Mar 27, 2023
Mar 27, 2023
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
Suspect No. 2. Mansour Hashimi, sole proprietor, Afghan Media Group.
Motive: Similar to Kainzner’s. Michael was making efforts to shut down the operations of Afghan Media Group. The allegation substantiated or otherwise, was that Mansour and his organisation were in some way linked to Al Qaeda. Not only would the Afghan Media Group have to shut down operations, and Mansour and others lose their livelihood, but once the wheels of investigative machinery started to spin, matters could go much further. A period of prolonged incarceration for Mansour in Pul-e-charkhi, Kabul’s notorious prison. Or perhaps with the Americans at the Detention Centre near the Bagram Air Base? A good enough motive to kill someone? Certainly. For the time being the government of Afghanistan considered Mansour to be innocent of devious dealings with a deadly foe, but that could change. And Mansour had said in so many words that he now considered Michael an enemy. If anyone had a motive to kill Michael, it was Mansour.
Opportunity: I had seen Mansour with Kainzner in the Aram guest house the evening of my arrival in Kabul. Later he had come up to my room. He said that he came up to see me, but hadn’t I caught him striding towards me from the other end of the corridor, where Michael had his room? The opening of a door, the placing of a device under the bed, and a quick exit – it needed all of thirty seconds to happen. He’d been misdirected by the Aram staff, he said. Perhaps he’d never intended to meet me at all, but had just been able to react rapidly, inventing an excuse for being there.
* * *
Inshallah Airlines had fewer people on board on the flight back to Kabul. Mansour and I took seats in separate but adjacent rows that gave us a business class feel, but enabled us to have a conversation. Mansour in particular, on account of his build, needed more space to stretch out his legs. Together with misaligned windows, the economy aircraft had little legroom.
Mansour said, ‘So how was your meeting with Kainzner?’
‘Not very productive,’ I said, honestly. ‘I’d hoped for someone in his office to take me around to physically see for myself – and take photographs if necessary – the various projects he mentioned. That didn’t happen.’
A pretty Afghan air hostess appeared in front of us and began to give us a safety demonstration. She was directly in front of us, and although neither of us was interested in the routine safety briefing it would have been too impolite to continue our conversation in the middle of her presentation, so we both fell silent.
In a few minutes, the aircraft lifted. From my window I could see the fast-receding minarets of the Blue Mosque.
Mansour said: ‘I’m sorry about what happened to Michael – but in a way it’s good for us.’
I felt a bolt of electricity course through me as I heard those words. I wanted to punch his fat face, but kept my expression impassive.
He must have sensed something nevertheless, for he said in a more gentle tone, ‘It’s terrible what happened, but I’m only speaking from the agency’s point of view.’
‘The heat will be off, you mean,’ I said bitterly.
‘Exactly,’ he sighed, then turned to me and added: ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean …’
The air hostess came by with beverages and sandwiches. No chappali kebab this time.
I sipped orange juice in muted anger. To be fair to Mansour, the only reason why he was still some sort of suspect in my eyes was because of information he himself had given me: Michael was trying to shut him down. He still hadn’t told me the reason why Michael had thought him and his outfit to be linked to Al Qaeda.
‘You know the reason,’ he said, second-guessing me again, ‘why Michael wanted our offices to be shut down.’
‘I’ve been wondering about that.’
‘There is some American intelligence that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the ranks of the Taliban.’
‘Uh huh.’ My ears were wide open. Not because of what he had said – the CIA director had been quoted as saying as much only a few weeks previously – but because I anticipated some really confidential information coming through. If Mansour had told me that his office was under threat of closure, there must be a good reason why he wasn’t telling me more.
Mansour said: ‘Now, we use a number of sources to give out information about what the Taliban is thinking.’
The aircraft began its descent.
‘Sometimes we have a statement coming in from the Taliban spokesperson on our fax machine.’
‘Yes, sometimes,’ Mansour said. ‘Most of the time, it is a telephone call.’
‘But they must be issuing statements to other media organisations as well.’
‘Yes, they do,’ he admitted, ‘but over the last six months we’ve managed to get some exclusives from a new organisation that calls itself Al Fariki.’
A sudden crackling of sound was followed by an announcement that the aircraft would be landing in Kabul in a few minutes.
Mansour said: ‘Al Fariki is also responsible for releasing the last three video messages issued by Bin Laden.’
