by Douglas Laux
Attack on Khowst
Forward Operating Base Chapman was located just outside the town of Khowst, in an area controlled by the Taliban, close to the border with Pakistan. Named after Special Forces sergeant Nathan Chapman—the ﬁrst US serviceman to die in combat in Afghanistan— it sat on an arid three-thousand-foot-high plateau and was surrounded by high mountains. The area was under the political and military control of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who had spent years during the Soviet war on the CIA payroll and was still a close friend of Osama bin Laden. Haqqani, as I had learned, was a complicated and difficult character, less interested in ideology, theology, and nation building than in maintaining his lucrative drug-smuggling empire. In a land of shifting allegiances and vendettas, he was currently our enemy.
The CIA station in Khowst was tucked inside the much more expansive military base, separated by its own high-security fence, and patrolled by ex–Special Forces civilian contractors armed with automatic weapons. I knew several young CIA officers assigned there and had trained with them at the Farm—the Agency training facility in southern Virginia, where we had all been sent to learn the basics of running clandestine operations.
I was currently in Chicago, not DC, so I couldn’t march into headquarters and offer my assistance. Nor was I geared up to deploy. In fact, HQ had me scheduled to ship out in June 2010. In the intervening six months, I was slated to receive the weapons and other types of training required before going to a forward base.
So I sat amid tables of people drinking, eating, conversing, and watching college football on TV and considered the implications of an attack on a place they had never heard of, and probably couldn’t pronounce.
Most likely they thought, like most Americans, that the Agency had thousands of officers deployed all over the globe. But they were wrong.
Even in a hot spot like eastern Afghanistan we had only a handful. So losing even one or two would be a severe blow. There were sources to run and valuable intel to gather on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The safety of tens of thousands of US and NATO troops depended on it. Political pundits might argue and would be correct to assert that an attack like the one at Khowst could actually compromise the security of the United States.
Kate, who had been rambling on about the Kardashians, noticed the change in my demeanor and stopped.
“Is everything okay?” she asked. I lied: “Yeah.”
“You don’t look okay.” “Really?”
“Yeah, Doug. What’s wrong? You feeling nervous about meeting my friends?”
“No. Not at all. I guess my stomach’s feeling a little funny.” “Who are you talking to?” she asked with a little more edge. I lied again: “My brother.”
“What’s he want?”
I knew where this was going, so I lied a third time. “He wants me to come see my niece, at some point while I’m in Chicago.”
The suspicion in her eyes told me that she thought I was carrying on with an ex-girlfriend. That’s what usually happened when I was caught in situations like this where I had to dissemble in order to maintain my cover. James Bond didn’t have these problems.
I tried to steer the conversation back to the reality show she’d been telling me about, even though part of my mind was occupied with the logistics of getting to Khowst. The truth was that I was dying to get into the ﬁeld and ﬁnally do what I had signed up to do—take the ﬁght to the enemy.
September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at the University of Indiana starting to pursue a course of study to become an optometrist. That night, as all of us were in shock and trying to process what had happened, I discussed the attacks on the World Trade Center with my roommate. I remember him saying, “It’s probably the work of bin Laden.”
I responded (believe it or not), “Who’s that?”
I knew nothing about the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, or the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and I had never heard of al-Qaeda. 9/11 became a major turning point in my life, and caused me to do a one-eighty, change my major to political science, study Japanese and Chinese, and dedicate myself to learning more about the world around me.
Suspicion lingered in Kate’s eyes.
“So they’re interesting, huh?” I asked, referring to the Kardashians.
She gazed past me to the TV over the bar, where a TSU running back had just scored a touchdown. The camera panned across exuberant faces painted white and blue and cheerleaders bouncing up and down.
“The Kardashians,” I answered as people near the bar high-ﬁved one another.
“What’s the name of the show?”
She still wouldn’t look at me. “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
“So you keep up with them?” I asked, trying to inject a bit of humor.
She didn’t even crack a smile. “Yeah,” she said, giving me the proverbial cold shoulder.
What had promised to be a fun day was turning into a headache. “What’s your mom doing for New Year’s?” I asked.
“Really? That’s a surprise.”
