Authors: Tom Kratman
Tags: #General, #War & Military, #Action & Adventure, #Fiction
THE LIBERATORS – ARC
by Tom Kratman
Advance Reader Copy
Baen Books by Tom Kratman
Countdown: The Liberators
Countdown: M Day*
Desert Called Peace
A Desert Called Peace
The Lotus Eaters
The Amazon Legion
A State of Disobedience
Legacy of the Alldenata (With John Ringo)
Watch on the Rhine
COUNTDOWN: THE LIBERATORS
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Tom Kratman
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
ISBN 13: 978-1-4391-3402-3
Cover art by Kurt Miller
First printing, February 2011
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my mother, Agnes Quinn, nee Henchey
8 January, 1936, Boston, MA
10 October, 2008, Radford, V
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains . . .
-Kipling, "The Young British Soldier"
D-815, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
No one had intended it as a joint op, let alone a combined one, but the nearest support to the beleaguered SEAL team had been a team of Army Special Forces, under a captain named Welch. Because of that, once they were committed, the next echelon in had been the green beanie's boss, one Colonel Wes Stauer. And Stauer had come with a company of Afghan commandos, trained by his own people and paid for directly by the United States.
The valley was high and the air thin. The passengers on the Blackhawks could feel the rotors straining to keep the things in the air. They could look up and still see mountains. But they could also look down and still see clouds.
It was a relief, then, to almost all concerned, when the choppers, nine of them, touched down in staggered trail formation along either side of a dirt trail running between two ridges. It was a relief even though the air around the landing zone went from still and clear to a thick, choking cloud of dust in half a second.
First off was Stauer, though the ninety-odd Afghans accompanying him weren't far behind. The latter bolted for the ridges, to relieve the American Special Forces currently providing a thin guard.
He was a big man, Stauer, six-two, graying but still with all his hair. Framed by deep crow's feet, his eyes were a pale blue that both saw too much and had seen too much. He was widely considered to be a son of a bitch. Most of those he worked for were of that opinion; though only a smaller percentage of those who worked for him shared it. And even they were more often than not of the "but he's our son of a bitch" persuasion.
This was his straight third year in Afghanistan, this time. He'd had four year-long tours previously, unusual in special operations. But why not? No wife, no kids; Stauer was married to the Army and had been since graduating Notre Dame ROTC thirty plus years before.
Stauer didn't think they were going to win the war. He hadn't thought so in a long time. Oh, the troops did well. Washington's influence he found baleful. Sometimes he wished it were over. But what else do I know how to do?
He stepped off the chopper into the dust and ran, bent over, to a point outside the sweep of the rotors. Though he had a pistol in a shoulder harness, he also carried a rifle in one hand. He didn't wear any armor. Up this high, in air this thin, the protection the armor gave just came at too high a cost, protecting the enemy as much as the wearer, or perhaps even more so.
Stauer's beanie was stuffed into a pocket against the chance of it being sucked into one of the Blackhawks' engines. He wouldn't put it on until either the helicopters left or he was well out of range.
A SEAL with a recruiting poster jaw met Stauer about fifty meters past the rotors. If Stauer was big, the SEAL was effing huge. "They've got my lieutenant and one of my SEALs," the SEAL told him. Stauer read the swabbie's nametag, "Thornton," and thought, So this is Biggus Dickus, himself. Gotta help a man with that kind of rep.
Thornton pointed at the adobe and scrap rock village down below and added, "And none of these people will tell me shit. I want my people back, sir." Thornton's voice was plaintive, remarkably so for a man who exuded as much strength as he did.
Thornton was a senior chief, the rank equivalent of a master sergeant in the Army. Enlisted from a Midwestern town so far from the sea he'd never actually seen it before joining the Navy as a young man, he'd started real life as a Navy corpsman, a very thoroughly trained medic, supporting the Marines, before switching over to SEALs. He probably had more decorations than Stauer and, given that the Navy was cheap with medals and that the Army overly generous, especially with officers, that was saying something.
"What's your case that they know where your men are?" Stauer asked.
"We watched 'em drag our people through the town, leading 'em by ropes around their necks," Biggus said. "They sure acted like they knew each other, the Muj and the townsfolk. Sir, you know what's going to happen to my people if we don't get them back quick."
Stauer nodded and said, "Yeah, I know. Lemme think for a minute."
"Okay, sir," Thornton replied, as all but one of the Blackhawks began taking off again, raising a still more enormous cloud of dust as they left.
It had been a long war, and a hard one . . . and, so it increasingly appeared, a losing one. After all the years, all the treasure, all the blood and pain, the tide of victory was receding. First Russia had cut off reliable transport through it or its satellites; though they still occasionally let some things through when they needed some concession or other. Then Pakistan had openly and officially granted the enemy safe asylum across the convoluted, mountainous border. This, naturally enough, had caused the United States forces – though not generally NATO allies-to treat the border with no more respect than the enemy did. Indeed, once Pakistan effectively ceded sovereignty, it could hardly claim to still have it. Nonetheless, the U.S. incursions had had the unfortunate effect of bringing down the Pakistani government and seeing installed one still more firmly committed to helping the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Of course, the Pakis had also cut off surface transportation. Worse still, they used some of their own special operations forces, by no means contemptible, to support the enemy, just as they sometimes had against the Russians, decades before.
