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A Story of Brotherhood and Terror in the Afghanistan War
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 21, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In the early days of the Afghanistan war, Jeff Stern was scouring the streets of Kabul for a big story. He was accompanied by a driver, Aimal, who had ambitions of his own: to get rich off the sudden infusion of foreign attention and cash.
In this gripping adventure story, Stern writes of how he and Aimal navigated an environment full of guns and danger and opportunity, and how they forged a deep bond.
Then Stern got a call that changed everything. He discovered that Aimal had become an arms dealer, and was ultimately forced to flee the country to protect his family from his increasingly dangerous business partners.
Tragic, powerful, and layered, The Mercenary is more than a wartime drama. It is a Rashomon-like story about how politics and violence warp our humanity, and keep the most important truths hidden.
At the time of the attack, Alex had begun carrying a Makarov 9 mm inside his belt. Safety on, but loaded so it was always ready to fire. Still, he often forgot it was there, each night remembering only when he undressed and saw the imprint the weapon had left against his skin. Most nights, he fell asleep with violence on his mind.
It’s midnight, maybe later. It’s loud in the car, quiet outside. He flies past guard towers, barbed wire, and men standing, slouching, still, like they’re not alive. Smoke outside the car, smoke inside the car. The girl in the backseat wears a face pale and made up, painted, her head covered in a way that’s more suggestive, not less. A waxed rim of paved-smooth hair slips forward from beneath her scarf like a helmet visor. Her outfit assembled brightly, with care, though the young men in front look only forward.
A party on the move, they pass a bottle back and forth. The city blurs by and bursts in the mirrors, oil on canvas, not quite real. Smoke hazes everything. Light pools in puddles outside, groaning generators heaving power to naked bulbs, so hosed-down sidewalks seem to flicker. Alex drives too fast. Even before he was a Big Man, he drove too fast because even before he was a big man—when he didn’t know anyone but me, and I was nobody—the only way he could find pride was to break a rule and get away with it. Back then, there weren’t really traffic cops. Police worried about suicide bombers, or they were paid a little extra not to worry about suicide bombers. Reckless driving wasn’t a crime anyone bothered with, and if it was a written crime at all, it was in an untouched book in the ignored drawer of some civil servant who had an office only because he was Somebody’s Cousin. Today, Alex drinks, drives fast, and drives with girls and hashish in the car, not because he has something to prove, but because it’s what he used to do, back when he did. He was a kid with bad habits and no money. Now he’s a kid with bad habits and a lot of money. Now he’s protected, a made man, a big man, a man with big friends—looked after. So at first he’s not worried when something new flashes in the side-view mirror. Through the dark and the booze and the noise, the shape registers as familiar. A color, a pattern, a choreography, the way the weight of it shifts between its wheels. He knows that car.
Then there’s the growl of an engine; tires screech. With a jerk, the new vehicle closes on his flank, and before he can make the judgment he used to make in an instant—it’s too late at night, there shouldn’t be other cars on the road, there should not be other cars going this fast—a window rolls down, and something metal telescopes out of the other car like an odd-angled antenna.
Alex feels percussion, a drumroll along the side paneling.
Orange flashes, a noise—“oh!”—like a question from the backseat. Only one girl is hit.
Now they’re racing down city streets, Alex trying to weave, at speed, without losing purchase on the road. He’s squinting to concentrate, clenching the wheel and trying to remember the route around potholes he used to know by feel. He used to feel these roads in the pads of his fingers on the wheel, a braille he’s now forgotten. Now he has the window down, and he’s shooting back, the Makarov bumping against his palm, and a friend next to him in the passenger seat is shooting too. The girl behind him is not screaming, she’s dying, and it feels like an hour has passed before he’s made his car a hard enough target that the other one pulls off and disappears, as though satisfied that a message was received.
In the sinking quiet that follows, Alex begins to wonder whether it’s time to leave this place for good.