‘So,’ Mansour sighed. ‘So two plus two is twenty-two. Your friend Michael concluded that Al Fariki was linked to Bin Laden, a not illogical assumption to make, but he went further and concluded that we were linked to Fariki because we had exclusive arrangements with them. Therefore we were part of Al Qaeda.’
‘My God!’ I paused. Two plus two is twenty-two. The Michael I knew was neither that stupid nor that ignorant. ‘I’m sure there was another reason.’
I saw him hesitate.
‘Yes, there was one,’ he admitted.
‘Did you know that before we agreed to cooperate with you, I did a careful check on the Development News Agency?’
‘No, I didn’t. Why did you do that?’
‘Just to make sure that you were bona fide. A few months ago, we were approached by another Dubai-based media company, something called the Arabian and Muslim News Agency, asking us if we could provide logistical and other support to one of their visiting journalists. To a Somali by the name of Jamal Hyder.’
I looked out of the window and saw mud tenements, part of a slum, whiz past. The Kabul landscape was now no longer completely brown, but streaked in white from recently fallen snow on the hills that surrounded the city.
We were hovering above one of Kabul’s several hills, but I kept my vision away from the window to retain my focus on Mansour’s words.
‘Naturally, we agreed. Our company earns a fair amount of money by cooperating with other media companies, newspapers, news agencies.’
‘Jamal Hyder was arrested at Kabul airport when his baggage showed some strange-looking object inside the suitcase.’
‘What was it?’
‘He was carrying two hundred feet of military detonation cord in his suitcase. Also something called a “blasting cap”.’
‘That’s strange – not being noticed at Dubai.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Mansour said. ‘He wasn’t carrying explosives or anything like that, and the cap just looks like something ordinary. I think he could have easily got through Kabul airport as well.’
‘Possibly.’ He was right.
‘Anyhow, Jamal was arrested. Jamal was interrogated, first by the Afghan police and then by the Americans.’
‘Did he have an explanation for the rope?’
‘Something about using it as a clothes line. He didn’t know what to expect in Kabul – in terms of washing machines and drying out clothes.’
‘Why didn’t he just buy a clothes line?’
‘Said he found this at a second-hand store in Dubai. Couldn’t remember the name of the shop.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Our driver went to the airport to pick him up. Remember, we had an arrangement with his company. So when he was arrested by the Afghan police they called us. And I went over to see for myself what was happening.’
I nodded. ‘What did he have to say about the blasting cap?’
‘Nothing. No explanation.’
‘Sounds really peculiar, doesn’t it?
‘It does. Actually, they would have let him off had it not been for the other stuff they found in his baggage.’
‘What did they find?’
‘A pile of extremist literature. Some strange-looking maps. Instructions. In Arabic, not Dari. Remember, this is Al Qaeda, not the Taliban. But they also found our company letter head agreeing to help him out. So we got involved. Indirectly implicated. The Afghan police called in the Americans.’
‘What did they think?’
‘At first everyone thought that they were bringing in explosive-related equipment piecemeal. So the next few weeks the checks at the airport were really rigorous. But nothing else was found.’
‘What about the Dubai news agency?’
‘That’s why I was initially suspicious of your company – and ran checks on it. When the Americans ran checks on the Arabian and Muslim News Agency, Jamal’s so-called employer, they found that it didn’t exist. I gave them a copy of their letter head which had their phone and fax numbers. Nothing. They used a hotel apartment for one week.’
‘Did the Americans not believe you?’
‘I met Michael personally at the time,’ Mansour said, ‘and he said he believed me completely. But later on, a month or so after this incident, he changed his mind about us. That’s when the two plus two makes twenty-two happened. I don’t know what made him change his mind. The American military approached the Afghan government. I have friends in government who were shocked by the allegations against us.’
‘What were these allegations – exactly?’
‘That I personally was linked to Al Qaeda.’ His expression one of calm anger – or perhaps anger held in check would better describe it – with a slightly dramatic pause he added: ‘And Mr Bin Laden.’
‘No, that’s true.’
The aircraft landed with a thump and began to taxi down the runway.
‘It might sound ironical to say this,’ Mansour said, ‘but I’m glad I was in Afghanistan at the time these allegations surfaced.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because the government immediately understood that these were baseless allegations. Friends working with foreign media also supported me.’ He gave a full-throated laugh, before his voice turned grave. ‘If I was in the US, they would have arrested me and sent me off to Guantanamo.’
