Title:  War's End

Chapter 24

Closing the Gap

The Sofi Range, The Tribal Territories

Ali bided his time and tried to stay out of trouble.  Every so often, he filed a report.  The once ubiquitous Internet cafes were gone.  Either you were computer literate and carried your own personal computing device or you weren’t and didn't.  These devices were wireless and took many forms.  Some even had them implanted.  Search engines monitored every word.  Interpol and the CIA were always watching, and who knew whom else?

While he was still a computer whiz among his contemporaries, Ali preferred not to carry a device and relied, instead, on others' machines to get his work done.  When he did make a report, it was on his anonymous Yahoo e-mail account.  He reported known terrorists and where they were hiding, arms and munitions movements, and the strengths and locations of tribes and militias.  Often, after one of his reports, the Pakistani Army would move in and seize the wanted militant or group.  Since he was anonymous and there was no feedback, he escaped detection by even the most thorough and hardened zealots.  Frankly, Ali and the native tribesmen were getting tired of every disaffected religious outcast coming to the mountains and trying to take over.  Moslems are an open, caring people, but when it came to these guys, frankly were, in Ahmad Khan’s words, "Getting to be a big pain in the neck!"

Ali preferred to talk one-on-one with the ones who didn't carry computers.  They were the most concerned about the influx of foreign Moslems and others who came to the tribal territories to train and spread their special brand of hatred towards the infidels.  In time, he conferred all the chiefs of the old tribes.  Along with his hunting skill, his way with weapons preceded him.  He was welcome wherever he went.  He was their ally and confidant.  He was told many secrets.  He compromised only those he had to.  And they were very few.

After the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was formed, the United Nations ganged up on Israel and the rich, influential Jews worldwide were forced to establish a Palestinian state.  Carved out of what was left of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, the new Palestine was still sandwiched up against Israel and very dependent on the Israelis for its economy.  Thinking that good fences, good neighbors make, a wall was erected with many fortified portals for commerce to, with proper screening, freely travel between the divided Palestine, Israel, and the surrounding countries.  Hatred still flared, from time to time, with suicide bombings and assassinations.  However, these were greatly reduced when the two governments finally decided to work together to come up with a peaceful economic solution for the area. 

The greatest problem remained.  What to do with millions of poor, uneducated, disaffected Palestinians that had only known generations of refugee camps and hatred.  Soon after the new Palestine was announced, a flood of these young militants fled through Syria and Iraq, crossed Iran and poured into the mountain regions, seeking asylum and training as freedom fighters in the great Jihad.  Under the charismatic young leader, Ben Hajime they established a training camp and exile government in the mountains and vowed to overthrow the Western-backed Palestinian coalition government and crush Israel.  Hajime saw no other choice.  He saw his people becoming the servants of the rich Israelis just to survive.  He would have nothing of compromise.  Annihilation of the Israeli State was his ambition.  They thronged to him by the thousands for it. 

The Jihadittes, as they came to be called, massed in the mountains of South Waziristan southwest of Bannu.  Their scavenging and pillaging alarmed the local Pashtan population, who fled to other tribes for help.  One of those maliks, Habib Jalal, with most of the sixty members of his tribe, arrived at Ahmad Khan’s enclave in late September, carrying no supplies. 

Ali listened intently as Habib animatedly described his tribe's plight.  "I tell you, Ahmad, they came with good intentions.  We opened our arms to them and shared what we had.  But it was not enough.  They took our crops and destroyed them before they were ready for harvest.  They shot all the game in the area and they came after our girls--our young girls!" His face was aghast with the thought of it.  "We had to leave and cast ourselves upon the mercy of our friends here.  You must be careful.  For if they come here, they will do the same.  They're just too many of them.  And they are well armed.  Tough.  Street fighters.  Oh Allah! What did we do to deserve such a fate?"

Later, Ali found Habib, sitting on the cot Ahmad Khan had provided as a courtesy to a fellow malik, swinging his old arms to get the stiffness of his ordeal out.  Ali sat down beside him in the dim light and began to rub his shoulder, hoping to console him.  "You know, God willing, I might just have the answer to your prayers.  But you must bear with me and trust me.  I'm not what I seem.  I have been sent here by Mohammad to carry out good deeds among his people.  This will be our secret, you and I.  Within a week, you'll be able to return to your land.  You will have to rebuild and replant your crops, but with our help and the grace of Allah you and your family will survive and return to your home very soon.”

Habib Jalal was astounded at Ali's pronouncement. He pulled away, jumped up and walked off to join some of his tribesmen on the other side of the cave, his tears streaming down his cheeks.  "That boy is too rash," he thought. What is happening to our young people today?"

