Night was falling fast over the rugged hills as Shamil Mashadov took a knee under the short, scrubby pine and looked back at his little strike force.
The fifty men were strung along the side of the mountain behind him, following the narrow goat path in single file. They blended in well, especially as the light failed. Much of that was thanks to the brand-new camouflage that the Emir had gotten them; the pixelated tan and green was every bit as effective as the American OCP, particularly amid the scrub and short trees of Paktika Province.
Most of the men behind him, except for Dilawar Safi, his Pashtun guide, were fellow Chechens, warriors of the Aswad al Islam. They were a long way from home, but what they would do tonight would be worth it.
Turning back toward their objective, he lowered the night vision goggles mounted to his helmet and scanned the valley below. The Americans had said that they would be gone from this part of Afghanistan months before, but, infuriatingly, they still had yet to withdraw.
Tonight, Mashadov and his brothers would teach the infidels that they should have fled long ago.
He lifted the encrypted Russian radio to his lips. “Timur, are you in position?”
It took a moment for Timur Kurbanov to answer. “Yes, brother. The mortars will be set up in another few minutes, and the machineguns are in place and ready.”
“Good. We will be in position to attack in twenty minutes.” Mashadov glanced at Dilawar. The Pashtuns—most jihadis, for that matter—were not very good at timing. Insh’Allah, the attack would go through, when Allah willed that it would go through. But Mashadov had been trained in the Russian-aligned Kadyrovtsy. Ramzan Kadyrov, like his father before him, might have been a traitor to the Faith and the true Chechen nation, but his friendship with Moscow had gotten them training and experience that they might otherwise not have had. And every man in Mashadov’s strike force had either been in the Kadyrovsty or had been trained by those who had. Which made them more coordinated than many of the Chechens fighting the Jihad abroad.
Of course, Abu Mokhtar’s vision and resources had facilitated even more training, as well getting them the top-of-the-line equipment they were using.
He stuffed the radio back into his load bearing vest and hefted the brand-new AK-203, lifting it to his shoulder and peering through the Elcan scope at the FOB below. It wouldn’t take his hardened mountain fighters long to get close to the HESCO barriers that formed the outer perimeter.
The Americans weren’t showing visible lights; the FOB was an only barely visible mass of blocks through the optic. But when he flipped his NVGs back down again, he could see considerably more.
Thanks to twenty years of war and ready access to the Internet, Mashadov knew quite well what he was looking at. He knew that the points of light surrounding the perimeter were the infrared chemlights hanging on the outer concertina wire, marking it for American infantry soldiers on night vision. He knew that the IR illuminators that the Americans were using from the guard posts would point him right to their positions. And he knew how to pick out the faint glow of the generator that was powering the Americans’ operations center.
He could call that in to Kurbanov. But Kurbanov had his own observers, who knew how to pinpoint the right targets before they started dropping mortars on the infidels.
The mortars were just supposed to keep the Americans’ heads down while Mashadov and his men closed the distance, anyway. This was going to be a much more personal fight.
If it had been anywhere but Afghanistan, that might have been strange. Mashadov had fought with the jihad in Syria and, though it had gone unremarked by most of the outside world, in Yemen. He had developed an antipathy for the Arabs there that was mirrored by his Pashtun brother only a few meters away. The Arabs didn’t like to get in close to fight. The Pashtuns, however…they were a different matter.
Turning back to the column behind him, he pointed down the slope toward the low ground leading almost right up to the HESCO barrier wall. Then with a “follow me” gesture, he started down the hillside.
The scrub provided some concealment as they moved. The Chechen fighters slipped from bush to tree to boulder as they worked their way down the rocky slope, covered in tough grass. Their gear was all carefully secured, and they made no noise as they moved.
What the fuck am I doing here?
It wasn’t the first time Specialist Colin Owens had asked himself that question. Or even the hundredth time. He’d lost track around the end of his first year in the Army.
He couldn’t say that he was a proud member of the E4 mafia. Owens wasn’t really proud of anything about being in the Army. He was doing his time until he could get out, grow his hair long, and do absolutely nothing if he felt like it. He hated the Army, hated his life, and really, really hated Afghanistan.
We were supposed to be out of this shithole country months ago! Why am I still on midnight guard duty, on a fucking FOB in the middle of the mountains? At most, I should be sitting in a transient tent in Bagram, waiting to go home.
He kept his thoughts to himself, even though he was pretty sure that Private Ortiz, his partner on watch that night, was of a similar mind. But Sergeant Merrill, their “Baboon Sausage,” as Specialist Newkirk called their Platoon Sergeant, had a nasty habit of sneaking around the perimeter when their platoon was on security, and he really didn’t want another ass-chewing for shamming, even if it was only talk.