The downwards spiral hadn’t perhaps given the pilot enough time to reduce the speed of the aircraft sufficiently because it seemed to taxi endlessly before it came to a standstill.
As we moved down the aisle with our compact briefcases, I realised something. It wasn’t altogether strange that Michael suspected Mansour of being linked to Al Qaeda. Some investigators would attach importance to circumstantial evidence. There was the fact of exclusives from Al Qaeda, and Jamal Hyder, the Somali terrorist, being received by the Afghan Media Group for a fee. Not enough to nail Mansour, but to think of him as a prima facie suspect, yes, there was enough.
Why then had the Afghan government carried out an enquiry and let him off? Why had Yusuf told me that day that ‘anyone who had a basic understanding of Afghanistan would know at once that Mansour could not be involved’?
‘Mansour,’ I said, ‘Tell me something.’
‘How could you marry an Iranian woman?’
‘We fell in love, as simple as that.’
‘Why did you choose to go to Iran?’
‘You know the situation here, with the Russians,’ he said in a surprised tone. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I meant, why did you chose Iran over Pakistan?’
I saw him hesitate.
‘I prefer Iran,’ he said.
‘Is your wife Shia?’
‘Yes, she is.’ He understood my question finally. ‘The fact of the matter is that I’m Shia as well.’ We began to walk towards the exit with our bags.
He smiled, and said: ‘I am Pashtun, but Shia. There are some Pashtuns who are Shia.’
It had initially seemed strange to me that, despite the fact that Afghanistan and Iran shared a common language and religion, Iran’s cultural influence over Afghanistan was not as widespread as might have been expected. Sectarian belief and identity was the great divider.
This is the reason why the Afghan government knew Mansour was an unlikely candidate for involvement with Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was a Sunni organisation. The bigots among Sunnis and Shias hated each other in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in many other parts of the world.
This is why that day, while driving down from the InterContinental, Yusuf said those words.
‘Anyone who understands anything at all about Afghanistan would know at once that Mansour could not be involved.’
And the reason he hadn’t said ‘Mansour and I could not be involved’.
Yusuf was a Sunni. Mansour, a Shia. As simple as that.
Back in my room at the Aram a little after lunchtime, I began to rethink my shortlist of people who could have plotted to get rid of Michael. I was convinced Kainzner was using his position of authority to sexually exploit his employees. And yet based on my meeting with him, I doubted if he was guilty of plotting to kill Michael. It didn’t seem in character.
The next person on my list was Mansour. He, too, stood to gain from Michael’s death. But had he not told me himself of how Michael had been trying, through his connections in the army, to put pressure on the Afghan government to shut down the operations of his media business, even to have him, Mansour, arrested? I might never have known on my own. For me, the story he recounted about the Somali, both in the manner in which it was told and in its the content, contained the unmistakable ring of truth. And now I understood, too, that a Sunni organisation such as Al Qaeda would never trust a man like Mansour. A Shia. A sworn enemy of fanatic Sunnis. No, I was certain in my mind that Mansour was not the man behind the blast.
As things stood, Gregory West was the most likely candidate. A colleague of Michael – with unknown grudges to avenge – he probably had access to weapons, ammunition and the kind of explosive device detonated inside the Aram. It was time to meet Zeenat, to find out what had transpired that morning when my arrival interrupted the altercation between Michael and Greg. With this thought in mind, I fell into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up to the sound of someone knocking softly on my door.
It was Karim. He carried a white envelope in his hand.
‘This came for you earlier in the day,’ he said. ‘From Madam Zeenat.’
I tore open the envelope and unfolded the note inside.
I’ll be in the office till seven today working on a report. Room 008 on the ground floor of the Ministry. We could go someplace for dinner afterwards. Can you come?
I looked at my watch. It was a half past six. Enough time for a shower and change of clothes.
The boy stood there, waiting to be dismissed.
‘Thanks, Karim,’ I said.
Seeking Serenity at The Serena
Chapter 15 of An Afghan Winter
Suspect No. 3. Gregory West, American serviceman.
Motive: Difficult to say at the moment, but I was soon to meet Zeenat and would then know more. But I had seen a first-hand exhibition of the animosity that he bore towards Michael. ‘I’ll get you for this,’ he’d said, like someone at secondary school. Did anyone even talk like this? His eyes had bulged, practically fallen out of their sockets, and he clearly hated Michael.
