Reaper

Wana, South Waziristan,         /           Creech Air Force Base

Islamic Republic of Pakistan             /           Indian Springs, Nevada, USA

August 05, 2009

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“Smile, when you look up at the sky. There’s always someone watching……”

– unnamed drone pilot, Camp Lemonnier Drone Operations Base, US Special Operations Command, Djibouti, East Africa

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Even at eleven at night, the hot August air made it unbearable to be inside, so the heavily bearded man in his flowing salwar-kameez had chosen to be upstairs in the open on the roof, to enjoy the slight breeze that was blowing in from the nearby hills. The late summer of 2009 was a particularly severe one in this part of South Waziristan. The man had just had a sumptuous meal of lamb and rice that his second wife, sixteen year old Nafiza, had prepared, in a desperate effort to placate him to be more gentle with her, for she dreaded what was coming. The heat of the spices had instead inflamed the bearded man.

Tonight and over the next two days, he would slam into her repeatedly, lacerating the dry walls of her young vagina. It would be another effort to have a male child that had been denied him so far in his liaisons with his first wife, with whom he now had three daughters. Earlier that evening, the cruel sneer on his craggy, scarred face had conveyed to Nafiza just one thing, ‘even the Allah won’t come to your aid, if you don’t give me a male heir….’. He knew of course, that if she didn’t bear him a child, it wouldn’t be due any failing attributable to her, but in fact due to the decades of hashish use, then the onslaught of diabetes in the early 90s and finally now this new mysterious kidney ailment that even the physician choppered in by the ISI hadn’t been able to correctly diagnose.

The man now heaved a satisfied sigh and reclined on the bare wooden cot that had been laid out for him in the middle of the bare roof. On the floor right next to the cot lay his pakul (pashtun-style turban), his personal HK-MP5 and an ammo belt. Two of his closest aides brought up a drip and stand and carefully administered it to him. His health problems were indeed beginning to get annoying. After they were done, the two sat down on the hard floor at the foot of his bed, ready to do his bidding. A few feet away, on a stool, sat the bearded man’s father-in-law.

Thus they relaxed, speaking in low tones, their words liberally sprinkled with ‘Allah ho Akbar’, ‘Alhamdolillah’ and ‘inshallah’…’, words that every Muslim recognizes and uses, not only in prayer but during the course of his day. That was when the clouds parted for a final time and an eerie glow bathed the surroundings, casting long shadows in every direction.

Even if he had tried, the bearded man couldn’t have heard the other voice or discerned its accent. That’s because it was just a whispered three words, spoken 7500 miles away inside an air-conditioned trailer in a secluded, heavily guarded corner of the Creech Air Force Base, near Indian Springs, Nevada, USA.

The speaker was a man whom the bearded Pashtun had never met and never would, a Major Curtis Oakley of the 432nd Operations Support Squadron and he now spoke into his head piece,” Target acquisition confirmed”. The Major then sat back and waited. As the minutes went by, the wiry soldier stared at the live high definition video on the screen in front of him. He took one last bite of the donut and set it aside, his jaws working with deliberate ease, his hands were now firmly gripping the gaming console-like joy-stick controls.

The militant had meanwhile taken off his kameez and was fanning himself with it, his barrel chest matted with hair. His left arm kept swiveling to and fro, waving the kameez casually in the air, while the cross hairs on Oakley’s console stayed steady, locked on a spot in the middle of the hairy chest. At one point, the bearded man snarled at something one of the two squatting henchmen had just said. He then gave a dismissive wave and the sidekick fell silent.

Six hours prior, at 5pm local time, an MQ-9 Reaper, belonging to the Special Operations Group of the US Central Intelligence Agency, had sped over one of the two the asphalt runways of the Bagram Air Force Base, 50kms north of Kabul. The piercing high-pitched whine of its tail propeller had long become a daily irritant to the base personnel.

As it lifted off, the Reaper hugged the ground for as long as it could, in order to avoid pot-shots with shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles that the Taliban tried from time to time. Then, at the very last minute, it banked sharply to avoid plunging head-on into the tall mountains that boxed in the base. The spindly landing gear retracted and the unmanned plane turned its nose up at a steep angle, its single rear-mounted Honeywell turboprop engine thrusting it forward till it finally leveled off at 25000ft and settled on a bearing south, doing a steady 300 miles an hour.

The Reaper was in no hurry, it had a full 18 hour shift ahead before it would return to Bagram. Its controllers, the two men inside the heavily fortified trailer that was sitting between concrete blast barriers in one corner of the Bagram airfield, were not military men but ex-military men. They were now on the payroll of Xe Sevices, a security contractor that had earlier gained notoriety in Iraq under the name of Blackwater. Blackwater had been disbarred from Government contracts after atrocities came to light that would have made even Saddam Hussein look like an angel in comparison.

Thereafter, with a helping hand from the US Department of Defense, the firm had simply registered back under a new name, Xe Services, and gone right back into business, this time expanding its role even further, diversifying into the complete operation and servicing of all unmanned drones based in Afghanistan.

Approximately thirty minutes after take-off and while still inside Afghan airspace, one of the two men flicked a switch and spoke into his headset,” Caspa Raja two two one, Bagger one six one, she’s all yours. Do us a favour, fry the m—er f—er.”

Pat came the reply accompanied by a chuckle,” Roger, I have her, she’s ours. One BBQ comin’ up. Have your beer and french fries ready.” The man who replied, glanced across the hand rest at his sensor operator, Lt. Pete Beardsley, who was taking a break right at that moment. Beardsley broke up into a loud guffaw.

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Drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base

That had been six hours back and the drone pilot who had chuckled, had since gone off duty along with his partner after their 12-hour shift, handing over control to Maj. Oakley and his sensor operator Lt.  Kyle Caldwell who were now going to see the mission hopefully to the finish. The young off-duty drone pilot headed out to the base locker rooms, relieved there had been no killing today at least.

That is not to say that he was completely at ease. A drone pilot is never completely relaxed. It’s the guilt, from being able to annihilate at the press of a red plastic button, without the necessity to demonstrate valor, sacrifice, perseverance, accountability, terror, pain or simply fall prey to cowardice, all those facets that define a real soldier in a real battle ground. That’s one reason why the US Government now tries to employ as drone pilots, only ex-fighter pilots who have actually flown missions over Iraq or Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, he would drive leisurely back home, unwind with a beer and take his girlfriend, Brenda, out to lunch. They planned to take the 20km drive to try out the new Pakistani eatery that had opened in Tule Springs near Las Vegas, named Peshawar Tikka Place. They had heard that the owner-chef was Pashtun. And they just loved spicy tandoori chicken.

(to be continued….)