It’s rather a knife edge, this whole business of ideas becoming reality. Until now, the Taliban has represented little more than random shots fired at indistinguishable distances as we make our way from point A to point B. Until now, les sacrés Taleb have been anonymously credited with the placing of various bombs at various bends, bridges and intersections in the dead of night. Until now, the occasional skirmish has unleashed nothing above the odd shadow, a blurry figure visible in the tree line before vanishing a second later. But all in all, this sworn enemy has never ventured beyond anything more than a mere idea. Until now.
Manning the old QRF quarters a few days ago (QRF?...... Quick Reaction Force?...... standby element ready to reinforce a faltering mission where needed?....... Oh DO keep up!), the call came through to suit-up (AWE....wait for it......here it comes....SOME!!!), lock and load, pile into the vehicle and hit the road. The mission brief was as simple as one could hope for, yet the most intriguing to-date. We were to drive a few clicks north and collect a prisoner who was awaiting collection at a crossroads. Naturally, waiting with him was a healthy mixed contingent of Afghan army personnel along with members of the local militia. After all, it would be a stretch to expect the prisoner to show up of his own accord.
Arriving at the location, a babbling, jabbering gander of gun-toting gurus allowed their animated discussions easily overwhelm the engine noise of our trusty VABs. The crowd was dense and compact. All bodies faced inward towards an as-of-yet unseen nucleus. Anywhere else and one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a rousing half-time team talk. But as we pulled up into position, our lads disembarked and contact was made with the men in charge, the rag-tag warriors slowly began to disperse revealing the source of all this commotion.
I’m still not quite sure just what it was that I had expected. Like certain characters in dreams, any thoughts I had had involving the Taliban always threw up images of Kalashnikovs, bushy beards and....well, that’s it really. No face, never an actual, human face. As the crowds parted, he trundled slowly, steadily before the watching pairs of eyes. Handcuffs held his arms behind his back, yet without effort his overall posture seemed almost to refuse to acknowledge such an impediment. Afghan soldiers flanked him on either side as he lapped slowly forward, the one on the left placing a light hand on the prisoner’s shoulder. It was more a gesture of presence than anything else. No force was required to escort him to the waiting vehicle. During all this, our guys were posted on the far side of the road, looking out over the fields and villages below. Similarly, I and the other gunners, perched high in our turrets on the VAB were under orders to maintain surveillance (and the barrels of our trusty .50cal) due east - traditionally the source of practically every single enemy encounter since long before we touched down. Nevertheless, I did manage to spin my head around momentarily, resting my chin on my shoulder as I tried desperately to focus on the man in handcuffs, his hands, his feet, his eyes.
His eyes. God how I STILL can’t decide just what it was that they might have been saying. His whole expression was one of calm. Acceptance? No. Defiance? I honestly don’t know. You see, there was this glint. Not a smirk, nor a grin. Just a fleeting glint in his calm, untroubled eyes. Calm, untroubled eyes staring straight ahead, acknowledging nothing and no-one around him. As my neck-muscles began to burn and tiny cracks could be heard emanating from my collar bone, I decided it best to return to my sector and try to forget about this prisoner, this sworn enemy.
The spectacle now well and truly over, the Afghan soldiers and militiamen alike began returning to their respective vehicles, no doubt more than a little pleased at having presented the French forces with a gift in the form of an apparently high-value target. Our boys loaded back up into the VABs and in minutes we were back at the FOB. The vehicle transporting the precious cargo disappeared from site, making its way towards the gendarmes who would take control of custody and, I expect, see him onwards to the next stage of his personal journey. What that might entail I have absolutely no idea and even less desire of being informed. For me, at least, it proved a brief yet profound chapter in my Afghanistan diary. The idea of the Taliban, of a Taliban fighter has now been violently upended and replaced with those eyes. Will every enemy encounter from here on in produce the same image? From now on, will every shot fired or bomb detonated come from those same calm, untroubled eyes? Time will tell, but if I never see those eyes again it certainly won’t be too soon. There rests two months in this tour of duty. Plenty of time for many more blindfolds to loosen, slip and crumple to the ground. All I know is that my eyes will be staying permanently peeled.