(Jeff’s Story, 2007–2011)
The attack happened as he was becoming someone I wasn’t sure I knew anymore. A successful entrepreneur, an arms dealer with a heightened sense of irony, and before we reconnected. Before we stood together one night, years later, an hour west of Toronto in an ice cream shop lit up like a research lab. Fluorescent bulbs buzzing, Alex asking a girl behind the counter to write “Welcome to Canada” on an ice cream cake, then pausing, not looking at me, and telling her to add my name. Smiling with a mischief I knew well. And also with what looked like exhaustion.
His name wasn’t really Alex. Alex was one of the aliases he used. His name was Aimal, but foreigners had a hard time saying it right. For a while he tried not fighting it. “Call me Email.” People called him Email. Once, we agreed to trade names. It was mostly a joke, but it was helpful because he was working with my people, and I was trying to work with his. Then he just settled on Alex. It was close enough to his real name, the same number of syllables, and none of his customers ever asked how he ended up with a name they could say.
His role in my life, back before everything changed, was to drive me through a country being rebuilt quickly and secured slowly. Rising up and then strapped down, buildings growing behind blast walls, blast walls growing higher. “This is a citadel,” a schoolteacher friend said, “not a city.” Every year, a new glass-sheathed homage to progress shattered by shrapnel and gas from bombs that took down buildings and left in their place car-sized craters, waiting to fill with rain. Alex remembered the places where the roads opened; he absorbed them. He slalomed around rumpled concrete without thinking or looking, even at night. Keeping eye contact with me as we laughed about some grim thing or another, laughing at things we shouldn’t have laughed at. Bombs were just occupational hazards for taxi drivers; the holes they left behind were not memorials for fallen countrymen, best not to think of them that way. They were just obstacles. What use is it to remember a building that once stood, or the people who fell with it? I’d ask for details—What happened here?—and Alex would jut his chin and turn the volume up like we’d both missed a lyric. For him, the city was an evolving series of roadside slowdowns to avoid. I sensed that thinking about it in this way helped him maintain his immunity to violence; I figured these were the calculations a driver learns when his city is a war zone and his livelihood lies in navigating it.
A driver fills his glove box with cigarettes to bribe soldiers. A driver judges his country’s leaders by the roads they build. “Daud Khan was great man. He built roads, and they last forty years. Now you know the roads are not great but OK; now they make road, and one year, one half-year later, it’s bad already.”
The country was growing when I met Alex, but the progress was less a straight path than a swelling. Pumped full of money from different countries, construction projects emerged without pattern or reason. Foreign experts called it “development,” but that implied a sense of order we didn’t always feel. Instead, the way the country grew felt like a spill. A tide of concrete and rebar sludging along its path of least resistance, dammed and pooling in odd places. Progress was lopsided and uneven, but visible. More visible because it was lopsided and uneven. Roads were under construction forever, finally finished only to be shut down by the UN, by this ministry, by this or that embassy so visiting VIPs could pass through in their shiny little convoys. Alex would click his tongue. “Yah. Hold on, Jaff.” He would touch my thigh to steady me. And then he always found another way.
Durham, North Carolina
I didn’t belong there at all. I should never have gotten on the plane. I’d been propelled to war by a combination of naked ambition and overconfidence, a series of bad decisions met with favorable results. I was unprepared.
Ever since my father had me write letters as a child to earn time on my Game Boy, I had a place for writing wedged into the pleasure centers of my brain. Writing meant dopamine, and dopamine meant pleasure but also risk. My video-game characters didn’t do much besides die quickly; Bart Simpson never made it past the second level in Escape from Camp Deadly. By fifth grade, writing assignments had me neglecting other work, and my one-page short stories spilled across notebooks in three different colors of ink. I played most sports left-handed and wrote with my right hand, but I wrote with my right hand like left-handed people write—with the pen tip pointing back at me. When it was my turn to read aloud to the class, there were long pauses I pretended were for effect but were in fact because my Technicolor scrawl was illegible even to me. I received few distinctions, but by college, as I found myself failing to compete with the glut of pre-law, pre-banking, pre-responsible classmates whose panning-out plans tunneled in on me, the one unoccupied lane was writing.