Ali meant what he said.  The Pakistani army, along with the Afghan army, the tribal chiefs, and associated allies like the United States, were planning an offensive on Hajime and his associates.  The Coalition had learned from years of bad experience that heavy handed bombing was not the answer.  Instead, night raids were planned to silently and swiftly take the insurgents into custody.  All this had to be done under great secrecy, because Hajime had many computers, cell phones, alarms, and booby traps at his disposal. 

They left early the next morning.  There were only ten of them--the best marksmen, trackers, and hunters of Ahmad Khan’s Northern Tribal Alliance, led by Ali.  He and the others dressed in their traditional tribal garb. The strategy was, that if they were taken prisoner by the Jihadittes, they would be able to claim, “Just tending my goats.” Ali took Habib, sworn to secrecy, along as their guide.  Even with a helicopter airlift by the Pakistani army, it took them two days to arrive near the tribe's old village, a collection of about ten stone and mud buildings along a trail leading from the cave first occupied by Habib's ancestors over a century before.  According to Habib and other reliable sources, Hajime and his top lieutenants now occupied it.

They arrived mid day to a range of mountains that overlooked the village.  Like they had done while hunting ibex, the team climbed to the ridge of the range from the north side and slept unseen from their prey.  No one ever approached the village from that direction.  So Ali and the others were fairly sure that there were no sentries on the summit.  Just to be sure, he had glassed the ridge the day before from the range preceding it.  Surveillance photos they obtained from U.S. Air Force over flights and satellites clearly showed sentries well placed along every trail into the village. 

About 1:00 a.m. they woke.  It was a clear night with a half moon and a sky full of stars. Carrying night vision equipment, they stealthily sneaked down the mountain toward the village.  Ali's Special Forces training kicked in as he led the others over the boulders, avoiding the trails and booby traps waiting there.  It wasn't long before he came upon a sentry sitting on a rock, his gun balanced on his knees, half dozing as he watched the moonlit valley below.  Moving silently behind, Ali grabbed him by the neck and tightly held him by his Adam's apple until the others took the gun from his hands.  He was quickly gagged and blindfolded. Ali knew that there were other sentries.  Far off for to right, he saw one, and motioned to Bahij to go get him.  The man that Ali had just grabbed was weak and light as a feather.  If the other man was like that, he would be no problem for Bahij and Akbar to handle.  He watched them fade off into the boulders to the right, and then continued his descent with the others in single file behind him, ever watchful for the glimmer of a tripwire in their night vision goggles. Four times they had to stop and Ali would send out a two-man team to snare, gag and tie another sentry.  Before long, they were entering the village from the hill behind.  A flash of moonlight off a gun barrel tipped Ali and the others that a surprise awaited them.  Once again, by going around the building that the guard was sitting in front of, Ali was able to sneak up while the others rolled a ball out the other side, distracting him for a moment.  By now, it appeared that they had the village to themselves.  Everyone else was sleeping. Luckily, there were no goats or dogs around to alert the starving, tired Palestinians.

Taking four others with him, Ali and Habib headed for the cave that had been used many times to ward off air attacks.  As caves went, it wasn't very big and had been damaged by bombing. The villagers had reopened a few areas that remained where they stored things.  At a time like this, they would use it for shelter.  Habib knew every inch.  Ali counted on that.  He followed Habib in.  Just inside the narrow entry, there was a room to the left.  It smelled the sour smell of men who had not time to bathe or wash their clothes.  Habib pointed Ali to it, and he entered.

Even with his night vision, the cave was so dark he had to feel his way.  After inching his way across the room, he felt the hard edge of a cot or bed.  He could hear a man breathing in his sleep directly in front of him.  Not knowing if there were others in the room, he made his move.  Once again, he had the man by the Adam's apple--hard.  Ali whispered in the man’s ear in Arabic that he would kill him if he tried to struggle or raise his voice.  After his initial tenseness, the man relaxed and began to rise from his bed without a struggle.  Akbar had found a much larger man, and struggled with him until Ali turned his light on and Habib got his hands tied.

The one Ali had looked familiar.  "Hajime?" he whispered.  His knife cutting through the fabric in the man's side. 

"Yes, of the Palestinians.”  Hajime’s voice was muted but defiant. 

"Are there any others?"

"Only my bodyguard, Abdullah.  I see you have him too.  The others find sleeping in the cave too confining.  I thought I would be protected here.  I can see now that I was wrong.  You are very brave to come into my camp and take me.  I have more than six thousand comrades in arms spread across this valley.”

"Yes, I know.  If you hadn't eaten all the goats and dogs, you might have been forewarned.  We will not disturb your men.  They are too weak to fight us anyway.  Now, I must gag you for your own safety.  We will talk later.”

