The Afghan: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 0
A Cold War attack by Soviet helicopters on an Afghan village. A knife-edge CIA operation that goes wrong. And a vengeful mujahideen tribesman, armed with Stinger missiles.
When CIA officer Joe Johnson is handed the tough task by his boss of capturing a Soviet helicopter and forging better contacts among the mujahideen, he unknowingly finds himself up against a sinister KGB rival who wants him dead.
But after coming under fire, Johnson comes to suspect that his difficulties stem not just from the Soviets—but from a traitor on his own side.
To extricate himself from the web of deceit in which he finds himself, Johnson comes to rely on a female colleague from Britain’s MI6, Jayne Robinson, to whom he grows unexpectedly close.
As pressure mounts on Johnson from CIA headquarters at Langley and politicians in Washington, DC, the story reaches a climax during a life-or-death shootout in Jalalabad.
The Afghan, set in 1988, is an espionage thriller that forms a compelling prequel to the Joe Johnson series as a whole. It also creates the backdrop for book four in the series, Stalin’s Final Sting, set in Afghanistan, New York City, and Moscow in the present day.
Meet Joe Johnson today and read how he uncovers dark secrets.
Release date: January 15, 2019
Publisher: The Write Direction Publishing
Print pages: 212
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The Afghan: A Joe Johnson Thriller, Book 0
Saturday, January 2, 1988
Khost-Gardez Pass, southeastern Afghanistan
Javed Hasrat heard them before he saw them. The muffled and distant clattering of the Russian helicopter gunship engines echoed across the valley. The sound bounced off the semi-vertical boulder-strewn slopes rising more than three hundred meters on either side of the river that twisted along like a white ribbon to his left.
Then came the distant, pulsing rat-at-tat-tat of machine gun fire, accompanied by the whoosh of rockets. A few seconds later there was an explosion and from out of sight, behind an outcrop that jutted out toward the river and the dirt road next to it, rose a cloud of gray smoke.
“Bastards, they’ve hit Wazrar,” Javed said in his native Pashto, his voice suddenly cracked and reedy. He tugged at his long black beard and stared east, but from his current vantage point, he was unable to see the village and its collection of mud-brown houses, where he knew his family and others would now be cowered, probably under tables or anything else that might offer protection. “Baz, get it ready, in case they head this way.”
Baz, one of the three men standing next to Javed, shook his head. “They won’t. They’ll head back to Gardez.”
“Get it ready anyway,” Javed said. He knew that Baz was probably right. The Russians were currently in a phase of hit-and-run activity that involved them swooping in, destroying as much of a village as they could from the air, then exiting swiftly to avoid casualties from mujahideen fire.
The attacks had been going on for weeks, ever since the Soviets launched Operation Magistral to gain control of the pass, in the southern part of the Hindu Kush mountain range. It was a vital supply artery that connected Kabul to the north with Khost, to the southeast, where there was a large Russian military base. Beyond that, the pass was a link to Pakistan and India.
Javed felt proud that the mujahideen had controlled the pass since the Soviet invasion of 1979. But during December, the Soviet 40th Army, coming in from Gardez in the north, had used thousands of troops and sheer brute force to regain control of it and finally opened up the route to Khost.
Now the Russians were launching periodic forays, both airborne and on the ground, against mujahideen bases and villages to ensure that the pass remained open and they retained control.
Baz, wiry and with forearms that seemed to be hewn from lengths of steel rope, bent and picked up the one-and-a-half-meter matte green missile that lay next to him in the snow, then handed it to Javed.
Javed raised the Stinger so it rested on his right shoulder, its long tube stretched out behind him. He applied his eye to the chunky sight mounted on the front and swung the weapon toward the right side of the outcrop of rock, behind which the attack on the village had taken place.
Really, the arrival of the Stingers, supplied seemingly out of nowhere by the Americans, had been a gift from Allah in their battle against the Russians, he thought.
Then the four men waited.
Baz was wrong. Twenty seconds later three wasp-like Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters—Hinds, as the Americans called them—flying in a V formation, rounded the rock outcrop. Their outlines, with twin rocket launchers hanging beneath their stub wings, were clearly visible against the snow-covered backdrop of the stark mountainside behind them.