So, he held his peace, wished for a cigarette, and stared at his sector, wondering how many minutes he had left before their relief got there. Which would probably be late. As usual.
As much as he hated the Army and everything about it, though, Owens wasn’t so lost in his hate and discontent that he was completely ignoring the landscape around him. While they’d been shut up in FOB Mayne since they’d gotten there, and they hadn’t been patrolling the area or interacting with the local populace much, they’d still been rocketed a couple of times over just the last week. Both times, the guard posts had reported people watching from the nearby ridgelines both before and during the attacks. Probably spotters. And despite himself, Owens didn’t want to be the guy who missed a spotter and failed to warn the rest of the unit that they were about to get hit, just because he hated his life.
That was how he came to be looking at an open spot between a pair of distant pines just as a figure dashed from shadow to shadow across the grassy slope.
Owens blinked, squinting through his NVGs. The moonless Paktika night was so dark that he couldn’t be entirely sure that he’d actually seen anything, even in the bright grayscale image projected by his dual-tube NVGs. It might have been his imagination. But he remembered the rockets coming in a few nights before, and so he decided not to take chances.
He picked up his rifle from where it was leaning against the sandbags, lifted it to his shoulder, then flipped on the IR illuminator and shone it toward the trees where he thought he’d seen the movement. “Hey, Ortiz,” he said, without taking his eyes off the slope, “Get on the radio and call Sarn’t Merrill.”
Mashadov cursed as he saw the cone of infrared light stab over his head, illuminating the tree where Musa Anzorov had just taken cover. The Americans had seen something. They might have just lost the element of surprise.
Looking down the slope, he tried to judge how far they had still to go. He was crouched behind a boulder, less than half a kilometer from the wire, but that was still a long distance to cover under fire. And the mortars were not supposed to start firing for another ten minutes.
Yet Allah is beneficent. Even as Mashadov braced himself to charge the American perimeter, a series of distant pops sounded, as the mortars started firing early.
The shells whistled down toward the American camp, and everything turned to pandemonium.
A series of bright flashes and earthshaking whumps marked the rounds’ impacts. A siren started to sound in the middle of the camp, and that was Mashadov’s cue.
Even as the mortars were joined by flickering streams of green tracers plunging down from strobing muzzle flashes up on the hills to the south, Mashadov rose from behind his tree and with a screamed, “Allahu Akhbar!” he plunged down the remaining slope toward the camp and the exterior wire.
If his plan had simply been to charge the FOB under cover of the mortar and machinegun fire, it would have ended messily and very quickly. But Mashadov was a thinker, and while he was perhaps slightly handicapped by his ideology, he hadn’t let that influence his tactics as much as the hated Arabs had. He had a plan to get past the wire and over the wall.
He and the dozen or so men who made up his assault element threw themselves down behind cover a few meters short of the wire. He quickly got down behind his rifle and aimed in at the guard post above and to his left. The others would be aimed in alternately at the others.
So far, none of his assaulting fighters had fired a shot. So long as the mortars and the machineguns kept the Americans’ attention occupied, they should have no warning about where the real attack was coming from, until it was too late.
Dzhamal Dudaev and Khanpasha Ismailov ran past him, lugging the satchel charges that had been carefully prepared days before. Dropping down on their bellies, they crawled the last few meters to the coiled concertina wire, which wasn’t nearly as deeply emplaced as it should have been. Where there should have been two or three ranks of triple-strand wire, there was only a single coil, stretched out around the base.
At least Mashadov could be reasonably certain there wouldn’t be mines. If it had been a Russian base, there would be.
Dudaev and Ismailov shoved their charges under the concertina wire. They’d brought poles to push them farther if need be, but with the Americans all either taking cover from the falling mortar rounds or focused on the machinegun nests higher up on the mountainside above them, they had been able to crawl right up to the wire. The charges slid underneath, and then they were reaching for the igniters.
Owens was trying to keep his head down as the mortars continued to rock the base, and machinegun fire hammered at the tops of the HESCOs to only a few feet away. This is way worse than the last time. Fuck this place, man. Fuck the Army. Fuck all this noise.
He never did know what made him turn back to the M240B mounted at the firing port. It was currently pointed away from the incoming fire, and there were plenty of pressing reasons to worry more about the actual falling mortar rounds than a possible—but so far invisible—threat outside the perimeter. But something prompted him to turn his attention back to his sector. Maybe it was simply the nagging worry that Merrill would somehow catch him out looking the wrong way.
He raised himself up just far enough to peer over the lip of the sandbagged plywood shack that served as a guard post. He remembered the movement he’d seen, or thought he’d seen, but figured that the attack was coming from off to the south. Just a look, to cover my ass.
