A Strike Eagle fighter jet howls down the runway and hurtles into the sky, quickly followed by another. And another. In next to no time the sleek war birds are mere dots on the horizon. Deadly dots. Seconds later a C-17 Globemaster III lands with a giant‟s roar. No sooner has it touched down, its huge bulk lumbering along the airstrip, than two HH-60 choppers armed with twin cannons and carrying a medevac team thud-thud away on a rescue mission, and a wise old Chinook CH-47 adds its voice to the great concert of war.
Jake Ryan stands outside his B-hut, transfixed by the sound and fury. The young Australian explosives expert has been at Bagram Air Field for over six months but is still amazed by the awesome display of power.
An American soldier from the same B-Hut, Private Horten, punches at the sky as he passes. „Impressive, huh?‟ he shouts. „That‟s the U S of A, bud, telling all Talibs to back off or we‟ll bake „em good!‟
It is impressive, Jake has to agree; a mega-show of military might. But are the Taliban backing off? He wonders. It actually looks to him as if the boot could be on the other foot.
Over at one of the tarmacs a long line of Turtleback Humvees are being loaded onto a huge transport carrier. This time last year those squat armour-plated hogs would have been heading off to battle. A regiment of Marines marches by, acknowledging a superior officer with their characteristic “Hoo Har” as they head for a troop carrier that will fly them home. It‟s happening all the time now, more and more troops and equipment being shipped out. The end game is on.
“Ready to go, Stingray?‟
Jake leans down and pats the black and tan kelpie at his side. He has already done a solid gym session that morning, mainly weights, but he now needs to give his legs their regular workout. The dog seems to smile.
“Come on, mate. Time to run.‟
Jake swings his M-16 over his shoulder and sets off along Disney Drive, the main thoroughfare through the base from north to south.
He pushes himself hard, only stopping when he reaches the main perimeter road near the edge of the base. There he glances up, his gaze settling on the Hindu Kush. The mountains glare down on the base like ancient warriors, their snow-covered peaks glowing in the morning sun with fierce beauty and timeless, silent dignity
A light breeze blows across the Shomali Plains. It will later stiffen, bringing dust. But for now it merely rattles the small metal tags printed with skull and crossbones that hang from the fence. Jake knows their sound well, and what they mean. He shifts his gaze from the mountains to the fence and through it to the fields beyond.
In the distance he can see the scrappy villages. Closer, a herd of goats graze on the early spring grasses. Closer still, a blue burqa trundles by piled high with twigs, while a rabble of boys plays soccer with a plastic bottle. Scattered across this scene like scabs are the wrecks of Russians tanks, Migs and APCs, rusting reminders of another war fought on Afghan soil. And peppered amongst it all are the hidden killers left behind by that war – landmines.
Jake’s immediate instinct is to yell. How the hell can we help you people if you won’t even help yourselves? But he knows it‟s pointless. Afghans seem to treat landmines as just part of life. He huffs and is about to continue on his run when something else catches his eye.
A lone figure stands in the field about midway between Jake and the boys – a man, his clothes the colour of the earth, his skin a shade darker. Tall, he stands erect like a guard on duty, with sharp angular features that might have been carved from the Hindu Kush. An old mujahedeen, Jake decides.
The man turns his head, a rapid movement that catches Jake out. Embarrassed, the young Australian smiles weakly and nods. But the old warrior stares right through him. Then, with a slight toss of his head, he turns away, picks up his hoe and continues digging.
Jake watches for a moment longer, then walks off. He doesn’t feel like running any more.
The breeze lifts, the skulls and crossbones dance, and the airbase rages louder than ever.
But the old warrior keeps chipping away.