Opportunity: As an American serviceman, if anyone had easy access to explosives it would be Gregory West. In Mansour’s case, I had only seen him lumbering down the corridor that had Michael’s room on one side. Gregory West had been seen inside Michael’s room by Zeenat. He came in for a quick pee, he’d said.
I would know more about his motives in a few minutes.
* * *
The large yellow building of the Ministry of Women’s Welfare was hardly two hundred yards away from the Aram guest house, so I walked across. I found Zeenat’s room easily enough. Offices lay empty; most government staff left at five in the afternoon, with only international consultants such as Zeenat working till later.
I knocked on her door and was shocked to see how tired she looked. Her normally neatly combed hair was in disarray, and her eyes were red. She had obviously been crying.
‘I’m feeling totally shattered,’ she said. ‘Let’s go out to some place that’s quiet.’
I said, ‘We could have Chinese food at the Silk Route.’
‘At the Serena.’
‘Wherever,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can eat much, though.’
‘I’m not hungry either,’ I said, ‘but the place has a calming ambience.’
‘Let’s talk when we get there,’ she said.
She summoned her driver on the phone, and in a few minutes we were heading off past the barricaded UN building towards Froshgah Street, where the Serena was located.
The Serena was the last word in luxury in Afghanistan. It was the plushest hotel imaginable in that war-torn, conflict ridden country, but it would in fact have stood its ground in terms of luxury in any world city, including Dubai. There were no signs saying that Afghans were not allowed, in the way that certain other restaurants allowed entry only to foreign passport holders, but the high prices ensured that most Afghans could not afford what was on offer.
Many Afghans viewed the Aga Khan Foundation that owned the Serena with a degree of suspicion, mostly for religious reasons. It was said that every year, in a grand ceremony, the head of the community, the Aga Khan himself, would quite literally be weighed in gold donated by his followers.
Such was the involvement of the international community in Afghanistan that the hotel had a high occupancy rate, almost on a par with that of its nearest rival, the InterContinental – which did not compare with the Serena in terms of either luxury or price.
Our car was stopped by a group of security guards well outside the hotel, where barriers had been erected. One guard moved towards the car, another lifted the bonnet to see if there were any suspicious objects inside, yet another went round the vehicle checking for bombs attached to its lower section, while a fourth stared at Zeenat and me. Finally the car was allowed to go ahead. We went through the main entrance, guarded by two men with Kalashnikovs, and after entering the lobby, made our way to the Silk Route, a multi-cuisine restaurant specialising in Chinese food.
A red-liveried attendant took us to a table in a corner. We placed orders for soup, rice and noodles, and settled down.
‘How was your trip to Mazar?’ Zeenat said.
I recounted to her the highlights of the visit. I also gave her the low-down on my list of suspects who could possibly be implicated in Michael’s death, and why I’d decided to rule out Kainzner and Mansour. She listened attentively.
‘I agree with you,’ she nodded. ‘It makes sense. I don’t think either of them was involved. Frankly, I didn’t even know any of this. Michael didn’t discuss office stuff. So that he was trying to close down Development Business or this … Afghan Media Group … I didn’t realise this.’
‘The only person who still remains a suspect in my eyes is that Greg. The looks he gave Michael that day, his threat …’
‘I can’t believe anyone – even Greg – would go to such lengths,’ Zeenat said, her eyes moist.
‘Did Wendell get in touch with you?’
‘He did,’ she nodded. ‘He came over to my office the very next day.’
‘To ask if you suspected anyone?’
‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘I told him that I didn’t suspect anyone. It’s true that Greg had issued Michael a threat, but we all say things we don’t really mean.’
The soup, rice and noodles arrived, and Zeenat busied herself filling her own and my plate. The waiter was perhaps surprised or disappointed at the small order, but kept an impassive silence.
I said: ‘What did Wendell ask you?’
‘Oh, mostly about Greg, you know,’ she said. ‘I know that I said he looks like a psycho, but, even so, I’m not sure he planted the bomb. What you need to know is that under the overall command of a senior Colonel, Michael and Greg managed an ammunitions depot fifty kilometres out of Kabul. This depot was storing ammunition, explosives, weapons found by NATO all over Afghanistan. Including stuff recovered from the Taliban.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘And what was the problem between them?’
‘Until Michael came on the scene, Greg had the run of the ammunition depot. A week after Michael had taken charge, a truck full of explosives and weapons was intercepted by the ISAF outside the gate, after it had left the depot. Someone was selling stuff back to the Taliban.’ Her eyes widened. ‘Can you imagine?’
I’d read stories about the blundering Americans, but this was too much. A few years ago there had been a scandal in the Kashmir valley about senior Indian army officers selling weapons and ammunition to insurgents in Kashmir.
‘Was there an enquiry into that incident?’ I twirled some noodles around my fork and gently moved it into my mouth.
‘Of course there was,’ Zeenat said, as she spooned some soup into her mouth. She lowered her voice. ‘Michael suspected that the depot was regularly selling explosives on the black market.’
‘What was the result of the enquiry? Did anyone get arrested?’
‘The Afghan driver of the truck was shot, and died on the spot. The entire lot of Afghans working were sacked. It never came out who was involved from the side of the internationals.’
‘But wasn’t Michael in charge?’
‘Yes, he was,’ she admitted. ‘Suspicion fell on Michael because he had taken over charge from Greg, but it was only a week, and he was still trying to understand how things worked, you see.’
‘Did the enquiry exonerate him?’
‘Yes. The enquiry found no evidence of wrong doing by either Michael or Greg. But after that incident, slowly Michael began to oversee and take charge of everything. He felt he couldn’t trust Greg anymore. He thought that Greg was either guilty, or he was inefficient and careless. In either case, he wanted to protect himself. So he took charge of a few things that Greg had been working on – and Greg was upset and thought he was trying to steel credit for the work.’
‘All that’s fine, but something like this, it does seem … well, you know, excessive, don’t you think?’ I rubbed my chin.
‘Even a psycho would think twice about doing something like that. I mean, the guy has to be stark raving nuts.’
‘On the other hand, Greg is the one person who would have ready access to explosives,’ I said.
‘Michael told me that he is also a trained explosives expert – someone who could set up an explosive with a timer.’
‘While stealing credit doesn’t provide enough motive for Greg to have wanted to kill Michael, there might be other reasons.’
Zeenat sprinkled some vinegar and chilli sauce on the noodles. ‘If he was gun running.’ She said the last words in a whisper, looking to her left and right as she spoke.
‘What do you mean?’
I understood that owing to Zeenat’s involvement with Michael, even though she hadn’t accepted his marriage proposal, she wouldn’t dream of suspecting him. I too thought Michael to be absolutely beyond wrongdoing of this nature. On the face of things, however, there was as much basis to suspect Michael of gun running as there was to suspect his colleague Greg. Michael had been the officer in charge – whether for a week or longer. Did that really matter?
Zeenat said, ‘Michael worried that he might to be targeted. He never told me – but I knew he was worried. It could also be that the people to whom ammunition was being sold on the black market – the Taliban or whoever – wanted to get Michael out of the way, so that Greg would once more be in charge and they’d be able to continue with their old ways.’ She put her hands to her face, lowered her head and quietly sobbed for a few moments, while I watched, embarrassed, not knowing what to do or how to help.
‘It’s all speculation, of course,’ she said, lifting up a tearful face to look at me. ‘Speculation, speculation, speculation. We don’t know anything for sure, do we? Let’s just hope we find out who did this – and get him punished.’
‘Oh, we will, I’m sure,’ I said consolingly, spooning some soup into my mouth. ‘Let’s see what forensics has to say about the kind of explosive used.’
It was time to change the subject and talk about something that might take her mind off Michael.
I said: ‘Do you have a lot of relatives in Afghanistan?’
‘Not too many.’ Zeenat shook her head. ‘It’s strange that although I’m from this country I can’t live like an ordinary Afghan. As an international consultant, I’m subject to security restrictions.’ She laughed bitterly.
I said, ‘How about relatives in Pakistan?’
She nodded. ‘A few relatives still live in Pakistan. We all stayed together in the refugee camp in Peshawar.’ A strange expression flitted through eyes. ‘I was even engaged to an Afghan boy while we lived in Peshawar.’
‘Yes. When we decided to move to the US, we agreed to break it off. It wasn’t practical.’
‘It must have been hard on him.’
‘On me as well,’ she said. ‘We were in love with each other. Oh well …’ She brought her hands up to her face in a tired gesture.
I thought we should go. I caught the eye of the young, turbaned waiter and signalled that we wanted the bill.
The Serena’s days as an oasis of luxury, splendour and serenity were numbered. A few weeks later, on 14 January 2008, three gunmen wearing suicide vests inside their Afghan National Police uniforms forcibly entered the building. One blew himself up near the main security gate, the second blew himself up near the entrance to the hotel, and the third entered the hotel with a Kalashnikov and began shooting. According to the newspapers, he went downstairs to the gym and continued firing. Nine people were killed, including a Filipino, a Norwegian and a US national. It was late afternoon, but the hotel was not as crowded as it would have been in the evening. Things could have been much worse, and there might have been a blood bath. The international community declared a ban on any of their staff visiting restaurants. This was the first such attack by the Taliban on such a well-known place frequented by internationals. It seemed that the security situation in Kabul was going from bad to worse.
Indian Journalist, American Detective
Chapter 16 of An Afghan Winter
‘I heard that you’d gone to meet Kainzner,’ Wendell said, almost accusingly. ‘Did you know that I, too, had gone to see him?’
Wendell and I had both left for Mazar and returned on roughly the same dates; he by military aircraft and I by private airline. I received a call from him the day after I had returned. He agreed to come to the Aram guest house to meet me to discuss progress in the investigation.
We were having some really strong coffee – Wendell confessed to being an addict – that had been brought over by an Aram attendant in an antique-looking tea kettle with a goose neck.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You must have met him directly after I did. I went to see him to get material for a story on the work being done by Development Business.’
‘That’s what I gathered.’ He was quiet for a while, as if formulating what to say. ‘I’ve asked you this before, but I want to ask you again – do you suspect any particular person in Michael’s killing?’
‘I’ve got nothing concrete,’ I said. ‘I didn’t say anything to you earlier, because I didn’t have much of a basis.’
‘I understand,’ he said, ‘but you don’t have to worry about vilifying anyone. What you tell me will remain with me only. No one is going to prosecute you for defamation.’
‘I’ve had suspicions about Kainzner,’ I said, and fell quiet deliberately.
‘Because Michael was trying to shut him down?”
‘You knew that?’ His tone was softer, no longer accusing.
‘Yes.’ I’d been a journalist for long enough to know that he couldn’t get me to say more, even if this was Afghanistan. As a journalist I’d got used to fair trade and didn’t want to discuss my suspicions in detail unless Wendell was willing to share some results of his own investigations. I felt I owed it to Michael to do the best I could to find his killer, or killers.
‘Anyone else?’ The detective stared at me thoughtfully.
‘So we’ve been on the same track.’ He moved his tongue over his upper lip, like a large panther about to jump his prey.
I remained silent.
‘Okay, I know what you’re thinking,’ Wendell said, shifting his weight on the white padded chair. ‘Well, let me brief you on what’s been happening since your meeting with the gentleman – although I’m not sure if we can continue to call him one. Okay?’
‘As you may or may not know, Kainzner has been in the development business for many years. He’s quite a big fish and is connected to many powerful people in Washington. We’ve been hearing complaints from many sources to the effect that Kainzner had his harem of young lads over at Mazar-e Sharif. Any Afghan who wanted to work for Development Business had to be young, good-looking and male. Preferably with Asiatic features, as Kainzner liked Chinese-looking, smooth-skinned bodies. He decided to employ Hazaras, and spin a story about how he was helping the poor minorities.’ Wendell took a deep breath. ‘All the same, there is only so much bad stuff you can get away with. A stream of complaints started to arrive, and then that stream became a river. The matter even came to the attention of the local authorities. Governor Khurram. Did you meet him?
‘So did I,’ he continued. ‘Now most complaints were anonymous, and from dissatisfied interviewees – job applicants who were unsuccessful but had heard “stuff” about the goings on – but there was one from a young lad who’d actually been employed with the organisation. You know who that is?’
‘Yeah, Karim.’ Wendell looked impressed. ‘Michael was in and out of the guest house, and Karim knew him. They began chatting, and one day Karim told him everything, including that Kainzner had personally molested him. Sexually. Got him alone in the office and promised him a promotion and money if he went to bed with him. When Karim resisted the German’s advances, he was given the sack. Michael was furious. He immediately spoke to one of the American generals, who in turn spoke to someone senior within USAID – and they decided this wasn’t a simple matter of corruption, which they could have sorted out. Kainzner was a senior man, and they needed an expert’s report to nail him – from someone like me. The entire matter was assigned to a department within the Pentagon that carries out sensitive overseas investigations. That’s basically how I came into the picture.’ He drummed the table with his fingers for a few seconds and then continued. ‘When I reached Kabul, it was suggested to me that the best way to kick-start my investigation into allegations of sexual abuse was to once again interview the young lad who had first spilled the beans about Kainzner.’ Wendell tilted his head in the direction of the reception area. ‘So I came down here, all the way from Washington, to do this investigation – and straight away ran into another case. An even bigger matter. Much bigger. Attempt on a US military officer’s life. I couldn’t ignore that. I looked through the guest house records and saw Kainzner was in the guest house the day before the incident.’
‘At that time,’ continued Wendell, ‘we were all going on the assumption – don’t ask me why – that the device planted was an explosive with a timer, so whoever planted the bomb knew that a particular person would be in the room at a very precise time. I also found out from Zahir that Kainzner had been in the guest house till the day before the incident, and had been trying to soften up Karim by offering him various kinds of inducements, including having his old job back with a wage increase. You see, with his high-level contacts, Kainzner knew that an investigation against him had started, and that someone like myself would soon be coming down from Washington.’ He took a big gulp of coffee. ‘When I did speak to Karim after the explosion, he confirmed everything I’d heard about Kainzner. Kainzner might not have realised that it was too late to stall the investigation, and might have decided to get rid of Mike. He left a day earlier so as to have an alibi, and asked one of his buddies in Kabul to press the detonation switch.’
Wendell’s thought processes carried minor variations of my own assessment of Kainzner’s involvement, but essentially we were on the same piece of parchment.
‘You’ve met Kainzner since the incident,’ Wendell said. ‘What do you think? Is he our man?’ He slurped more coffee. ‘We’re just talking – loosely.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘The way he was, when I met him …’
‘You mean you don’t think he’d have the balls to pull a stunt like that?’
‘I happen to agree with you.’ He paused to drum the table again for a few seconds, his brow creased. His expression grew serious. ‘The second possible reason why Michael was killed was because of what Michael’s girl Zeenat spoke about: the rivalry with Greg at the ammunition factory …’ He finished his coffee with a last big gulp. ‘What I wouldn’t give to have a glass of Scotch right now!’ He lowered his voice abruptly and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Is it possible to buy some whisky here?’
‘You could always get beer at the Bush Bazaar.’
‘Bush Bazaar?’ Wendell laughed. ‘What’s that? Are you serious?’
I wasn’t being facetious. Just as a Brezhnev Bazaar had existed during the time of the Soviet occupation selling Russian-made goods, so now there was a bazaar named after the current American President that sold American products such as soaps, shaving creams, after shave, American condoms – and beer. It didn’t offend Afghan sensibilities about the use of alcohol; possibly because it was in a can, they thought it was a soft drink.
‘Good to know.’ Wendell nodded approvingly. ‘To come back to what I was talking about, after I spoke to Zeenat, I decided to recommend Greg’s arrest.’
‘Is Greg being held at the American military base?’
‘No.’ Wendell shook his head. ‘He’s in Afghan custody. This is a crime committed on their soil, and they have the right to investigate and prosecute if necessary.’
‘What does he say?’
‘He’s not being a good boy. He’s kicking up a fuss – quite naturally, I suppose. He’s been threatening to sue the US military. He’s been complaining about his treatment by the Afghans as well. First he had to pay the guards $30 for registration – as if he was being admitted to a hotel – and then another $15 to have his head shaved.’ He laughed. ‘But now he’ll be out – by the end of the day.’
‘Why is that?’ I looked at him questioningly.
‘The ballistics report has come in, and it turns out that after all it was not a timed explosive device, so that effectively lets Greg out of the picture. Also Kainzner – as he wasn’t even in Kabul on the day in question.’
‘So what was it then?’ I said.
‘An explosive device without a timer. No timer. We were wrong. Nothing ticking in all the debris. Forensics is absolutely certain about it. My original suspicion was that there was a bomb, a timed device, and that it had been placed by Greg on the day of his visit to Michael’s room – underneath his bed or hidden somewhere, so that Michael wouldn’t have noticed it. And that later Greg pushed the remote control button.’ He puffed up his cheeks. ‘Now it turns out that it was a device without a timer, that theory has been literally blown to bits – much like most of the room. The reason I started to suspect Kainzner was because I couldn’t imagine that fellow Gregory West, an army officer, doing something like that to his colleague – even though I did recommend his arrest. But that was just an in-case-he-was-involved scenario. No matter how much you hate a colleague …’
‘Couldn’t Kainzner have put up someone to do the job? I mean, if he could get someone to detonate the device in his absence, he could as well get someone to throw a grenade?’
‘Possible.’ Wendell shrugged his large shoulders. ‘But I don’t think so. That would be too risky. If you were under investigation for sexual abuse allegations, would you go so far as to kill of one of the witnesses?’ He stared at me as if he had imbibed some of the Scotch he had mentioned instead of simply coffee. ‘When I turned the heat on Kainzner – the day when you also met him – he cracked under pressure. As easy as popping corn. He came clean, confessed all. Lots of things have happened in the last twenty-four hours since you returned from Mazar. I’ve sent my initial report to Washington. Kainzner’s resigned and gone back to Germany.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘I understand that right now he’s in a sanatorium a hundred miles from Vienna. He’s sick, but not a psycho.’
I said, ‘What about the Taliban? Couldn’t it have been them?’
‘Nah,’ said Wendell, his voice displaying a strange confidence. ‘They’d have claimed credit, wouldn’t they?’ He sat back now and stared at me. ‘Okay, my friend, now you tell me. Your turn.’ He leaned back in his chair and waited.
I told him about my initial suspicions about Mansour Hashimi, and how I’d come to the conclusion that he was innocent, both of links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and of any possible involvement in Michael’s death.
He listened to me attentively.
‘I didn’t know about the Shia angle,’ he said, ‘but I know the story. I know that this fellow and his media outfit were under intensely close scrutiny – and he’s passed the test. So I didn’t think it was worthwhile digging it up again. Anything else?’
I said: ‘I’d like to meet the Somali.’ I didn’t think there was much chance of it happening, but I thought I’d give it a try.
After a long silence, in which he possibly churned this idea in his mind, the tall detective said: ‘It’d be impossible to give you access. He’s in a high-security prison cell somewhere near the American air base, near Bagram. What do you want to ask him, anyway?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said honestly. ‘Just fishing.’
‘Just fishing,’ repeated Wendell. He laughed. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. Well, you keep fishing, my friend. And let me know if you find anything, okay?’ He stared at me in a friendly, questioning way.
‘If I do.’
‘You’re a journalist, and you might hear things,’ Wendell said. ‘You’re close to Zeenat. There are things that she might tell you as a friend that she’ll never tell me. I figure you have a better chance of working this out than I do.’
‘If I hear anything that might be useful, I’ll let you know.’
‘That’s all I ask.’ Wendell stood up suddenly.
We shook hands. The detective picked up his leather suitcase and left.
Wendell was possibly right that I might have an advantage in finding out who had killed Michael, but it wasn’t because I was close to Zeenat. It was because I possessed a rudimentary knowledge of Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in most parts of the country. Ever since I happened upon an English translation of some of Rumi’s poems some years previously, I had made up my mind to try to read them in the original. I had enrolled in a language school, and though I couldn’t speak I knew enough to make out what was being said. But upon my arrival in this country it occurred to me that it would possibly be to my benefit if I hid this ability. I knew that in the presence of an outsider such as me the Afghans I met would hesitate to fully reveal themselves and their thoughts. If they thought I could understand them, they would hold back, and I wouldn’t get the real stories. When Mansour offered Yusuf’s services, I was momentarily tempted to disclose my language skills but resisted the urge.
The conversation with Wendell had eliminated certain suspects in Michael’s murder, but not introduced any new possibilities. The detective was aware of the security regime followed at the Aram guest house.
All residents came in straightaway, without the need to make an entry in the register kept at the gate. This applied to workers at the guest house as well as to registered visitors. Any new face would have to sign in before being allowed to enter. The explosion in Michael’s room was a spontaneous one. Following a discussion with Karim, I had ascertained that according to the register no new face had entered that morning.
So whoever was responsible for the blast that killed Michael was either a resident or a previously registered visitor.
Continued to "A Pashtun Shopping for Ladies Underwear"
More by : Rajesh Talwar