But that look showed him two figures in the prone down by the wire, barely fifty yards outside the guard post.
Owens might have been a shammer who hated his life, but he was still smart enough to know what was going on. The mortars and machinegun fire were just intended to keep their heads down. This wasn’t simple harassing fire like the last couple of times they’d gotten rocketed.
While Owens might say that he wished he were dead about ten times a day, in reality, he really was attached to his own personal hide. He wanted to live to see the States again, not die in the middle of the night in fucking Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
Besides, American casualties in A-stan had been down to almost nothing for a couple of years. It would be embarrassing to be one of the first new ones.
“Contact!” he roared at Ortiz, while he grabbed the 240 and heaved it up, tucking the buttstock into his shoulder. Or he tried to roar. His voice cracked halfway through, and it was more of a cross between a scream and a squawk. But if his call was borderline incoherent and embarrassingly high-pitched, at least the stuttering roar of the gun as he slewed it to the side and opened fire on the two figures down by the wire got the message across.
Red tracers hammered into the dirt and the two men down on their bellies by the wire. The nearest IR chemlight swung wildly as bullets nipped through the concertina wire, and then was obscured by the cloud of dust kicked up by the long, thunderous burst of gunfire.
Mashadov flinched as the bullets chopped into Dudaev and Ismailov. They jerked and went limp. Dudaev might have tried to crawl backward, but quickly spasmed, the red tracers skipping into his body, and then he stretched out and went still, as the dust kicked up by the impacts clouded the two shahidi’s bodies.
Mashadov bit back the scream of hatred that he wanted to fling at the infidels. He had better than simply words to throw at them.
He signaled to Mokhmad Khizriev, off to his right. Khizriev rose up from behind his boulder, his RPG-26 already in his shoulder.
The bang of the PG round leaving its tube might have given away the true direction of the attack, except that another salvo of mortar rounds landed with a rippling roll of thunder at the same moment that the warhead slammed across the short gap and into the side of the guard post.
Owens hardly felt anything as the warhead vented its explosive fury on the interior of the guard post. There was a flash, a heavy thud that almost went unremarked in the cacophony of gunfire and explosions outside, and black smoke and dust billowed out of every opening before the plywood started to burn.
Then Mashadov and his fighters were up and moving.
He crossed to the bodies at the wire. Both men were dead; there was no way they could have survived almost point-blank machinegun fire. They had died shahidi, martyrs for the jihad. He would mourn them later.
Mashadov was more concerned with the breaching charges. They had wire cutters if they needed them, but the charges would be faster.
It took him a moment to realize that one of the dead men had pulled the igniter on his charge. Smoke was rising from the fuse.
“Back!” he screamed. “Get back!” His boots skidded on the grass and rocky soil as he spun around and almost fell in his haste to get away from the live charge. He got ten meters away and threw himself flat, covering his head with his hands.
Not everyone made it. One of his fighters was still too close when the breaching charge went off with a short flash and a loud bang, and went sprawling. He fell on his face and did not move.
Mashadov picked himself up and turned back toward the wall and the smoking gap in the wire, where rocks and dirt were still falling. With another roared, “Allahu Akhbar!” he surged to his feet and ran toward the HESCO barriers.
The Chechens flowed through the breach in the wire, firing from the hip and stitching bullets along the top of the double wall of HESCO barriers.
Then they were climbing the barriers, slinging rifles and grabbing the wire lip to pull themselves up, leaping down into the heart of the infidels’ camp.
Staff Sergeant Merrill almost didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.
He’d heard the boom of the breaching charge going off, but it hadn’t really registered as the mortars had kept howling down out of the night to slam into the south side of the FOB. Only when a bullet snapped past his head, noticeably coming from the east did he figure out that something more was going on.
He turned in time to see dark figures piling over the wall on the east side, and smoke still pouring from the burning guard post. “Contact, east!” he bellowed, but his words were snatched away by the next salvo of mortar impacts, one round landing close enough to knock him off his feet.
More rounds cracked overhead as fragmentation and debris pattered down on him. He rolled over and groped for his rifle in the dust and smoke, hardly noticing that his NVGs had been knocked away from his eyes. His fingers closed around the handguards and he dragged it to him, rolling onto his back and only then realizing that he couldn’t see. Fortunately, his NVGs were still intact, and worked when he wrenched them back down in front of his eyes.
He got the tubes aligned just in time to see a figure looming over him. At first, he thought it might be another American; the high-cut helmet, night vision goggles, and streamlined gear, complete with integrated kneepads in the trousers. Only the Kalashnikov variant in the man’s hands revealed that he wasn’t an American.
Then the AK boomed, and Merrill saw nothing more, ever again.
Enemy of My Enemy is up for Kindle Preorder now. It will be out December 18.