Fiction - Spring 2012


Who really killed Abdur, an Afghan goatherd-turned-informant?

By Nathaniel Rich | March 1, 2012


Camp Kearney
Paktika Province, Afghanistan


Hah—me? Hardly. Abdur was a friend, an old one. So it was not difficult to identify him. I had only to see his sandals. You see, they were not the regular Peshawari chappals, the kind you find at the cobbler shops in Sharan. His sandals were American. A gift from a soldier. Abdur should never have accepted them. As soon as he appeared at the market in those sandals, the rumors started. They said Abdur was a collaborator. He was alerting the foreign soldiers to the movements of the Taliban fighters. Some even believed, given his youthful training as a lashkar, that he was acting as some kind of double agent.

What? Yeah, he’d been a mujahid—but so were most able-bodied men of our generation. That was 25 years ago, anyway. We were children. For the past two decades he has been a livestock trader: sheep and goats. A peaceful man, Abdur.

He hadn’t shown up to a dinner I hosted the previous night. When he was not at market that morning I became concerned. So I looked for him at Kalawar.

The exact location of Kalawar? Hard to say. You go about 200 meters south from the middle point in the Galfez-Patanah Road, then follow the curving path behind Waz’r Khan’s farm over the east-facing hill, turning left at each fork but the third. Well, I don’t know how else to explain it to you.

I knew he was dead when I entered the hut and saw the soles of his sandals. His jacket was compressed into a ball and soaked through with blood. There was a single wound, but it was in the middle of his chest. His heart had exploded.

I can’t help but wonder whether the sandals were responsible.


Yes, I saw Abdur that morning. He was with his youngest wife. The daughter of a woodworker in Galfez. No, I can’t describe her. I’ve never seen her face.

Kalawar? Literally it means “castle-gate.” It is said that in Mohammed’s time Kalawar guarded the entrance to a large castle, but there is no evidence of such a castle. Most likely the structure belonged to a rice farmer. The ceiling collapsed centuries ago. The walls remain, though they are broken in many sections. It is not visible from the road, and one must enter through my property. I let Abdur use it. He took his women there. When he wanted privacy, you understand.

Yesterday morning we exchanged the normal pleasantries. Abdur appeared to be happy. The woman, who sat rather stiffly on the back of his horse, did not speak. She was covered from head to foot in a pale blue burqa. He helped her down and tied the horse in my barn. That was the last time I saw him.

Abdur was a noble man, and a brave fighter. It would have taken a coward to kill him while he was alone with his wife. I hope you find the devil who did this. I suspect he is one of yours. Why else would the all-powerful United States Defense Intelligence Agency care about the death of a poor Pashtun goat trader.


Look, you know it as well as I do: Mark hasn’t been right. Just hasn’t. He grows out the hair and the beard and puts on a salwar kameez, rubs some dirt on his face, and all of a sudden he’s a madman. I mean, sure, he looks like a madman—we all do—but he’s been behaving like one too. His Pashto is decent, but probably not as decent as he thinks it is. Of course that didn’t stop him from leaving camp alone, in blatant disregard of code. He’d go to bars, pick up local women. Where he takes them I have no idea, but he’s shown me the photos. It’s like he has a death wish. Can you imagine what these fuckers would do if they found out Mark was running off with their women?

I saw him at mess that day at breakfast. 0700. Said he was going to run surveillance detail on the Galfez-Patanah Road, and that he might pick up a source. He had a crazy sparkle in his eye, but that wasn’t anything unusual. If Mark did kill this goatherd, then I don’t want to know what he did with the young wife. You haven’t found her yet, huh? That’s probably for the best.


Of course I killed him. You think I’m going to lie about that? Look, you know me. I may have bent some directives in the past, but I’d never dishonor the agency, or my country. I killed him, I had no choice. But I didn’t touch the woman. You can’t pin that on me. You’ll see for yourself, if you find her. She’ll back me up.

