred of all things American. We have been fighting in one way or another in that country now for almost thirty years because of Kelly’s failure to do a bit of nation building.”
“Didn’t you warn them that would happen?”
“I argued for hours. They didn’t understand the risks. Kelly wanted to find a way to show flexibility and to reward the Russians for pulling out peacefully. The Geneva conference allowed the Russians a graceful withdrawal. So, we pulled out of the Great Game strategy leaving the intrigues to the Pakistani ISI and the Saudi’s with their extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism. This left the Saudi funded religious fanatics in the strongest position among the Groups that had been fighting the Soviets, the Taliban, from talib or student in Pashtun. . I warned Kelly that if we left, then the Taliban would ultimately end up in control the country. They thought that America’s influence with the Saudi’s was enough to control this faction. But the Saudi’s had created the Taliban in their own image of what Islam should be, Wahhabism morphed into an even more extreme form of the Religion and once the Russians pulled out, they were the strongest fight faction. I tried to get them to see that we no longer could depend upon Ibrahim and his Saudi pay masters, that he hated the Saudi’s as much as he hated us. The Vice President, old H.W. Sanders, he thought differently. He saw it through the prism of oil and America’s Saudi connections. He was wrong.”
The cab stopped at the beautiful old Mayfair mansion. Taking Kate’s arm, directed her up the stairs and to the heavy wood door.
Mustafa opened the door leading them into the well-appointed living room decorated in the English style including hunting scenes on the wall. He poured three glasses of wine, but left his untouched. He was becoming a better Muslim, as he grew older.
“You’re cousins?” Mustafa asked Kate. He remembered the way they had danced together last evening.
“Yes, but not blood relations.”
Mustafa smiled. He thought of the General as a machine, but it was clear there was at least one soft spot. It was vulnerability, a chink in the great man’s armor. There are men who might pay for that insight.
The food was quite good. Fruits brought all the way from Africa in the European winter. The brunch lasted a long time, the conversation a mixture of English sprinkled with asides in Pashtun and even Arabic. Kate watched as Reinhardt’s face brightened remembering those years.
Kate stood up suddenly; she had been sitting quietly far too long. “Your restroom, please, where is it?”
Mustafa stood up, with some difficulty, and walked her down the hallway. When he returned, he poured another glass of wine for Reinhardt and stared at the General. What he was about to say, even said in Pashtun, and was dangerous.
“I have a message from an old friend,” Mustafa said, leaning towards Reinhardt.
“I have many old friends,” Reinhardt tensed.
“This old friend is the one you once called ‘brother’.”
“So Hassan is well?” Reinhardt’s pulse raced thinking about the man who Ibrahim had sent with him on that mountain road so long ago to be his eyes and ears. Hassan didn’t disappear like Ibrahim into the wilds of the Northwest Territories, but rather he went back to Qatar and established himself as a businessman, banker, and all around philanthropist. But Reinhardt knew that he had a deep seeded hatred for Western secularism, but hid it behind a façade of wealth, power, and an ever changing number of beautiful women. But intelligence suggested that he was the secret face and financial force behind Al Qaeda and even other Islamic groups. He was the man with the money and the knowhow to get things done, even profit from foreknowledge too.
“He wishes to seek common ground on which you both can stand together again. He sees the present conflict between the West and the Islamic world as unwinnable by either side. He wants to seek a solution and he wishes to meet with you.”
Reinhardt didn’t show any outward emotion, yet, inside, his heart pounded. Seeing Mustafa again, after so many years, had awakened in him thoughts of a past long buried. Who was better placed to find a solution that could end the terror than one who had been there at the start? Yet he sensed a trap. Hassan could have easily picked up a phone and called him to meet in public. There was something more to this, something that spoke of greater danger than a quiet reunion between old comrades in arms.
“Why now? Hassan is a public figure, we could meet easily in Doha or London even, why the secrecy. If I agree to the meeting,” Reinhardt answered carefully, keeping his voice low and speaking in Pashtun, “how can arrangements be made?”
“If you agree to a meeting, then send me a bottle of 100 year old port,” Mustafa had a fine collection of rare, aged, after dinner wines. “After that, we will find a way to meet you in a place and time of our choosing.”