Sarcasm didn’t work, either. Then the food arrived. She tore into her eggs. I had no appetite for mine. Here I was sitting in an upscale bar drinking Bloody Marys, while my buddies were on the other side of the world piecing bodies together.
Part of me wanted to grab her by the hand and explain the whole situation—the fact that I was a CIA operations officer ______________, and was worried about my colleagues. But I couldn’t, not because Kate wasn’t much interested in foreign affairs (she wasn’t), but because I was under oath not to reveal the truth about my employment to anyone.
So I tried to console her, and in so doing pretended to be the self-deprecating boyfriend who had been withholding embarrassing information that wasn’t true—a role I hated and made me feel like a total douche.
I said, “Hey, Kate, sweetheart, look at me and stop watching television. Hey, you know I love you, and I’m not trying to be difficult. I’ll be honest with you, it’s a little embarrassing, and I haven’t told you this because I’ve been ﬁghting with my brother a lot lately and it’s really upsetting me, because he’s ignoring our most recent ﬁght and just expects me to forget about it and come visit him.”
It was a total lie—a self-inﬂicted punch to the gut. My brother and I never ﬁght, nor do I let things like that upset me. But I delivered the words with conviction and they worked, because now she turned her beautiful blues eyes toward me and asked, “Really?”
“Yes, sweetheart. But I’m going to turn my phone off now, and focus on you.”
“Okay,” she answered sweetly. I loved her. I did. Two years earlier, I had lost another girlfriend when I had to leave abruptly _________, and couldn’t tell her where I was going or how long I’d be gone.
I didn’t want to lose Kate. She was special. One day I hoped to marry her and start a family.
Slowly, Kate warmed up to me again and we started to talk about meeting her friends later and possible places for dinner.
But Afghanistan kept nagging me like a bad rash. Every twenty minutes or so, I excused myself to go to the bathroom to check my phone. Ben Z. didn’t have much to add, except the fact that the attacker had been a CIA source.
My head was ﬁlled with questions: How had he managed to smuggle a bomb onto the heavily fortiﬁed base? Who was running him? Who at headquarters had authorized the meeting?
I texted a couple of my other colleagues to ﬁnd out what they had heard. Most of them didn’t even know about the attack, which had happened only a few hours earlier, and hadn’t been reported by the media yet.
After brunch, Kate and I returned to our room in the Wit Hotel so she could freshen up. As soon as the door closed, she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the lips. I kissed her back. We were two young lovers anxious to release the earlier tension. Soon we were on the bed pulling each other’s clothes off.
The trouble was that part of me wasn’t in a romantic mood, and the one thing I couldn’t fake was a state of arousal, which was not happening in my highly distressed state of mind. A psychiatrist later explained that in order for someone to perform sexually, their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems have to be operating at the same time, which isn’t possible when your brain is on operational overdrive.
I didn’t know that then, so I suggested instead that my unresponsiveness was probably a result of the three Bloody Marys I had sucked down at brunch.
A frustrated Kate started to scold me for drinking too much. Awesome. Now she had pounced on my least favorite topic.
I felt an impulse to grab a beer out of the mini fridge and down it. As that would only add fuel to her argument, I considered ﬂeeing the room and walking the frigid streets of Chicago.
“Doug, you need to face it!” Kate shouted.
Not now. Thanks.
Retreating to the bathroom, I reminded myself that I was with the woman I loved and told myself that I had to focus for the next two days on making her happy.
Somehow, I managed to make it to the bar on Sheffield Avenue and put on a friendly face for Kate’s friends. I usually look forward to meeting new people, but this day was difficult, and the celebratory frivolity clashed with the dark force ﬁeld of death, fear, and expectation that followed me wherever I went.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t pretend that everything was cool, because it wasn’t. Even as Kate’s pretty, enthusiastic friends pressed around me to ask perfectly reasonable and innocuous questions like “How do you like living in Washington?,” “What’s it like working as a contractor?,” “Where did you go to school?,” I kept glancing up at the TV where I saw Wolf Blitzer’s serious face against the background of a map of Afghanistan. The legend running along the bottom of the screen read, “Attack on U.S. base in Afghanistan.”
I heard him say something about American casualties. Reﬂexively the muscles in my chest and shoulders tightened.
“So, you must be a Hoosiers fan,” one of Kate’s friends said. “I am. Yeah.”