Javed stared at the helicopters. Rather than heading back to base in Gardez, the choppers were flying in the opposite direction—which based on previous experience, could mean only one thing: they were intending to take out the next village along the valley too.
“I’m going to have them,” Javed said.
The helicopters moved steadily toward them, now more clearly visible against a clear blue sky. They tracked up the river and the tortuously winding rough dirt road of the Khost-Gardez Pass that ran alongside it.
Javed began the now well-grooved process of preparing his beloved Stinger for firing. He bent down and picked up the small, round battery coolant unit—a thermal battery that provided power for the infrared tracking device and argon gas to keep it cool. He screwed it into the base of the gripstock, then returned the weapon to its position on his shoulder.
He placed his right index finger on the trigger, his left hand underneath the front of the FIM-92 Stinger. Behind him, one of the other men, Sandjar Hassani, checked that the weapon was aligned correctly.
Javed lined up the leading Mi-24 in his sight, lifted the device and activated it against the blue sky by pressing the safety and actuator switch, then realigned it with the chopper. There was an audible tone as the Stinger’s infrared mechanism locked onto its target, and Javed pressed the uncage button at the front of his weapon, which allowed it to automatically track the helicopter.
Then, using the sight, he elevated the tube a little to compensate for the effect of gravity and slowly pulled back the trigger. After another couple of seconds there was an explosion as the launch motor ignited, ejecting the missile from its launch tube several meters out in front of Javed before the main flight motor kicked in with a deafening whoosh.
“Allahu akbar!” Javed shouted. “Allahu akbar!”
The four men watched, almost mesmerized, as the Stinger, trailing a white line of gases across the blue sky, curved toward the lead Hind at more than seven hundred meters per second, its infrared detector locked onto its target’s engine and exhaust heat.
The Hind burst into an orange and yellow fireball, throwing off chunks of debris, then hung in the sky momentarily, as if defying gravity, before plunging almost vertically into the river below with a huge explosion that threw up a cloud of black smoke.
Javed saw immediately that one of the other two helicopters was also in deep trouble. Maybe it had been hit by debris from the first. It fell sharply, spinning a little, and then the pilot appeared to regain control, bringing it to perhaps twenty meters above the ground before it plunged onto the highway with a loud crash and the squeal of tortured metal. However, the aircraft didn’t explode.
“Dakh-rā zoya!” Baz said. “Son of a donkey.”
Javed’s face remained grim, in stark contrast to his usual reaction upon hearing his friend’s favorite expression. He took a couple of steps forward, his feet half covered by several centimeters of snow, and peered up the valley. “Praise Allah. We got two with one hit, Baz,” he said. “Now let’s go and see if any of the bastards in those choppers are still alive. If they are, we’ll take them back to the village and show them the damage they’ve done before we finish them off.”
Wednesday, February 3, 1988
Joe Johnson glanced across at his colleague Vic Walter, who sat with arms folded tight across his chest. They were perched at opposite ends of a long leather sofa in the director of central intelligence’s office on the seventh floor of the CIA’s Langley headquarters.
In an armchair on the other side of a coffee table sat their boss, Robert Watson, chief of station in Islamabad, where they were all based. The three men had been due to head to Dulles Airport two hours earlier for their return flight to the Pakistani capital, following a routine visit to base. But instead, they were summoned by a call from the director Alfred Meyer’s executive assistant.
Two Democratic senators had hurriedly arranged briefings with Meyer, wanting more details on the now enormous US budget for the Afghanistan program, designed to support the mujahideen in their battle against the occupying Russian forces. The duo, along with several of their colleagues in the Senate, had opposed the budget allocation, approved only a few weeks earlier. This was because most of the money was being distributed via Pakistan, which to the concern of the United States government was known to be developing nuclear weapons.
Meyer wanted Watson and his Islamabad-based team on the ground to help explain in detail to the senators exactly what the money was being used for and why the program was critical. Both Johnson, who had only encountered the director once before, and Walter were surprised to be invited along.
The executive assistant, a tall woman with a black bob, emerged from the director’s conference room and beckoned them. “You can come in now. They’re ready,” she said.
