Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Combat Ops
Based on Ubisoft(r)'s bestselling game Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon(tm): Retribution
The first Ghost Recon book charged on to the New York Times bestseller list-and now Captain Scott Mitchell and his Ghost Recon team are poised to strike again...
My target's name was Mullah Mohammed Zahed, the Taliban commander in the Zhari district just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. His hometown, Sangsar, was located in a rural area along the Arghandab River. The Russians call that place "the heart of darkness."
Zhari and its small towns were and still are a crucial gateway region to Kandahar and also a staging area for Taliban activity. Commanders often told us that if we could take Zhari, we'd control Kandahar. I've been in the military long enough to understand the disparity between wishful thinking and the will of a dedicated and ruthless insurgency.
But again, we didn't care about the politics or the past or even superstitious Russians. I took my eight-man team to "the 'Stan," as we call it, and invested in two days of recon using our airborne drones complemented by a local guy feeding us intel from a handful of his eight thousand neighbors. We picked up enough to justify a raid on a mud-brick compound we believed was Zahed's command post.
"Ghost Lead, this is Ramirez. Jenkins and I are in position, over."
"Roger that, buddy," I responded. "Just hold till the others check in."
I had positioned myself in the foothills, shielded by an outcropping so I could survey the maze of dust-caked structures through my Cross-Com. The combination monocle-earpiece fed me data from my teammates as well as from the drone and the satellite uplinks. The targeting computer could identify friend or foe on the battlefield, and at that moment, red outlines were appearing all over the grid like taillights in a traffic jam.
Prior to our operation, General Keating, commander of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in Tampa, Floridathe big kahuna for grunts like mehad been talking a lot about COIN, or counterinsurgency operations. Keating had expressed his concern that Special Forces in the area might've already exhausted their usefulness because the Army's new philosophy was to protect the people and provide them with security and government services rather than venturing out to hunt down and eradicate the enemy. We were to win over the hearts and minds of the locals by improving their living conditions. Once we made them our allies, we could enlist their help in gathering human intelligence on our targets. In many cases, intel from those locals made all the difference.
Nevertheless, I remember Lieutenant Colonel Gordon, our Ghost Commander, having several four-letter words to describe how effective that campaign would be. As a Special Forces combatant, he believed, like I once did, that you needed to spend most of your time teaching the people how to fight so that after we left they could defend themselves. However, if their enemies were too great or too overwhelming, then we should go in there like surgeons and cut out the cancer.
Zahed, our commanders believed, was the cancer. What they hadn't realized was how far the disease had spread.
"Ghost Lead, this is Treehorn. In position, over."
Doug Treehorn was the sniper I'd brought along, much to the chagrin of Alicia Diaz, my regular operator. Alicia had done tours in Afghanistan before, and I'd had no qualms about taking her along, despite the challenges of being female in a nation where women were treated… let's just say differently. That she had taken a fall and broken her ankle two weeks before being shipped out ruined my initial game plan.
Treehorn was good, but he was no Diaz.
The others reported in. We had the complex cordoned off, and with Less Than Lethal (LTL) rubber rounds to stun guards before we gassed them into unconsciousness, the plan was to neutralize Zahed's force, then slip soundlessly inside the compound and capture the man himself. No blood spilled. Special Forces surgery. I mean, could we make it any more politically correct? We were going in there to take out a man whose soldiers routinely blew themselves up at the local bazaars, but we were trying our best not to hurt anyone.
Well, I'd told my guys that if push came to shove, we'd go live. I'd hoped it wouldn't come to that, if only to meet the challenge. As I'd told the others before ascending the mountains, "This is not rocket science. And it ain't over till the fat man sings." Zahed was pushing three hundred pounds, according to intelligence photos and video, and we planned to make him sing all about Taliban operations in the region, including the smuggling of IEDs manufactured in Iraq and rumors about Chinese and North Korean electronic shipments into the country.
I know I'm making Zahed sound like a real scumbag, but at that time, things seemed pretty clear. But I hadn't been there long enough, and I never thought for one second that we Ghosts and the rest of our military might be causing more damage than anyone else. We were there to help.