Let me lay it out as clean as possible. Command had asked me to gather background on this goatherd Abdur Wali. He had made noises about wanting to sell us information about the Taliban. The guy knows everybody. Each morning he’s in the bazaar with his filthy sheep, their flanks absolutely torn apart by sores. Hard to imagine that anyone buys them. But this guy, this Wali, was well respected. He had been a prominent freedom fighter in the Soviet era.

So I decide to set up a meeting. My source tells me that there’s an ancient ruin where Wali likes to lurk. All I have to do is pay off the rice farmer who owns the land.

I visit the farmer at 1400. He confirms that Wali is indeed on the property, along with his youngest wife, some illiterate carpenter’s daughter. His horse is tied to a stake behind the farmer’s hut. Apparently Wali doesn’t have much privacy at his camp, with his kids and other wives running around. So they use this pile of bricks as a love shack. The setup could not be more ideal. I’m guaranteed to have him to myself.

When I get there they seem to have just finished. Naturally they’re stunned to see me. The girl is very young, by the way, no older than 16, but that might be generous—you’ve seen how fast women age here. Anyway, the girl is pretty much dressed at this point, but the burqa, this baggy turquoise number, is hanging on the wall. She grabs it off the hook and huddles behind it. The man is strangely silent. He knows who I am. He whispers to the girl, and her eyes get all big. I tell you, she looked like a child. He orders her to wait outside. That’s the last I see of her.

I explain that I want to talk to him about becoming an informant. He nods, but he’s clearly uncomfortable, shaky. His eyes are darting behind me to the door. I tell him that I need to ask a few preliminary questions. I go through the routine, the basic background corroboration techniques, keeping close to the blue book. I say that if he is discovered to be associated with the Taliban, he will be arrested and tried as a terrorist by a military tribunal. Wali keeps nodding like an imbecile, but he no longer appears to be listening.

That’s when I notice his sandals. They’re Tevas, the kind you can get at any mall back home. The only way he could’ve gotten them was from an American soldier. A dead one.

He sees me looking at his feet. Slowly he steps backwards, toward the corner, where his jacket is lying on the ground. He mumbles something about his cell phone, turns, and pulls up his jacket. I reach for my switch but—here’s the crazy thing—I don’t fire. All of my instincts told me that he was grabbing a gun, that he was going to fire at me, but I just stood there, hapless. I know I have a reputation for being a short fuse and all, but in that moment I was being careful. Too careful, really. It should have cost me my life.

The jacket falls, and he’s aiming a rusty old nine millimeter at my chest. The gun is Soviet issue, probably 30 years old. It’s fluky. He pulls. The first shot goes into the ground. The second whizzes over my head. What? Yeah, two rounds in total. By that time I’d come to my senses. I put a deadbolt into his heart.

I ran outside to find the girl, but, like I said, she was gone. I listened for the sound of her footsteps on the grass path but all I could hear was the goatherd’s dying moans. There’s no visibility at the site—the path ascends from the ruin and after 20 yards it curls around a hill—so I ran up the incline to see if I could spot her. It was too late. She’d disappeared into the dunes, along with Wali’s horse. I returned to camp and notified command. Everything had gone according to protocol until you boys ordered me in here and informed me that there was an investigation.

My only regret is that the girl got away. No, I don’t think she’s a threat. She’s probably relieved to be done with the old lecher. I doubt she’ll rattle. Even if she did talk—who would believe a word she said?


Yes, I did it. I did it! I guess you will kill me now?

Very well. It doesn’t seem that I have a choice.

You must think that I despised Abdur. But that’s not true. I loved him. He was strong, noble, brave, wise. He was making a lot of money and wanted to take me away from Sharan. Or so he told me.

The last thing he said? That he loved me. Imagine that. Two seconds later the American soldier surprised us like a djinn springing from the sand.

This soldier boy spoke terrible Pashto. He was like a rabid dog, with large, wild eyes and a screaming voice. His hair was long and his beard ragged. He kept staring at me, gesturing at my body. He wanted, he said, he wanted—to possess me. Just as Abdur had.