Reinhardt and Kate were late arriving at the Ashley Arms. Sarah was certain that Reinhardt had backed out, but Ted was confident. Thirty minutes later, they showed up full of excuses.
“I’m sorry,” Reinhardt shook Ted’s hand firmly, “some calls from Washington just have to be returned.” He leaned over and kissed Sarah warmly on both cheeks, as if she were an old friend.
“We lunched with an old gentleman from Helmut’s days in Afghanistan. They spoke too much in Pashtun and, of course I couldn’t understand a word. I fell asleep when we returned to the hotel, and by the time I woke up, we were already late.” Kate said laughing as she sat down. She felt comfortable with these people. They were the first of Helmut’s “friends” that she had she’d met. “I tried to hurry him, but you know the General, always talking on the phone.”
“Mustafa,” Ted asked.
“I didn’t know you knew him Ted?”
“I met him two years ago before going to Kabul for some interviews just before the last elections there.”
After seemingly endless small talk, recounting how each couple had first met, Sarah tried to turn the conversation back to the present.
“What are your plans, now that you you’re out of the government, General?”
“Sarah,” Reinhardt said with a slight edge to his voice, “I plan to talk sense to the rabble, or to incite them, depending upon your politics.”
“Some of your recent speeches were, how best to say it,” she smiled, “just a bit over the top, don’t you think?”
“Well what did you think of the farewell address, Sarah?”
“It was a highly rational analysis. I was impressed.”
She had spirit and wasn’t afraid to take him on. He liked that about her. “The Lady, as they call her, has no clear concept of who she’s fighting. People pay me to give them the unvarnished truth as I see it. Isn’t that right, Ted?”
“Don’t draw me into this, Helmut,” Ted raised his hands in defense, “some of your words are a bit to the right of where I always believed you stood on issues.”
“Pandering isn’t anything new in political candidates,” he said with a laugh thinking about the last Republican who ran for office.
“I’ve met Judith Wilson,” Sarah answered struggling to find the right words, “and I think you’re selling her short, General. She’ll be just as strong in her defense of America as any of the last Secretaries of Defense.”
“Perhaps, you’re right,” Reinhardt studied the menu. “What’s good here, Ted?”
“I prefer the French side of the menu; the right’s more meat and potatoes man, General.”
“No, Ted, Helmut appreciates good food,” he laughed breaking the tension that had built up. For the rest of the evening they behaved like old friends, two couples who had both discovered love again after many years of hesitation and doubt. They avoided talking politics and choose instead to stick to stories of their own lives. Towards the end of the evening, as they were getting ready to leave, Ted asked a question he had been hesitating to ask all evening.
“I asked you this before, Helmut, and I think it’s worth asking again. What do you know about Project NorthStar? It will be completely off the record, no attribution, just the honest truth.”
“It was a disaster. We launched the satellite; it failed to reach a stable orbit, and it had to be destroyed. It burned up in the atmosphere.”
“Its purpose?,” Ted probed.
“That was, and is, highly classified, but I think it’s safe to say that we were trying to gain technological advantage from the intercept of cell phone communications on the cheap.”
“It wasn’t part of the new offensive strategy? Forrestal hinted in 2001 that they were looking to develop offensive capabilities for warfare in space and from space.”
“No,” Reinhardt said with a laugh, “they didn’t have the balls to follow through. Lots of talk, many studies; in the end they had no guts to contravene the UN Treaty against placing weapons in space. Oh, I’ll admit, we studied it. When I was in charge of Systems Command I headed up groups looking into things we could do in space, but nothing that actually went bang.”
Reinhardt stood up, he had insisted on paying for the meal.
“I must say, Rothstein, it was a fine evening. Sarah, despite your reputation as a dangerous woman, I do like you.” Then, he added more seriously, “I hope the next time you mention my name, you’ll think of me as an old warrior who is, perhaps, hopelessly patriotic and quite worried about the future of our country.”
Sarah hugged Kate first. She approached Reinhardt as he was putting on his coat, and whispered in his ear, “it’s only a matter of time, Helmut, before we find out the real story of NorthStar and I don’t think it was a failed communications intercept satellite.”
“Sometimes,” Reinhardt as he walked towards the door with Kate on his arm, “the truth is best forgotten.”