January 31, 2007
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 1/31/07
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
The driver pulled his cab onto the median, checked the mirror for traffic, and stepped out of the vehicle. The honking, blinking stream of vehicles blew cold, gritty wind in his face as he walked carefully to the rear, opened the trunk and removed his tool bag. The wooden signpost on the median was sturdy, but a bolt needed to be replaced in order to straighten the advertisement for his business. Kneeling between the car and the sign post, he unzipped his tools.
The busy sounds of midday traffic washed over him. He had been a cabby in this little Afghan town for many years. He had seen the Russians and the Taliban. Now the giant US humvees rumbled down the roads in convoys with the Afghan National Army. Many things changed, but the roots of the town went deep. He knew the watching, waiting eyes of the dissatisfied, the dissolute and the desperate. He knew the very ground beneath him held the bloody memory of decades of war and faith and sacrifice. He knew that many things had not changed, and that many people would suffer before they did.
He wiped sweat fom his brow as the old, rusty, broken bolt finally came free. Dropping it into the bottom of his tool bag, he reached into his pocket for a new one. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of green and turned to see a group of Afghan soldiers in a pickup truck moving slowly across the traffic circle. A crunch on the gravel road told him someone was behind him. He stood and turned, wiping his hands on a rag. A tanned, skinny fellow in a brown jacket was trudging slowly past the cabby's parked car. The cabby called out a greeting but the man just walked on, gaze fixed on the horizon, silent and distracted. He could have been any of a dozen pedestrians on the road side that morning. Nothing about him stood out.
The cabby shrugged and returned to his work, forgetting the walker and the soldiers as he renewed his efforts. The sounds of traffic continued to hum past him and the crunch of the pedestrian's shoes faded as he moved around the traffic circle. No one saw him reach into his pocket. No one noticed his lips forming silent prayers. No one noticed anything until it was too late.
My intelligence officer finished describing the detainee's statement and sat back down, as memories of the day's events continued to unfold in my mind.
I had been on the phone with my wife. Let me rephrase that. I had been on the phone with my wife for too long. I seldom get the opportunity to call home. Even less frequently do I get the chance to talk with her for more than a minute or two. Now she was filling me in on the details of our annual tax return.
"Our deployed tax-exemption actually lowers the bracket we're in and when you add it up you get..."
The plywood walls echoed and vibrated with the deafening roar. The lightbulbs on the rafters swung, and cast wild patterns of shadow as clouds of dust leaped up from the stone floor. A plastic coffee cup detached itself from its hook on the wall and bounced painfully off my head. Everyone stood silent as the dust settled, and suddenly it was too quiet.
I murmured a subdued farewell to my wife, hung up the phone and got started. We worked tirelessly for the next several hours trying to figure things out, radio receivers pressed to our ears, cradled in our shoulders and handed back and forth. Every military agency for miles around came up on the net, as word of the totally unforseen bombing rippled outward and up the chain of command. Radio controllers and operations officers in dozens of ready-rooms, communication stations, telephone cubicles and on cell phones shared map coordinates, manifests, detailed descriptions, rumors, assumptions, misconceptions and lies. Navigating the buzzing chaos of the command net during a crisis is like panning for gold. An experienced controller learns what to keep and what to throw away.
We didn't get most of our answers until the detainee was questioned. As my initial response force arrived, they reported a terrible bombing had occurred just a few meters outside the gate of our little base. They described overturned cars, burned and dismembered bodies, choking smoke and the cries of the wounded. Initial reports placed the suicide bomber on the roadside, having exited a taxi cab seen parked on the median. The safest course was to secure the entire area, assume the parked taxi was still a threat, and capture the dizzy, stumbling cab driver as he shook his head and tried to focus his eyes.
Over the last few months, I have read the statements of a number of detainees. I have witnessed their capture and release. This man, though treated the same as any other, acted differently. He was terribly concerned for his car and his wallet. He carefully catalogued the contents of his pockets and asked for receipts to ensure the safe and accurate return of his belongings. Most detainees suspected of collaborating with the enemy don't act like that. Most have a dead stare, like that of a doll's eyes, and a general disregard for themselves or their belongings. Most act caught.
This man did not. He was shocked and panicky. He coughed and choked and rubbed his head. He cried, and repeated over and over his story about the sign that needed to be repaired and the man who walked past him and exploded. The Afghan and US intelligence community, when they were able to investigate, discovered that the car was clean. There were no signs of weapons or explosives, and eventually they released the driver. They returned his money and possessions. I think they did the right thing.
In the days that followed we discussed the bombing, while in the gym, while walking to chow, in the break area and in bed before falling asleep. In the past we had been rocketed and attacked by small arms fire, our little base had endured numerous blasts and projectiles, but never had such a grisly and totally random act of violence occurred so close to us, and made us feel so exposed. Many suspected the driver. They felt his sign-repair story was a sham and that he was a very talented liar in the employ of the enemy. I had my doubts about this. Not only did his behavior surprise me, but his story gave me hope. Maybe I'm naive, but I really wanted there to be a ruined sign among the wreckage somewhere.
The most common complaint I hear about the Afghan nation is that they don't have a stake in this war. That they lack any sense of nationalism and do not share a vision of making their country better. The driver we detained exhibited another perspective. Like a tomato plant in the desert, here was a guy who most definitely has a stake in what happens in his nation. Here was a man not only striving to make something of himself, to turn an honest dollar, but also a man willing to maintain things and ensure the upkeep of that which he was proud to have built.
I wondered about the driver's sign. I wondered if he would return eventually to replace it, or if this sad moment, yet another display of violence and outrage, would scare him away. Would it sway him to leave town and set up elsewhere? Would he even stay in Afghanistan? Or would the sign become another battered, unclaimed fragment of a nation buried under decades of war? Would there ever be another sign endorsing Afghanistan's people, culture and services, or would the only sign worth posting read: "Pakistan: 480 mi." ?