Watson, an angular forty-two-year-old, stood and fixed first Johnson, then Walter, with a stare. “You two just sit and listen and say nothing unless you’re spoken to, understand?”
They nodded and followed Watson into the conference room.
There, sitting on the left side of a long oval birch table, was Meyer. On the right were the two senators, Simon Rudder and Tony Kendall, both dressed almost identically in white shirts, ties, and navy suits.
Penguins, Johnson thought, running his hand through his short-cropped and slightly receding dark hair. He knew that both of them had already argued strongly to stop all aid to Pakistan, and thereby to Afghanistan, given that the Pakistanis controlled all flows of money and arms to the mujahideen. This opposition followed the discovery the previous summer that an agent for General Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistan president, had been in the US attempting to buy tons of a special type of steel vital to construction of a nuclear weapon.
It would be interesting, Johnson thought, to see how Meyer deflected the senators’ likely onslaught, since that the CIA had been the below-radar driver behind the supply of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the mujahideen—US funding in 1987 had topped $630 million, up from just $20 million in 1980. Only Egypt and Israel were getting more American cash.
The only reason the funding had been approved by the joint House-Senate Appropriations Conference Committee was because of the herculean efforts of Congressman Charlie Wilson, who had championed the cause of the mujahideen. Wilson had persuaded his colleagues on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to ramp up the Afghan budget year after year.
It was Wilson who had been largely responsible for the most notable addition to the weaponry supplied to the mujahideen—Stingers. These lethal handheld, heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles had over the previous eighteen months wreaked havoc among the Russian helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft fleets operating across Afghanistan.
Even before the trio had taken their seats, Meyer got right to the point. “I’ve explained our strategic goals for Afghanistan—about the need to finish the job, and the geopolitical threat to the States and globally if Russia isn’t finally driven out, that they could simply overrun the region and threaten Pakistan and eventually the Persian Gulf,” he said.
Meyer turned to Watson. “Now, tell the senators exactly what you’re seeing in the villages.”
Watson cleared his throat. “Frankly, it’s nothing short of genocide,” he said, running his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. “We think about three million refugees are living in about three hundred makeshift camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They’re dying by the thousands—disease is rife, and there’s nowhere near enough clean water and food. The Soviets have literally shot them out of their homes with their Hinds—they’ve used those choppers to turn it into a goddamn turkey shoot. And it’s still going on. So if we don’t keep the weapons flowing, especially the Stingers, they’ll keep on doing it.”
Rudder didn’t change his expression. Clearly he wasn’t going to be moved by humanitarian tales of woe. The senator glanced at Kendall, then directed his gaze back to Watson.
“In that case,” Rudder said, “you need to make damn sure you’ve got more control over where the weapons are going to. I’m not saying this, of course, but there’s no point for us being in Afghanistan unless we get more dead Russians. And if you can’t be sure that the Pakistanis are going to achieve that, then you need to grab more control of the weapons distribution process yourselves. Make your own arrangements with the mujahideen.”
“We think the ISI has good systems in place,” Watson said. “They know who they’re distributing to. But you’re right—we do need more control and we’re working on that, don’t worry. We’re talking to the British about how we can work below the Pakistanis’ radar to improve things.”
“If you don’t have control,” Rudder said, tapping his fingers on the table for emphasis, “my worry is where all those weapons are going. Who’s to say the mujahideen aren’t going to sell them to terrorist groups—maybe anti-American ones?”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Watson said.
“But how do you know?” Rudder persisted. “Where’s the inventory of who’s taking what and what they’re doing with it?”
Seemingly unsure about how to respond to a question about such highly classified details, Watson looked to Meyer, who said, “We’ve got that in hand, Simon. I’m not at liberty to tell you how, but I can assure you it’s all under control.”
Rudder shook his head. “And while on the subject of Hinds,” he said, “from what I understand, you haven’t even captured a single one intact yet. Neither have you managed to get a Soviet communications van. Isn’t it critical to do that?”
He raised his eyebrows at Watson, whom Johnson could see was visibly struggling to restrain himself. The Agency had been actively trying for some time to do exactly what Rudder was talking about. The intelligence value for both the Afghan program and the wider Cold War would be enormous.