At college, at Duke University, probably a better school than I belonged at, we had a storied school paper I never managed to write for. Instead, I took a single magazine journalism class, thinking “journalism” was getting to write while being less of a starving artist than whatever the Birkenstock kids were doing, and then I took a series of extraordinary risks that should not have paid off but did. I spent a week with a family of homeless men in an encampment near the train tracks for a story in the local hippie newspaper. The Independent Weekly’s editor swatted aside the half-cocked idea I’d come to him with and made me a life-changing pitch. Why not go see about the old red tent that had bloomed one night by the railroad tracks? The assignment launched my career.
I’d approached the tent cold. What other way was there? A man inside lifted the flaps and ushered me toward the one prized upturned bucket, a throne. I would win an award for a piece tracing their lives, though I was little more than a stenographer, sprinkling commas around stories they unfurled over malt liquor and street-harvested cigarette butts. I emerged from the story halfway in love with those men, wondering where the hospitality had come from. Mark, Concrete, White Mike. I thought the four of us would be friends forever. Even Concrete, even though Concrete hadn’t spoken a word to me. I could tell he was kind. I could tell he cared about me; I couldn’t tell why. I’d spent hours in a library basement with the microfiche trying to unearth a buried past, a two-tone scroll of 1960s Durham life. Drug feuds and violent crime whipping by, me leaned forward trying to violate his silence. I wanted to know what he didn’t want me to know: who he really was, what his real name was, what exciting violence made him stop talking. He’d lifted the tent flaps for me, a gentle, silent soul welcoming me in, and I barged right by him looking for the private chambers of his past. White Mike—frail, hilarious, kind, nearly dying, and then deciding to enter rehab during our conversations. He invited me to his graduation from a halfway house. I sat in the audience and shook my head. White Mike, standing proudly in a full black-tie tailcoat, the only presentable thing in the donation bin. Looking like someone’s butler, a monocle short of Mr. Peanut with an AA medallion. White Mike: he seemed to know exactly what I was thinking, and we beamed at each other. Later, he would come to my own college graduation party. My grandmother bought him an old Honda.
I kept having these strange, wonderful encounters. Studying abroad, I bonded with a stray dog while covering violent protests in an Argentine beach town. I found myself perched on top of riot fencing between police in tactical gear on one side and mulleted twenty-year-olds with Molotov cocktails on the other. Canisters of tear gas looped back and forth over my head, thumped out of riot guns, thrown back by protesters. The cops were trying to make eyes burn so people would leave, but I was so excited I wanted to scream.
I rode in a cattle car from Buenos Aires with a friend I’d made at a bus stop. A flower-peddling kid named Diego and his cohort of buskers, petty drug dealers, jugglers, and merchants of useless plastic shit commuting from a day working the city’s clenched traffic. Passing a bottle of homebrew back and forth as we rode, legs dangling over tracks rushing by below. Diego brought me out to a violent slum he and his unlucky friends all lived in for a story on the cocaine trade. We spent a night poisoning ourselves and listening to pistols, and I fell into a new social circle. Low-level dealers and gentle addicts not yet fully decayed. Kids, young mothers, kids who were young mothers. I published a story in the Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language newspaper in a Spanish-speaking country, which was about my speed.