With gags made from rubber balls and soft cloth, Ali first silenced Hajime, and then Abdullah.  Their hands were tied in front so they could be led and better climb the rocks ahead.  Once this was done, they left the cave and joined the others, guns at ready, at the entrance.  They left as silently as they had come, climbing the rocks and avoiding the trails, to the ridge to the south and their airlift home.  They collected the sentries on their way up.  Soon, they had five prisoners in tow.  The Palestinians were so weak that they had to be pulled up the mountain.  To make time, Ali found himself carrying Hajime.  Hajime was light as a feather.  His body was as weak and frail as his mind was strong. 

They had still not crested the ridge when the sun came up.  Far below them, there rose up a mighty wail.  It seemed that all in the valley below them had learned at once that their leader had been taken.  They were helpless now to do anything, having slept through the raid, too tired, hungry and exhausted to be vigilant enough to prevent it from happening.  Ali could feel Hajime squirm on his back with the pain of it.  He knew there was nothing they could do now to save him.  Soon, they were at the top of the ridge, found a trail, and everyone was walking again, downhill.  By noon they had reached the second ridge and their rendezvous point with the Pakistani Army helicopter.

When they arrived back at the Khan enclave, another great wail greeted them, even over the beat of the helicopter blades as they ducked and ran for the safety of the waiting crowd.  "Ali! Ali! Ali! ... "  Was the cheer raised by the family and tribe of Habib the Great.  Praise be to Allah!   They had carried out the dangerous mission without a single casualty.  This was unheard of in decades of bloody conflict in the region. 

Word soon got out that Hajime had been captured and of the exploits of the young tribesman that had single-handedly captured him.  The news media descended from everywhere, but with the help of his friends, Ali escaped the camera.  Habib Jalal became the primary spokesman for the raid.  Some said the mysterious Ali was back in Peshawar.  Some said that he was in Mary, Turkmenistan.  Some said he was hiding in the caves of another mountain.

After extensive interrogation by the Pakistani government.  Hajime agreed to follow the United Nations recommended approach of re-education, training and public works.  Loudspeakers were set up on the ridges overlooking the valley, and Hajime spoke to his people.  The six thousand three hundred and thirty-nine Palestinian refugees that walked out of the valley to surrender were split up into groups of fifty for re-education and vocational training in villages in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.  After six months of a regimen which resembled boot camp with good food and exercise, they were strong and healthy enough to join construction crews throughout the Middle East rebuilding areas that had been devastated by all the years of conflict.  After five years work in the construction crews, the former Jihad fighters were given their freedom to become a citizen of any Moslem country they wished.  Many chose to stay where they had been working. Few returned to a divided Palestine except to visit relatives.

Ali was alive and well at the home of relatives of Ahmed Shah in Islamabad.  It was a virtual palace, and he rested well knowing that his greatest work was saving all those Palestinians from death or worse in the hands of the coalition forces.  Soon, he flew to Kuala Lumpur.  At the airport, his old friend, Sharif Mohamed, met him. Sharif took him to a waiting yacht.  After a two-day jaunt on the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean they arrived at the paradise island of the Shahs.  Ahmed was among those on the dock waiting to greet their arrival.  He was noticeably older in the five years since he fled Mary.

"Ali my good friend, it is so good to see you! Welcome to my little part of the world.  Although I don't own this place, what’s my family's is mine--what is mine is also my friends'--come, ... come stay as long as you like.  What is mine is yours.” Always the consummate salesman, Ahmed could be counted on to gild the lily.  He didn't have to sell a friend on the island though; it was the true paradise--white buildings jutting up from the white sands and thick green palms with sparkling windows reflecting the blue sea or the brilliant sun.  It reminded him of advertising for luxury resorts he had seen on the Internet many years before. 

The island was as pristine as it looked.  As he lounged by the pool, waited on hand and foot by lovely maidens, he was getting the first tan of his life.  He thought about all the years he had spent in the dust and dirt of the desert with only his shalwar-qamiz to keep the sun off.  He took it all in and rested.  The women were well paid to be at his disposal.  Evening walks in the gardens refreshed his soul.  Still, the thought of how this was all acquired weighed heavy on him. 

"Those were the bad old days, weren't they Ali! Remember the time I hit that camel! God, we had fun.  I'd give anything to be back in Mary, wheeling and dealing like we did.  Sometimes it gets so boring here I'd just like to jump on one of those launches and sail off into the sunset and as far as I could go until I struck land, and then start over.  Damn Interpol has got me so posted that if I ever set foot anywhere but here, they'd be on me like a fly on goat in a minute.  So here I sit, drinking the finest martinis, watching the sun go up and down in my private little hell.  You don't know how good it is see you, my friend.  You remind me of what I've lost, but you console me in it.” Ahmed took another sip of martini and fell asleep in a drunken stupor.  The maidens came and adjusted the umbrella so that he wouldn't burn in the sun. 

It was time to leave the island.  Ali's vacation was over. He wondered why he’d come.  The results of his handiwork weren’t pretty.  But then, nothing was in this messy world.  Time to leave it, too

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