"All right, Ghosts, let's move out."
I issued a voice command so that my computer would patch me into the Cross-Com cameras of the others, and I watched as the guards fell like puppets. Thump. Down. And then my men, who wore masks themselves, hit the bad guys with quick shots from a new CS gas gun we were fielding. The gun issued a silent burst into an enemy's face.
Ramirez crouched before the lock on the front gate while I rushed down from my position and joined him. It was a cool desert night. A couple of dogs barked in the distance. Laundry flapped like sails on long lines that spanned several nearby buildings. The faint scent of lamb that had been roasted on open fires was getting swallowed in the stench of the CS gas. I checked my heads-up display: two twenty a.m. local time. You always hit them in the middle of the night while they're sleeping. Again, not rocket science.
Ramirez, our expert cat burglar, picked the lock with his tool kit and lifted his thumb in victory. I shifted into a courtyard as Treehorn whispered in my earpiece: "Two tangos. One to your right, up near that far building, the other to your left."
"See them," I said, the Cross-Com flashing with more signature red outlines that zoomed in on each guard. Like most Taliban, they wore long cotton shirts draped over their trousers and held to their waists with wide sashes. The requisite beards and turbans made it harder to distinguish among them, but they all had one thing in common: They wanted to kill you.
I lifted my rifle, about to stun the guy on the right, who stood near a doorway, his head hanging as though he were drifting off.
Ramirez had the guy on the left, the taller one.
Static filled my earpiece and the images being sent via laser from the monocle into my eye vanished.
Just like that.
The lack of data felt like a heart attack. I'd grown so used to the Cross-Com that it had become another appendage, one abruptly hacked off.
My first thought: EMP? Pulse wave? We'd lost communications, targeting, everything. And I never for one second thought the Taliban could be responsible for that.
Ramirez shifted over to me as he kept tight to a side wall beside the courtyard. "What the hell?" he asked, voice muffled by his mask.
Without warning, two shots boomed from the distance: Treehorn. He'd taken out both guards with live fire. I wanted to scream at him, but it was too late.
"We're clear!" I shouted to Ramirez. "Let's go."
I'd barely gotten the words out of my mouth when salvos of gunfire resounded all over the compound. I listened for the telltale booming of my team's rifles echoed by the popcorn crackle of the Taliban's AK-47s. Everyone had gone weapons free, live fire.
At the same time, the whir of the Cypher drone's engines resounded behind me, but then the drone banked drunkenly and dove toward the courtyard, crashing into the dirt with a heavy thud followed by the buzz of short-circuiting instruments.
The enemy was using electronic countermeasures? They had taken out our Cross-Coms and drone?
We were in rural Afghanistan, where electricity and running water were considered high-tech.
Ramirez and I ripped off our masks and switched magazines to live ammo. We reached the main door of the building, wrenched it open, and shifted inside, where, in flickering candlelight, two robed Taliban turned a corner and spotted us.
I dropped him with a sudden burst and Ramirez caught the second one, who was turning back.
I don't want to glamorize their deaths or emphasize our bravery and/or marksmanship. I emphasize that we had made the concerted effort to minimize casualties and initially had the advantage of our information systems. But when we lost comm and satellite, all bets were off. I'd given my men permission to make the call, given their circumstances. Treehorn was, admittedly, a bit premature, but I'm still not sure what would've happened if he'd held back fire. I'd told all of them they could go live but needed to be sure about it. I'd take the heat for their actions. The rules of engagement were as thick as a phone book and written by lawyers whose combat experience extended no further than fighting with line cutters at the local Starbucks.
Ramirez led us down a long, narrow hallway filled with dust motes and illuminated by sconces supporting thick candles. Our boots scraped along the dirt floor as we turned a corner and found a sleeping quarters with empty beds and ornate rugs splayed across the floor. I placed my hand on one mattress: still warm. On a nearby table sat a half dozen bricks of opium. No time to confiscate them now. We shifted on, out into the hall, and toward the next room.