Now the war was being waged purely on the aerial resupply ticket. And it wasn't enough. Five divisions were needed to win, at least five. They had the equivalent of, and could barely support, three, one of these a mixed NATO formation that sucked up logistics but added little or nothing to the war effort. (There were feelings, among Americans, Brits, and Canadians, that, but for the latter two, the non-U.S. NATO contribution represented a net minus.) It was a formula for eventual defeat.
And everyone who mattered, not least the enemy, knew it.
These were not the first Americans Stauer knew of who had been captured. What had happened to the others, except in the rare case where a timely rescue had been possible, was horrible beyond belief. And frustrating, as the entire war had been frustrating. As the idiocy emanating from Washington had been frustrating. As the refined idiocy coming from Kabul had been frustrating.
Seven years of war can do odd things to a man. Thinking about the fate in store for his countrymen, Stauer felt something give inside him. It might have been his sense of restraint.
Pacing, Stauer clasped his hands behind his back. Never mind that you wanted stars, Wes. If that's your most important value you don't deserve to have them, just like most of the motherfuckers wearing them. So skip that. Even if what you have to do costs you stars; you haven't lost anything you could have saved.
He looked down at the villagers, the men from Welch's team surrounding them in the village center. One man alone, Welch's medic, was watching the women and children, who were kept separate.
And what's the worst case if all this gets out? Again, forget prison. If you're afraid of that you're also not worthy of stars. What's the worst case to the war effort?
He snorted softly but with profound derision. What difference? Since Jesus Christ in his second coming occupied the White House, we've been losing anyway. About the only good news is we've kept the Pakistanis out of the country, if not officially out of the war. But every troop that can be spared is holding the passes, now, leaving not a lot to clean out the guerillas. Now it's so far gone I doubt we even can win, not without carving a chunk out of Pakistan. Silly, arrogant, slick-talking bastards have micromanaged us all the way to defeat.
Stauer considered some of the stars sitting in Kabul and thought, Not that they didn't have some help, silliness and arrogance-wise.
Okay, forget all that, too, for now. What about the rights and wrong of the thing? Again he snorted. Wrong to lose a war, terrible, morally execrable, in fact. And wrong to let your men be led off and butchered.
"Sir!" answered the bright-eyed-team commander. Terry Welch was not so tall as Stauer, nor so broad in the shoulders as Biggus Dickus Thornton. He was, however, an intensely strong West Pointer, and former captain of their weight lifting team.
"Back me up in this. You and your men aren't going to like it."
"Whatever you call, sir, however you call it."
"Sah?" the Afghan commander replied. He, too, knew the war was being lost, that he'd backed the wrong side, and that his life, in the medium term, was forfeit. He spent every cent he made supporting his extended family, now in India.
Stauer handed the Afghan his rifle. "These people your tribe? The tribe of any of your men?"
"No, sir. None of us."
"Stand by to translate, then."
Without another word, Stauer glanced around at the three score or so adult male villagers assembled. One, in particular, caught his eye for the arrogance and confidence the Afghan showed under what should have been very frightening conditions.
Stauer drew his .45. Special Forces, never liking the Italian 9mm forced on the rest of an unwilling army, had had its own order of .45s specially made by Heckler and Koch. He walked to the arrogant looking Afghan and crouched down in front of him. The Afghan sneered until, in a single, smooth motion Stauer placed the pistol almost on the bridge of the Afghan's nose and pulled the trigger. Just before that moment the sneer had disappeared as the eyes widened in shock.
Of late, Special Forces also tended to ignore the rule against frangible ammunition. Given the size of the bullet and the fact that just about all of its energy was suddenly dumped inside the Afghan's brain, his head exploded like a melon, the wide eyes popping out, breaking their optic nerves, and bouncing off Stauer's chest.
Welch's Special Forces people stirred. The Afghan commandos took it in stride. Better than Americans, they understood that sometimes the medium is the message.
"Translate now please. Tell these people that I have seventy-one rounds in my ammunition pouches and in my pistol. Inform them that one of two things is going to happen. Either we get my people back, alive and well, or every male in this village old enough to sprout a beard will be killed and the women and children will be sent to market in Kabul and sold as slaves."
Stauer had to change magazines, just once, before the information was forthcoming.
D-814, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
What the mixed team of SEALS, SF, and Commandos brought in the next day didn't resemble anything too very human. After they were cornered in a small complex of caves, and when it was obvious there was no escape, the guerillas had soaked their bound captives down with gasoline and applied a match. After that, whatever they'd done to the captive SEALs beforehand was impossible to tell.
And, of course, there were no guerilla prisoners taken so they weren't going to say anything about it.
Stauer walked over to the first of the stretchers and pulled back the poncho that had concealed the remains. These were curled into a fetal position, and charred beyond all recognition, except for blackened metal dog tags and chains with bits of burnt flesh stuck to them. Stauer said nothing, but walked to the next stretcher and did the same. He didn't want to even think about what these men had suffered. When he'd finished inspecting he called, "Major Mosuma?"
"I'm a man of my word. Kill all the men. The women and children belong to you and yours."
Then Stauer boarded a helicopter and winged back to Kabul to turn himself in. He wept the entire way back.