Johnson stroked the dark beard he had grown since his arrival at the Islamabad station in June 1986. How would Watson get out of that question?
But what his boss said next caused Johnson’s jaw to drop.
“We’ve got that under control, actually,” Watson said to Rudder. “We know the importance of that. In fact, my colleague here, Joe Johnson, is running an operation to pull in both a Hind and a comms van. He’s taken responsibility for the project and is quite advanced with his planning.”
What? Johnson thought. Capture a Hind and a comms van? The bastard has to be kidding. It was the first he had heard of it. True, the office as a whole had discussed possible ways of trying to secure both pieces of Russian technology. But Johnson had been little more than a bit-part contributor to the discussions. His main job as a case officer in Islamabad had been something different: to develop sources among the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
Johnson had never liked his boss. Watson had proved himself to be a shifty, highly political, untrustworthy operator who never hesitated to take credit for others’ work and to stab colleagues in the back if he felt the need to divert the blame for mistakes away from himself.
Now, in front of the director and two high-ranking senators, Johnson—aged twenty-nine and with less than three and a half years at the CIA—had been dropped deep in the shit. He glanced at Vic, who was fiddling with his metal-rimmed glasses, clearly also irritated.
“Okay, that’s good to know,” said Rudder. “You’ll need to get a move on, though, young man,” he added, staring at Johnson. “We’ve got a meeting with members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee during the second week of April. If you haven’t got the job done by then, that’ll be the end of your Afghan program if I have anything to do with it. We’ll be discussing the budget for the fiscal year starting in October, and there’s a lot of senators thinking the way I’m thinking.” He stared at Watson, then Johnson and Vic in turn. “Understood?”
Johnson nodded, noticing out of the corner of his eye that although Meyer was already launching into a defense of the Afghan budget, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency was looking straight at him.
Saturday, February 6, 1988
The convoy of four mules, accompanied by three men, wound its way slowly up the lightly snow-covered mountain path in single file. The glare from the sun on the snow caused the man leading the group to squint a little as he stopped for a breather at the top of a steep incline.
Javed Hasrat was still coming to terms with the shock he had experienced more than a month earlier. That was when he had been told that the Hind helicopter attack on Wazrar had decimated the village, reducing his house to a smoking ruin and killing his wife, Ariana, and youngest daughter, Hila, only eight years old.
He, Baz, and Sandjar had arrived at the wreckage of the Russian helicopters to find two other men from his village waiting there to give him the tragic news.
A red mist of hatred had rapidly encompassed him. The crew of the helicopter that had taken a direct hit from the Stinger had all died, but those in the second chopper that had crash-landed had been fully conscious, and they had taken the full force of Javed’s anger. He had ensured they suffered greatly before finally meeting their end.
It was only after the deed was done that he sank to the ground and wept for his lost family members.
At thirty-eight, he had felt as though he had aged another three decades. He had gone into a deep depression that had only begun to lift thanks to the love and resilience shown by his two surviving older daughters, Roshina and Sandara, aged sixteen and fourteen, respectively.
Javed put his hand up to his face to shield his eyes and studied Baz, standing next to him, and Baz’s younger brother, Noor.
“Nearly there. Another kilometer,” Javed said. He straightened his traditional pale gray linen shalwar kameez—baggy trousers and a long shirt—and adjusted his jacket and chitrali cap. The action was unnecessary, an almost unconscious habit that he had developed as a youngster.
He gazed along the path ahead of them, which narrowed sharply and turned into little more than a two-meter-wide ledge carved into the face of the cliff.
The mules all had tarps covering the loads on their backs. Javed certainly didn’t want anyone to see what was underneath. The animals were each carrying four FIM-92 Stingers on their backs, all wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, packed into special canvas holders, and disguised under packages of food and blankets.
It was the only way to transport the weapons, weighing about fifteen kilograms each, from Wazrar, on the Khost-Gardez highway, to the safety of the cave, about ten kilometers northeast of the village in the Sulaiman Mountains. No vehicle could navigate the tortuous route.
Following the downing of the two Hinds, the Russians had continued to mount occasional attacks on the villages.
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