“You miss Bobby Knight?” She had big light brown eyes, ﬂawless pale skin, and a smile to melt the hardest of hearts.
On the TV, I overheard a Pentagon spokesman say something about a man wearing a suicide vest. A dozen questions burst in my head simultaneously like ﬁreworks. How thoroughly had the source been vetted? Had anyone met with him before? Who the fuck allowed him through the CIA perimeter without searching him thoroughly?!
“You know who Bobby Knight is, don’t you?” Kate’s friend asked.
“Of course I do,” I countered with a smile. “I was just glancing at the report on TV. Sorry.”
“I know. I noticed. Afghanistan,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t understand it. Yuck.”
I could have explained its torturous history—including invasions by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, China, Pakistan, the Ottomans, the British, the Soviet Union. Now we were trying to “secure” it, and prevent it from being used as a base for Islamic terrorists. According to the Obama administration, we were also working to stabilize the wobbly Karzai government, rebuild its army, and bring its people out of the thirteenth century where they had gotten stuck after centuries of ﬁghting, repression, and neglect.
Now to make things even more difficult my ex-girlfriend Hannah started texting me. She was the only person besides my brother who knew what I did for a living. I had never informed her directly, but the ______ ________ who introduced us had told his girlfriend about _____, and she had blabbed to Hannah.
Hannah texted: “Please God, tell me you’re safe and not in A right now.”
I texted back: “No. I’m still Stateside.”
Less than a minute later, my phone pinged again. “You know any of the people killed?”
According to Wolf Blitzer, the names of the dead Americans hadn’t been released.
I texted back: “Don’t know. You know as much as I do at this point.”
I started to worry about Kate. She had met some of my colleagues who had been sent to Khowst. When their names were released, she might put two and two together and ﬁgure out where I really worked. I saw her across the room waving me over to the jukebox, where MGMT’s “Electric Feel” was blaring. She wanted to dance.
I pointed toward the bathroom to indicate that I had business to take care of ﬁrst. Checking to see that I was alone in the green-tiled room, I proceeded to delete the text messages from Hannah. Figuring that Hannah would probably continue texting me throughout the night, I changed her name on my cell-phone contact list to Tom. That way if Kate ever looked at my phone she’d think I’d been texting with one of my buddies back in DC.
The following day—New Year’s Eve—more dire news trickled out of Khowst, and I did my best to secretly process it while maintaining an upbeat demeanor. That night as I was dressing in my rented tuxedo, I saw Kate step out of the bedroom in a skintight blue gown.
“Wow. You look beautiful,” I said.
Our eyes met, and it hit me: What was I going to tell her when we returned to DC? If HQ decided to send me to Khowst immediately to replace one of the officers who had died, how was I going to explain?
In that moment, I realized I was probably going to lose her. Even though Kate was an amazing person and I loved her, and was hoping to marry her someday, I’d be gone for a long time, maybe years. All I could hope for was that when I returned from Afghanistan and was ready to quit the Agency, she hadn’t married someone else. Then, maybe, I’d get a chance to explain and set things right.
Possibly because Kate sensed the heaviness in my heart, she walked over, bussed me on the cheek, and said, “I expect to be kissing you in a few hours when the ball drops, so I want that face smooth.”
I retreated to the bathroom and confronted the reﬂection in the mirror. What I saw looking back at me was a paler, less conﬁdent version of myself. I had lobbied to be sent to the tip of the spear, and now I was going to get my wish.
“Hurry up,” I heard Kate say through the door. “I want to get there early so we can ﬁnd the best table.”
“I’m coming, love. Just a minute.”
As I lathered up and put the razor to my skin, I remember thinking that this was probably the last time I’d be doing this for a while.
I was right. I didn’t shave again for two and a half years.
DOUGLAS LAUX is author of Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda a former CIA operations officer who served multiple tours throughout the Middle East. He was in Afghanistan for the 2010 Afghan Surge, and in Kandahar during Operation Neptune Spear, which resulted in the death of Usama bin Ladin. His final assignment was with the top secret task force involved with instigating the Syrian civil war. He lives in Washington, DC.
RALPH PEZZULLO is the bestselling author of Jawbreaker, Inside SEAL Team Six and others.