More gunfire thundered outside, quickening my pulse. I knew if we didn't clear the compound within the next minute or so, Zahed would be long gone. These guys always had their escape routes planned, and it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd constructed several tunnel exits, though our intel did not reveal any.
The next two rooms were more sleeping quarters, empty, and then we reached another small courtyard and rushed into the next building, where in the entrance a woman with a shawl draped over her head saw us and began crying and waving her hands. I lifted my rifle to show her we wouldn't shoot, but that sent her toward me, arms up, fingers tensing as she went for my neck.
Ramirez shoved her hard against the wall and we rushed on by, emerging into another room where at least a dozen more women were huddled in a corner, crying and yelling at us as they clutched their small children.
Lifting his voice, Ramirez, whose Pashto was a lot better than mine, told them it was okay and we were looking for Zahed. Did they know where he was?
The women frowned and shook their heads.
No, we didn't expect to find women and children in the compound. Our intel indicated Zahed had established a command center occupied by his troops.
Our investigation of the next two rooms provided more clues. They were both empty, but you could see that equipment had been there and dragged out: tables and some abandoned wires along with a gas generator that had scorch marks along its sides.
"He got tipped off," said Ramirez. "He moved the women and children in here, thinking maybe we'd blow the place and kill them. Bad press for us."
"Yeah, yeah," I said in disgust.
We rushed outside, where we met up with two more of my guys, Smith and Nolan.
Smith, the avid hunter from North Carolina, wore his mask pushed atop his bald head and gasped as he spoke. "Cleared the building back there. Nothing. What the hell happened to our Cross-Coms?"
"I don't know. Get the others. Get to the rally point. Now!" I ordered.
They took off, and Ramirez looked to me: We had one more building on the west side to clear. I had the map of the compound committed to memory, and we'd made several guesses about this structure: food storage or maybe a weapons cache, based on what we'd seen being moved in and out of there.
The door was locked. Ramirez opted for his faster boot. In we went.
No surprise: two big empty rooms whose dirt floors showed outlines where cases had been. Probably a large weapons cache temporarily stored there and as quickly moved out.
I was reminded of an earlier operation up in Shah E-Pari, a village in the northeastern mountains. We'd been trying to disrupt the rat lines in and out of Pakistan. Insurgents were using the tribal lands in Waziristan and other places to recruit and train their members, then send them across the border on missions in Afghanistan. A buddy of mine, Rutang, had been captured up there, but we got him out. Anyway, the Taliban terrorized members of small villages like Shah E-Pari. The men would be forced to join them or suffer the consequences. So we went up there, armed and trained the guys, and thought it was all working out. The villagers began winning battles with the Taliban and confiscating and stockpiling their weapons. Then we got the order to go in and seize those weapons, lest they fall back into the enemy's hands. Try having that conversation with the village elder: Sorry, we taught you to protect yourselves, and you can have some gun… but not too many. Ironically, what we confiscated was mostly ancient crap sold by us to the Mujahadeen during the Russian invasion. The guns we provided to help fight the Russians were now being used against us. That fact, that irony, barely garnered a reaction anymore. And by the way, that entire village fell back into the hands of the Taliban, who, the villagers said, were giving them more living assistance than either the government or our military.
All of which is to say that some if not all of the weapons Zahed was moving around had once belonged to the United States.
The second room we entered gave us pause. In fact, Ramirez looked back at me for permission to enter, as though neither of us should go on.
I took one look, closed my eyes, and gritted my teeth.
There was a Marine I knew who'd spent a long time up in the mountains laser-designating targets for the bombers. He'd described the locals as savages and tenth-century barbarians who forced their five-year-old sons into human cockfights, who clawed around all day like gorillas with AK-47s. He'd taken great exception to the media referring to the enemy as "smart," when in his opinion the enemy was cunning and crafty, but hardly smart. And when confronted directly they were, plain and simple, cowards who'd step on the necks of their fellow soldiers if that promised escape.
Although I tended to disagree with some of his generalizations because I'd spent time in both the cities and rural areas and had encountered sophisticated and simple people, I was haunted by his accusations that the Taliban had exploited their children
And all the more so because of what lay before us in that dimly lit room.
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