After my junior year of college, I tried to go legit. Through a family connection, I got an internship at CNN Presents, logging tape for a film version of Peter Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know. I thought I worked hard, but it was a running joke that I was the least-experienced intern they had. There wasn’t that much for me to fuck up, though, and they liked me well enough. I had a council of tolerant bosses who took turns inventing tasks for me, and the youngest one was friends with a guy overseas who was serving as the Kabul bureau chief for a big newspaper. “Huh,” the young boss said one day. “Griff is coming home.” The detail burred on to me. I couldn’t quite forget it. By my senior year of college, just as a slew of rejection letters from job applications began to arrive, I learned I hadn’t counted my course credits correctly. While most classmates were coasting, collecting Phys Ed credits on the golf course, I had to overload both semesters like some hustling underclassman trying to triple major. It was obvious confirmation that I had a hard time following instructions and probably wouldn’t do well at a job where I had to do that, which, as far as I could tell, was pretty much all of them.
By then I was nearing graduation and going nowhere. I wanted to write, kind of, and I had journalism experience, kind of, but hardly any training. I had a bad habit of getting close to sources, and I wasted a lot of time correcting editors on words they all coincidentally misspelled: DEK, HED, LEDE, WEL. Fuck—I knew nothing. No one would hire me. I figured, though, that maybe I could write if I traveled somewhere like that guy “Griff” had. Somewhere with a lot to write about. There were wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I knew little about either, but I knew from eavesdropping on CNN producers that it was expensive to work in Iraq, and Afghanistan was still a little Wild West. I maybe didn’t need so much money. Maybe I didn’t need a security detail. Maybe I could wing it there. I had a fantasy of taking off on my own for Afghanistan. I knew it was fantasy. Beyond fantasy. I couldn’t even daydream about it; I didn’t have a palette to work from. I didn’t know what the color of the place was, what things looked like there, aside from footage I’d seen in the edit bay a dozen times of bin Laden walking around on some rocks. Was that even Afghanistan? I wasn’t sure my daydream was set in the right war zone, I had no idea what was there, and, starved of detail, it ran out of steam five seconds in—that slip in the film where you realize the scene set in some distant time and place was actually last year on a Burbank back lot, gaps filled by overdressed extras and plywood facades. I didn’t really know how to get to Afghanistan and had no reason to believe I could pull it off besides, I guess, having already landed myself in a few hairy situations I’d managed to stumble out of unscathed. The logistics eluded me. But there was a good chance I was invincible. Afghanistan. Things filled out, details tumbled into place, and this wild idea of mine moved from a fantasy to a crazy idea and from a crazy idea to something actually worth a serious think.
I applied for travel grants and fellowships, was rejected by most and told I’d failed to correctly fill out the rest, and then somewhere near the end of my senior year I got to meet Richard Brodhead, president of the university. He’d somehow heard about my week with the homeless men. I wasn’t talking much about the crazy idea of shipping off to war with no survival skills, mostly because I was superstitious. There were visa forms to screw up, plane tickets I might not be able to afford, a trough-full of broad-spectrum antibiotics I’d probably need if I was going to subject a weak tummy to whatever adventurous animal parts they ate in Afghanistan. But I must have mentioned something to President Brodhead about the idea, because later, at graduation, during his baccalaureate address, he told a chapel full of graduating seniors and their families, “As you write the story of your life, I hope you’ll include some element of adventure.” For a moment, I thought he might be addressing me personally. “You had the confidence to cross from known to unknown paths, and I hope you won’t stop now.” OK, I thought. I won’t. “I know some of you who are going off to teach in places you have never visited; I know one of you who is going off to be an investigative reporter in Afghanistan…”
The room wobbled. Did someone else have that idea? Did he mean me? “… I know a person being commissioned as an officer in the Marines…” I still hadn’t figured out how to get to Afghanistan; I hadn’t even decided I was actually going. I shifted in my seat and understood that now, I had to.
