May 9, 2004
“We have visual.”
The static following those three words cut through the thick silence in the dark situation room. The band of men listened intently as they stared at the giant screen. All their asses were on the line. Two deputy directors, of the CIA Intelligence and Operations arms respectively, another one from the Department of Homeland Security, and one five-star general, all watching with uneasy anticipation.
Langley had been preparing for weeks, ensuring that each piece on the chess board was placed exactly where it was needed. They had ears on the ground and eyes in the skies, capable of relaying everything back to their control center. CIA operatives were on ground surveilling the targeted area. Live visuals were made available to anyone in and around D.C. with the required security clearance, including the President of the United States and heads of other law enforcement agencies. The matter was strictly “need to know”, yet anyone and everyone considered remotely important in the political food chain was given full access to watch. The CIA knew how to broadcast its big wins, especially at a time they badly needed one.
The Americans were on the hunt. On screen was a small stretch of potholed highway that belonged to a semi-urban area of Karachi, Pakistan. Their keen eyes followed an old, battered truck; one of the thousands that usually lined those pockmarked roads every day carrying fresh mangoes to the oldest fruit market in the region. This particular one seemed to have a full payload as it bobbed and bounced over the crudely masked potholes peeking through the shoddily laid layer of gravel. Following the truck was a silver Mercedes bearing Paki license plates. The car makers were known to offer their customers the kitchen sink if they so wanted, and this particular car included tinted, bullet-proof windows and armored chassis. In this region, these unique cars generally came with hefty price tags and usually carried government plates, and typically used for ferrying foreign dignitaries or diplomats. This particular one, however, bore private plates registered to a legitimate media conglomerate based out of Karachi.
The vehicles turned into a walled compound at the corner of the narrow street, one that had an old yet beautifully welded wrought iron gate, meant to keep out prying eyes. The entrance bore an ornate plaque that only said ‘Mirza’ in Urdu, a common family name in those parts. The estate belonged to the wealthy Maqbool Mirza, a local trader who made his millions in the fruit trade. Or so he had the government believe. The CIA had a full dossier on his dealings and ties with Al Qaeda. But he wasn’t the big fish. He was bait.
The gate could only do so much. It could not keep a CIA surveillance satellite from doing its business, which captured and transmitted visuals of a man alighting from the car, and his associates debarking from the truck. The satellites beamed their pictures to a dark room in the basement at Langley where analysts probed and pieced every bit of information transmitted back. They ran the feed through a battery of facial recognition software and sound processors to make sure they had a positive id. They had to be absolutely sure that this was their man.
Scott Pakulski, one of the analysts on shift that night rubbed his eyes as he sipped on a mug of caffeine, trying to keep awake. Analysts had the worst job; they had to sift through mountains of data to find a small packet worth gold, and this particular mission had his team running overtime over the past week and a half. It was their computers that did all the magic, but knowing how to talk to computers is what made them indispensable. He stretched and let the computer do its job, it would take a few minutes to come back with results.
In Pakistan, Little Rashid Mirza's mother called out from their kitchen window to help her set the table for his Abba’s guest. The ten-year-old boy scowled, unhappy about having to leave his friends and their game of cricket midway, especially since he was having a great day with the bat and almost nearing a half-century. He shouted back, “Paanch minat, Ammi,” virtually begging for five more minutes with his friends. His mother gave him a crooked smile and turned away from the window from where she beckoned. The boy sighed and decided he would tell his father about how well he had played later that day, and maybe he would buy him some sweets from the local sweet mart.
The computer screen buzzed in front of Scott and he clicked his fingers with excitement. A large photo showed up on the screen that confirmed the identity of the man they had photographed. The file portrait of Sardar Zoltan Shafiq Lahiri, former Chief of the Afghan People’s Liberation Movement, and now a freelance terrorist and number one enemy of America, stared back at him with livid eyes. He pressed a button and the images instantly popped up on the spymasters’ screens. The agency now had confirmation, and the brass gave the nod to proceed. Operation Stingray was in effect.
A Predator drone circling the area received the commands. The light strike drone was armed with two 100-pound Hellfire missiles capable of a precision strike. More analysts engaged and plotted the precise coordinates to allow for maximum penetration and minimum destruction required to ensure a positive hit. The computer crunched those numbers in microseconds and the drone was locked on target. All someone needed to do was push the proverbial “big red button”. The nod was received, and the top bosses of the Company stared at the giant screen.
Rashid hit the last ball of the match for a six, thus winning the game for his team. He held the small piece of willow in his hand as he joined the other ten-year-old boys in a team huddle. They hugged, celebrated for a while and broke formation. Rashid trundled along the pathway towards his home, which was about fifty yards away.
Which was when all hell broke loose.
The impact of the Hellfire missiles was sudden and deadly. The compound was gone, including the vehicles and the people it sheltered, leaving behind only a large pile of rubble. Ground operatives dispatched a series of scrambled spurts back to Langley that were decoded to confirm the strike’s success. The dark room erupted in applause, and congratulations were exchanged profusely. Similar scenes were observed at the Whitehouse, slightly muted, but the air was celebratory. There would be a series of press conferences and debates following this success, and the story would linger on in the news for weeks to come.
The reality on the ground was entirely different. A wall of fire burned brightly in the background as twilight set in over the subcontinent, the crisp, warm evening air echoed the wails of countless women, in mourning, of the lives, lost. News vans were hustling to find an appropriate perch for the best visual coverage, quite oblivious to their agony. Emergency response teams lined up around whatever little place they could find around the crowded streets, combing through the rubble for signs of life. The police were last to arrive, who occasionally pushed the curious mob of bystanders away from the perimeter, ensuring that there was some room for any vehicular traffic to flow through these constricted veins.
More importantly, a ten-year-old boy had lost his family, his home, a partial sense of hearing and what was left of his childhood. As the night continued and the crowd thinned down to a few people, Rashid was still on the street, looking at the scattered debris of his father’s mansion. His parents’ remains would never be found. He was too young to feel grief, to understand what it meant to die. A cloaked man walked in his direction and came to a halt beside him. Their eyes met, and the bruised and broken face of the Sardar looked back at the child with pure determination, whispering in fluent Arabic: