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by Philip Lisagor

South of Wana, Waziristan: The shadowy and dismal brown massif of Mount Pirghal loomed over the Shahur River in central Waziristan. A gloomy day. An overcast sky. The bite of fall lingered in the air. Soon the Mehsud tribesmen would have to move down the mountain to escape the bitter cold of winter. Today the bitterness was a gift from America: Hakeem’s modest compound of mud and wood houses—destroyed. The wreckage still smoldered. Dead goats in the dirt. The greasy, particulate breeze carried the taste of burnt blood and roasted flesh to the hundreds of bearded and grieving men. No women. The men wore rifles—Lee-Enfields, M-16s, Kalashnikovs, and the always-present grenade launchers. The anticipated arrival of the Americans beat the men into a frenzy. The air throbbed and pulsated with anguish and cries. They fired their rifles into the air. They carried modest wood coffins over their heads, three large and the two small ones for Ali Zaman and Jamila. They made their way to a field adjacent to Hakeem’s former home. Amidst the laments men were digging, turning the rock-choked soil with sticks, shovels and hands.

Colonel Berman and the command delegation caravanned in from Wana, the largest town in the South Waziristan Agency, within the semi- autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan (FATA). The Colonel first learned of the FATA back in the mid-80s. He’d read the sign affixed to a heavy chain across the Grand Trunk Highway written in Urdu and English: “The land beyond this sign is under tribal authority and the Government of Pakistan cannot be held responsible for your safety beyond this chain.” Berman believed in law and order and borders and nation states. At that time, he worked for a maverick NGO that, contrary to NGO policy, served as a clandestine CIA outfit and part of what came to be called Charlie Wilson’s War. It funneled support to the Pashtu mujahedeen tribesman in their fight with Russia.

Now, Colonel Samuel Berman wore the uniform of a Civil Affairs Officer in the US Army. A short and trim officer with a lazy left eye and a small caterpillar-like moustache, he nodded to the armed tribesmen as he exited the armored personnel carrier. His mission was to convey the Command’s sorrow and heartfelt condolences for the killing of the family of Hakeem Mehsud—his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, Jamila and Ali Zaman, aged three and five. He clutched a US Treasury pouch bulging with cash to pay off Hakeem—$2,500 for each accidental death on behalf of the people of The United States of America. Colonel Berman was accompanied by a translator and small detachment of security contractors. Mercenaries. They sported military boots, khaki cargo pants and green shirts. Many were bearded. They were killers who didn’t want to say “yes sir” or salute. They wanted to kill and make as much money as possible.

Out of the corner of his eye Colonel Berman recognized an incendiary Mullah he knew from Wana, Mullah Abdul Powindah. The Mullah chanted from the Koran into his megaphone. He paused to approach a man who the Colonel recognized as Hakeem Mehsud. They spoke for five or six minutes as Mullah Powindah continued beating on his own chest. The Mullah poked his index finger into Hakeem’s chest and screamed into Hakeem’s face. Hakeem shook his head no and the Mullah again beat his own chest. Soon all the men, hundreds of them, all Mehsuds, were beating their chests and crying with increasing volume an anguished “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.” Hakeem paused, then slowly nodded in agreement.

Hakeem had promised the Americans safe passage for the funeral through a Special Forces contact in the area. Even so, Colonel Berman’s heart pounded. The security detail guys were revved up. Their eyes darted about the scene as they sucked deeply on their cigarettes. Their weapons were all at the ready, locked and loaded with safeties off. A few women appeared, covered by blue filmy burqas with fine mesh screens across their faces—fleeting shadows that scurried about the only remaining building. More spectral than living. Maybe they were preparing food, or maybe not.

As the sun went down, the men lowered the coffins into the earth and shoveled dirt on top. Mullah Powindah chanted from the Koran and agitated the crowd into a delirium with some brief remarks calling for traditional tribal retribution. The Colonel worked his way through the frightening herd, met with Hakeem right at the graves and told him how sorry he was about the regretful situation. He handed Hakeem the money—two hundred fifty $50 bills. Blood money. “We’re here to help you in any manner we can,” he said. “You can count on the United States.”

This wasn’t the first time Colonel Berman met with Hakeem Mehsud. Years ago the Afghan allowed an American mountain climber—with a self-proclaimed mission to bring education to Afghani girls—to establish a school near Hakeem’s family compound. It didn’t take the US Army long to link up with this trendy popular cause and provide logistical support and financial backing. Hakeem’s daughter, Nurani Hakeem Mehsud, was the first to graduate. The Command attended the graduation and the Colonel met Hakeem. Although FATA children were supposed to have seats in Pakistani colleges, it never really happened so the Command assisted Nurani in attending college in the United States—an amazing accomplishment, as she left Waziristan and went off to study at the University of California at Berkeley. The Colonel figured her to be nearly done with her studies. He also figured she was damn lucky to not be with her family the day of the debacle or he’d be handing over another fistful of bills.

Mission accomplished, the Americans loaded up and convoyed out. Colonel Berman asked the translator, a Christian refugee from a nearby country, what the Mullah had said at the funeral.

“He read a part of the Koran calling for self preservation and on meeting force with force as the Prophet, Peace be upon Him, called upon his followers to take up the scimitar. He told him only he could do this, to avenge the blood of his family. He called upon the heads of all Afghans to seek retribution for Pashtun deaths by killing a hundred Americans for each Pashtun. He said there can be no forgiveness for the shedding of Muslim blood.”

“Heavy stuff. Was this a symbolic speech?” Colonel Berman raised his lazy eye to the heavens and let his palms roll outward.

“It was the word of God as delivered by his Prophet,” the translator responded. He blinked his eyes, crossed himself and made an obscure Armenian hand gesture to ward off the evil inclination. “I don’t think symbolism is in his vocabulary.”