I went to the bank to withdraw everything. The little money I’d saved working summer construction jobs in high school, mowing lawns, having a bar mitzvah, and publishing a few stories. I secretly called my parents’ travel agent and foisted an ethical dilemma onto her lap, bought a flight through Delhi to Kabul, somehow secured a visa to Afghanistan, somehow didn’t realize until a few days before departure that I also needed a visa to India, and somehow got that. It was like a video game in which I kept failing tasks and advancing to the next level anyway. A night in New Delhi, then a short, what-the-fuck-am-I-doing flight from Delhi to Kabul on Air India. I tried to busy myself with two books, Reporting by David Remnick and The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, gifted to me by Bob Bliwise, my magazine journalism professor. But I wasn’t reading. I was compulsively underlining as if stray pen marks might force information into my brain, and trying to look busy so no one would ask me what I was doing. I consumed everything put before me, including the traditional Indian soapy lemon water that made me very nearly hurl and that I learned years later was actually traditional Indian handwash.
I landed in Kabul without really believing it was Kabul, and headed to the person attached to one of two phone numbers I knew. Rory Stewart, a friend of a family friend. I’d never met or spoken to him, but he’d started a charity reviving old Afghan handicrafts and, now, apparently, housing wayward young Americans marching like wind-up toys on kitchen tables toward certain demise. Rory gave me a free room for a week, then two, and then an Afghan blogger named Nasim I’d found online helped get me set up with almost-free lodging at an almost-abandoned hotel in the heart of the city. I was the only guest until a strange European traveler showed up in the room next to mine, and I thought, What kind of loser comes to Afghanistan on his own? The whole thing was eerie. There were rumors the hotel owner had been killed in some kind of gang-related incident. I didn’t know. What I knew was that the rooms were tiny, the location was central, there were two guests and no amenities besides two men who said hello and watched cricket, and a single exercise bike up on the roof. I went up there and felt so entirely alone in a terrifying and wonderful way. So untethered that anything might happen now, the part of a leap after your stomach has settled and now you’re just flying. A wind blew. The muezzin sounded. One, then the other, then a dozen. A web of mournful voices, old men lamenting at each other over the rooftops. I watched old women in burkas down on the street hurrying home. I didn’t know how I knew they were old.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I was here to find a story and write it. How on earth could I do that? Nasim was gone now, he was helpful and kind but an island of a young man, off somewhere tending to his thoughts. I thought of the one useful tip I’d been given just before leaving America: if I found myself alone, I needed to call a company called Afghan Logistics. It had a taxi service that, for a flat rate of seven dollars, gave Westerners rides anywhere in the city with a reliable, English-speaking driver.
EARLY SEPTEMBER 2007
When Alex arrived to pick me up the first time, I felt myself rushing to him. I didn’t know why. He seemed totally in control, but he was skinny and slight, a mantis folded up behind the wheel. Jangly limbs shot off at switchback angles inside the car like he was part of its architecture. Thin, strong beams holding the sidewalls apart. The car smelled of dust and heat and stale tobacco, a little of old cologne, so slipping inside was like brushing up against a dark-suited bouncer, the sparkly crossing of a nighttime threshold into a pulsing, roped-off world. Breathless, floating excitement and chance, which notched up when Alex heard something on the radio, unstowed an arm, and reached toward the volume knob. I expected some chanty Middle Eastern thing, but instead a wobbly tin whistle squeaked out of the speakers, and then a beat so propulsive I could’ve sworn my organs woke up to dance. Some techno-inflected remix of a song I didn’t know I knew at first, until a sped-up voice started tearing through lyrics I’d never heard sung this fast. Far across the distance, and spaces between us—a synth kicked in, and I remembered reading somewhere that Titanic was popular in Afghanistan. You’rrrrrrre here, there’s nothhhhhhing I fear—this was going to be awesome. Alex put the car in gear and pulled off into traffic, and I knew he was someone I was going to turn into my friend.