I’m sorry. That is not the reason I’m crying. Or not the main reason. The terrible thing was that Abdur did not protest. Not for a single moment. His face went dark, his eyes were dead in his head, and he agreed instantly to this maniac’s request. Bowing, like a slave, he stepped out of the ruin and waited silently while the American had his way. I shrieked and called out in pain, begging Abdur, but he would not do anything. I could see his sandals in the doorway from where I was lying. He was watching—just standing there and watching. I’ll never forget the sight of his ugly, hairy feet in those sandals.

When the soldier boy was done with me, he went outside to talk to Abdur. As I rose to my feet, I saw, lying in the corner, Abdur’s jacket. I reached inside and removed his gun. When I turned around, Abdur had come back into the house.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You were brave. This man will give us a lot of money—”

I didn’t let him finish. I started shooting. I missed the first two times—I had never used a gun before—but on the third, Alhamdulillah, the bullet went straight into his heart. I threw the jacket over his body.

I was not done. I went outside to avenge myself on the American. But he was running away. He fled from me. Can you believe that? From me—a little girl! What else do you need to know about your brave soldier boy?


I can defend my honor by telling you the truth of what happened at Kalawar, but it won’t ease my agony. In this darkness the pain is a profound, excoriating fire that burns and burns.

Agent Santo knew that I was willing to provide information to the Americans. Yes, I could have been very valuable for you. I could have told you, for instance, about a mortar attack that will occur less than a week from now.

When Santo surprised me at Kalawar, I was with my wife. Can you believe this? We were getting dressed; my jacket was on the ground, her garment was hanging on a nail by the doorway. Without letting my wife get dressed, he identified himself in his broken Pashto and began to explain that he was “the only friend” I had. He said that if I refused to work as his source, he would report me to the Taliban. This kind of threat was hardly necessary. I had offered my services because I hate the Taliban. I don’t hate them for being religious. I hate them because there are no jobs for the people anymore, there’s massive poverty, and doctors refuse to treat women. Besides, I was not one of those ignorant Afghans who think that the Americans are invaders—why would they want to live in this godforsaken country anyway? The Americans that I’d met had been kind to me. Once a young soldier patrolling the market took pity on me. He saw that my chappals were torn to pieces. I couldn’t afford new ones, and my feet were covered with blisters from walking in the hot sand. The next day the soldier handed me his own sandals. I wore them with pride.

But it soon became clear that my participation was not what Santo was after. He wanted my wife. Of course I laughed in his face. Did he take me for a savage?

He reached for his gun. I was stunned. I had heard about American brutality, but I could never have anticipated this. I reached for my nine millimeter, but it was too late. As I spun around, Santo, the coward, fired. He hit me in my chest. As I fell I squeezed the trigger twice, but it was no use, Santo was already running away. I rolled my jacket into a ball and pressed it to my chest like a tourniquet.

If only it had ended there. If only my beloved wife had stayed with me in those final moments, as the life trickled from my body. My shade would have been able to rest with some dignity. But I was cursed to survive another 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes will last me an eternity.

As soon as I fell to the ground, and Santo fled, my wife ran out of the hut. She called the man back.

“Please,” she said, “take me. I never wanted to be with Abdur. I seduced him to escape my father, an evil man. Take me with you. I will do anything.”

With a devilish, perverse grin, Santo took her at her word. She lay down, like a common prostitute, and encouraged him. She appeared to enjoy it.

[hysterical cackling, like a madman]

I saw it all, you see. I watched those barbarians while I lay, frozen, on the floor of the ruined building, the life almost drained from me. When they were done, Santo began to walk away. She yelled out to him, begging him to wait, but he only laughed in her face.

“Go back to your husband,” he said. She threw herself at him, but it was no use. He tossed her to the ground. Shamed, revealed for the whore that she was, she lay sobbing on the ground.


She never returned to the hut. She left me to die. When she vanished over the hill, I removed the balled-up jacket from my chest, and I closed my eyes, willing death to come.

But now the darkness is swirling around me again. It is becoming difficult to distinguish between the swirling realms of life and death. I choose the darkness. Let me sink into it. I wish to abandon forever all of this pain and confusion.

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