Authors: Simon Conway
Pembury House Publishing
Published by Pembury House Publishing
5 Henwoods Mount, Pembury, Kent TN2 4BH
First published in Great Britain 2014
Copyright © Simon Conway 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 9 780992 995638
About the Author
Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker who has cleared landmines and unexploded bombs in the aftermath of war in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. As Co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned for an international ban on cluster bombs. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the mine clearance charity The HALO Trust and travels regularly overseas He is the author of five novels including the 2010 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger winner A Loyal Spy.
‘Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
1. Old Misgivings
It was mid-afternoon when Ed Malik arrived in Jalalabad to catch the
back to Kabul. Transport was an American Black Hawk with dark green camouflage. As it fuelled, he sheltered from the wind at the edge of the landing site, squatting in the dirt in flip-flops and tatty
, with the tail of his black turban drawn across the bridge of his nose.
He’d been summoned to the British Embassy for what the Ambassador chose to refer to as a “fireside chat”, and as usual it provoked in him a mixture of resentment and unease. Waiting with him, and similarly disguised, was his bodyguard, Dai Llewellyn. Built like a prop-forward, Dai was a fair-haired, soft-voiced Welshman with a way of moving that never seemed hurried and a core of gentleness that a life of violence seemed to have left untouched. Ed and Dai had known each other since Iraq in 2003, when they shared a billet in the
Big Brother House
, the SAS villa in downtown Baghdad, and they had been together in Afghanistan since 2006. There were several occasions that Ed could point to when Dai’s actions had, in all likelihood, saved his life and Ed was careful to treat him with the utmost courtesy.
The Black Hawk lifted off ten minutes later. Strapped into a bucket seat, Ed stared through the cabin doors at the patchwork of green fields and plantations in the broad valley below. On the starboard side he could see the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush in the distance. It was too noisy to speak or be heard and, lulled by the vibration, he soon fell asleep.
When he woke up the sun was hot in his eyes and looking down through the open door he could see the helicopter’s shadow running over crumpled brown ridgelines. It was said that you could still find the bleached bones of British soldiers scattered in the gullies and barren washes. Every time Ed flew over he couldn’t help but reflect on the fate of his fellow countrymen there during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Eighteen thousand soldiers and civilians slaughtered in the winter snow by Pashtun tribesmen.
Dai nudged him, offering a paper bag full of dates. He took one, its flesh like sweet chewable leather.
At Sarobi, they dipped down into the gorge briefly before climbing again. He could see the churning serpentine of the Kabul River and beside it, on the narrow and winding road, trucks ablaze with reflected light, trucks full of ammunition and other supplies to maintain the NATO presence. It was difficult to imagine the current military adventure in Afghanistan ending as badly as the First Afghan War, but ten years on from the most recent invasion it was becoming clear that Britain’s fourth war in Afghanistan would end with as few political gains as the first three.
The Black Hawk came in to Kabul abruptly, swooping down from the ring of grey mountains that trapped a layer of smog over the city. They landed on an earth strip at the edge of the airport and the helicopter taxied on its road-wheels to a hard-standing in a storm of white dust.
Ed jumped out into a hot wind laced with sand.
There was an armoured Land Cruiser waiting for them in Car Park B and an Afghan police pick-up joined them as they passed the old Mig-21 on a concrete plinth at the entrance to the airport.
‘Straight there?’ Dai asked.
The Kabul traffic was the usual slow-motion free-for-all. It was sunset before they arrived at the British Embassy and Ed began the laborious process of negotiating his way through the blast-wall chicane and the air-lock entry system.
Inside the control room he found a sleepy watch-keeper as pale as a cavern-dwelling fish, and a water-cooler dispensing chilled Malvern water. He drank several cups. The watch-keeper informed him that the ambassador was running late.
Ed kicked off his flip-flops and sat down on bright blue modular seating to read a long out-of-date
magazine. The control room smelled of floor wax and toner, odours of the NATO presence.
Within half-an-hour the Ambassador arrived. He looked Ed up and down.
‘Christ man, you’re not Kim astride the gun Zam-Zammeh.’
‘It’s good to see you too, sir.’