We talked a lot but covered little of substance, and I didn’t know why I liked him so much so quickly. I think it was because he was funny, though I found everything funny, because I was manic, because I was in a fucking war zone and a speeding chipmunky diva was singing along with us. He didn’t laugh when I told him I was trying to be a journalist even though I knew no one, didn’t have an editor, had hardly any money despite the fact that Westerners all had money. He took me seriously. He listened, I think, though I wasn’t sure because I spoke no Dari and his English was bad. I might have seen someone to save; I might have seen someone to save me. It was something like love at first sight. It felt like we were meeting each other at the exact right moment in both of our lives.
We were meeting each other at the exact right moment in an industry I was trying to break into. I climbed into Alex’s car for the first time in the mid-2000s, just as news organizations began to think of their websites as more than just repositories for their print reporting. Hip young editors were poached from lifestyle magazines, and a herd of skinny-jeaned cool guys began a daily migration from their edgy Brooklyn habitats to the newish Manhattan skyscrapers. Given modest budgets and charged with finding cool new shit to publish. New bars were cool, street art was cool, war was cool too, and soon after settling into their cool new open-concept offices, all the hip young editors started receiving typo-ridden emails from a kid who said he was in Afghanistan with a fresh take on the latest violence.
With a lot of help from Alex and a little help from an industry at the exact right moment of its life/death cycle, I got to work.
The first story was at Ghazi Stadium, in Kabul.
It was Ghazi Stadium where, before I ever came to the country, people had tried to heal with a soccer match between Afghans and the foreigners coming to fight and rebuild. It was a way to push aside memories of executions held there during the Taliban years—a ninety-minute hug for the cameras in the hopes that soccer would be enough. That was 2002, just months after 9/11. Back then, all there was was hope.
By the time Alex and I pulled up, five years after that soccer match, the stadium’s brief honeymoon was over. It was back to being what it must have been fated to be: a coliseum for wars rendered in miniature. We were there for a holiday honoring the country’s national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was a controversial figure, though, revered by some for fighting the Soviets, then the Taliban, and mourned after his assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda, just two days before 9/11. Americans liked him, the French liked him, the West generally liked him because he’d fought against all the people the West didn’t like. But he was feared and hated too by civilians who’d suffered collateral damage at his hands and the hands of his men and, naturally, by the Taliban he’d fought against.
Here, as Alex and I arrived, was the president, Hamid Karzai, showing up at the stadium on a day when the Taliban’s avowed enemy was being cheered. Karzai claiming the podium as a sovereign ruler seemed to be inviting chaos, and for me, that was reason enough to hope things might get rowdy. If the violence was unsubtle enough, I might have something to write.
- The Mercenary is one of the most important books about America’s longest war. It is a story of two individuals from two different continents brought together by war, and their courage, absolute commitment, and sacrifices for each other will make you laugh, cry, rage, break your heart, then make you laugh again and again until you are healed. It reads like an immersive thriller, but it is more compelling because the events are true and riveting. Mr. Stern has managed to show how the levers of power in Afghanistan devastate ordinary Afghans who try to make a living. The Mercenary is a must-read.—Qais Akbar Omar, author of A Fort of Nine Towers
- It’s remarkable how little we understand about what really went on in America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan. The Mercenary is not just a story about that war—it’s a story about the misunderstanding that defined it. At once heart-pounding and complex, personal and expansive, this book is full of guns and dust and fast cars, but also something key to great war reporting: heart.—Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
- A moving story full of humanity and great curiosity. A riveting and heart-pounding war story. The Mercenary is a special book.—Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Oscar-winning directors of Free Solo
This is an extraordinary account of friendship between a journalist and his driver in wartime Afghanistan. Mr. Stern's brilliantly written and unvarnished portrayal of his debut as a bumbling wannabe war correspondent and close friendship with his driver, a man with a shrewd eye for opportunity, provides an important window into the spiral of corruption and violence perpetrated by the West’s war. A must read for those seeking a first hand view into the business of war in Afghanistan and those caught up in the madness.
—Jessica Donati, author of Eagle Down
- “An affecting story of the human costs of a war.”—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Mar 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages