Tea with one lump, three agents, and a job offer
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When Mashal arrived Tuesday for his interview, a few soldiers at the gate were feeding peanuts to a pet monkey they had purchased from a local truck driver. Inside the airport terminal, US special forces were racing around, putting things back in order. More than a dozen of their colleagues had been injured when a helicopter landed nose first beside three dozen downed Russian transport planes at the edge of the runway. The road around the airport had been blocked for local traffic, apparently to avoid excessive gawking at the upturned chopper.Skip to next paragraph
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The three American intelligence officers had not actually told Mashal that he was in line for a job offer. Indeed, he'd gone to the airport on a special mission (and at my request) as a news reporter to have a look at the secretive US base in Khost that has been the jumping off spot for numerous search and destroy missions in a part of Afghanistan still peppered with Al Qaeda cells.
Mashal is a jocular 33-year-old man with an eye for detail. As the discussion proceeded, he soon suspected that it must be his language abilities that had these men so keen to have him on their side.
"You'll be paid $250 a day, and do you have a car?" asked a 40-something US officer.
"No," Mashal replied
"No problem. We'll give you one," the officer said.
Mashal was a little taken aback by the salary offer, which made his newspaper earnings look miniscule. Moreover, most interpreters at the US military and intelligence base at Khost receive no more than $500 per month.
A tall, bearded recruiter, who sat against the tent wall, switched back and forth between Arabic and English as he explained the work. "We must warn you, some of the work is rather dangerous."
Mashal had been musing at the crashed chopper on the runway and worrying that his work might involve hopping around the country at night in one or another kind of US flying machine. It was, he explained later, what worried him most about such work.
"I suppose you know why we are here don't you?" asked another intelligence official.
"To hunt Al Qaeda," Mashal said.
"That's right," the officer replied.
Mashal, a loyal Afghan alarmed at the possibility of a Taliban comeback in his homeland, did want to know how long the American special agents planned to stick around.
"We are not here to occupy the country," said one. "We'll hire you for at least three months."
Thirty minutes into the interview, and after three separate mug shots, another man in plain clothes who carried an M-16 machinegun ducked into the tent.
"We've discovered that you are currently working with a reporter," he said, disapprovingly. Several of the officers stepped out of the tent to consult one another. (The CIA has a policy against using journalists. And reputable Western news media will not hire or use anyone who is employed by any government agency.)
When they returned, the tone of the conversation changed, and the three men reminded Mashal that nothing was to go beyond the tent. One officer still sounded interested. He had said he had read a recent story - maybe the one about an unintended encounter with renegade Al Qaeda fighters near a remote mountain pass last week.
The chief recruiter frowned, but forged ahead. He was still interested. "Please come again tomorrow, and we'll talk. We can't hire you, though, if you are already working for someone else. We'll need a letter signed by your previous employer, saying you no longer work for them."
Mashal - after very brief consideration - decided that working with US intelligence wasn't his cup of tea.
He said after the interview: "I'm afraid that when they are through with me, they might think I know too much and then they'll want to get rid of me."
I assured Mashal that's the stuff of movies, that I've heard of no such cases.