Ambassador Chetwynd-Marr was a vain man of patrician bearing with a grey widow’s peak and lousy teeth. He was a Classics scholar and an Arabist with a working knowledge of Pashto.
‘I know that something significant is underway,’ he told Ed, ‘and if it’s going to turn into a disaster, like these things often do, I don’t want to be the one to say:
if only you’d told me I could have warned you
‘Thanks for your concern, sir.’
The Ambassador was well-known for his deft command of hindsight. He was invariably wise after the fact, though rarely before it. Known to his staff as “Old Misgivings
, the younger diplomats mocked him behind his back, shaking their heads and imitating his ponderous voice: “Of course, I always had misgivings…”
‘I want to be part of a winning strategy here, Edward, not a losing one.’
‘We all want that, sir.’
‘Look, I don’t want to have to ask for you to be sent home,’ he said in a sympathetic tone. ‘I’m a reasonable person. It’s just that things are volatile right now and I think I need to know what’s going on over on the other side. Pakistan, I mean. I need to know the identity of your agent.’
Unlike many of his fellow MI6 officers, Ed Malik did not regard spying as a profession of cold betrayal. He saw it as one of careful trust-building. He believed that you couldn’t run an agent without trust on both sides. Of course it was limited and of course there were things you kept from each other. There were necessary lies. That was understandable. But if you were considering whether or not the information being passed to you was of vital national interest you needed to know that your agent had been trustworthy in other matters. And the agent, for his or her part, needed to know that you weren’t going to chat about what they’d just told you. What was said was protected and – above all else – the agent’s identity was protected. That was the code he lived by and he didn’t like to have it challenged. It was one of the reasons he avoided Kabul whenever possible.
‘I can’t do that,’ Ed replied.
‘You know why not. We have an agreement when we recruit people. We don’t talk about them to anybody.’
‘Don’t you think I’m trustworthy?’
‘No actually, I don’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You wouldn’t be able to resist bragging about it.’
The Ambassador’s memoir was the worst-kept secret in Kabul. In a year or two he’d be strutting his stuff at every literary festival in Britain and spouting off on the
programme first thing in the morning.
Chetwynd-Marr spluttered. ‘With one phone call I could have you on the next plane back.’
‘No,’ said Ed. ‘By all means make the call, though.’
The Ambassador’s eyes narrowed. ‘I knew something was going on. You’re hiding something from me.’
‘I can’t discuss it.’
‘At least let me see the intelligence reports first.’
‘You see all my intelligence reports. They don’t get circulated in London without it saying whether the Ambassador agrees or disagrees.’
‘You’re sure about that?’
It wasn’t true, of course. The intelligence that Ed was “sitting on” was known to only two people outside of the top floor at Vauxhall Cross: the Prime Minister and his Foreign Affairs Adviser, who’d had it stove-piped directly to them in a “red-jacket” folder. He could imagine the consternation on the Ambassador’s face if he told him the truth.
2. Turning Nightingale
Edward Henry Malik was thirty-five years old, a former British Naval Intelligence Officer and, by profession, an MI6 agent-runner. Like his predecessors in The Great Game, the “tournament of shadows” fought between the Russians and the British in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, he preferred to use guile rather than weapons to achieve his aims. But there was an impulsive and at times violent streak in him too, times when his voice lowered and his fists became his means of exclamation.
He was tall and slim with broad shoulders and his chest tapered to a narrow waist. He had curly black hair and dark, knowing eyes with long lashes. His smile was tight-lipped – half courteous and half suspicious. A career in intelligence had taught him to play his cards close to his chest, to look and listen. As a result, he had few friends. His colleagues hardly knew him at all.
For four years he had been isolated by an operational firewall, running an agent codenamed
inside the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s nefarious Hydra-headed spying agency. It was the ISI that was credited with driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan and creating the Taliban to fill the void. It was the ISI that had provided shelter to remnants of Al Qaeda since their defeat in the aftermath of 9/11. And it was the ISI that had picked the Taliban up off their knees in 2006, pressed fresh weapons in their hands and sent them back into Afghanistan to battle with the Crusaders.