The two leaders seated in armchairs around the fireplace in the Oval Office represented the two largest democracies in the world.
The American President was a man with a goofy smile and orange hair. He had been in office only four months. In the chair next to him was a man almost ten years his junior. He was the Prime Minister of India and his hair was white. He had been the premier of his nation for the last four years. This was his first official visit to USA under the new President’s watch.
While the meetings and events of State had already been on-going for the last three days, this had been the first chance for the two leaders to meet each other one-on-one. Facing them was a phalanx of media personnel. There were no questions thrown at them by the press. That had come the day before. This was a photo op, pure and simple, with streams of news data flowing on to all parts of the world, showing the two leaders sharing ‘an easy comradeship’.
Prompted by his aide, the American President rose, waiting politely for the Indian to do the same. He came over, his smile fixed to his features. The President noticed that he was holding a folder under his arm. “Mr. President.” The words rolled off his tongue easily, and POTUS had to conceal a grin. It felt great being addressed like that by the world leaders he had met in the last few months. He knew that for some of the men engaging in dialogue, the words did not come easily.
The PM went on, his voice low, but the words clear, even with the hint of his Indian accent. “These are troubling times for both of us. My party is facing a crisis that makes me wary that my days are numbered. And I see that your popularity based on poll numbers is already waning, only a few months into your Presidency.” He looked away, pretending not to notice the way the other’s smile slipped. He held up the file. “My intelligence people have had this data for some months. They wanted to share it with the out-going President, your predecessor, but I waited, hoping you would win, believing that you would have the conviction and the courage to do what is necessary.” He held out the file. “Show it to your people. I ask only one thing in return: if you decide to act on it, give India the credit she deserves…”
Inside the Oval Office, facing the President was the Director of the American Central Intelligence Agency (DCI). The contents of the file were spread out on the large desk. Next to him was an Admiral, the current head of the Joint Chief of Staff.
The DCI was speaking. “The Indians haven’t given us a lot. Judging from the fact that most of the maps are printed off Google Earthe, I’m guessing that perhaps their intelligence-gathering capabilities are limited. Either that or they don’t want to share imagery collected by their own satellites.
“The pictures focus on a house located in a rural setting in Pakistan. Gandabad is a township, located forty miles from the border with Afghanistan, population 3500. There’s no military base within fifty miles of Gandabad. This villa in the photos is a two storey affair ringed by a six foot high brick wall.
“I requisitioned satellite time from the NRO, and we had people pore over the output. We can see four guards at the entrance of the compound. Non-uniformed personnel.”
The Admiral nodded. “The Indians say this villa is a safe-house used by the ISI.”
The DCI tapped the paperwork at his fingertips. “According to this data, about six months ago, there was a lot of building activity centering round this house. The renovation work went on for a month and then the new tenant shifted in. And by the looks of it, he is still there.”
“Who’s the tenant in that safe-house?”
The DCI let out a sigh. “In the last 48 hours since you’ve handed me this file, my people have re-positioned a satellite and we’ve been eyeballing the co-ordinates but apart from the security detail and service personnel, we’ve seen no one of interest.”
“Could it be Azaffar Khan?” asked POTUS.
The room went quiet at the mention of the world’s most wanted man. A man with no known roots, but who had spent the last ten years wreaking havoc on American soil. More than 5000 people had died at his hands, making him the world’s most sought-after terrorist. Tens of millions had been spent trying to unearth his whereabouts, but so far, all efforts had failed.
The DCI exchanged a glance with the Admiral. “It’s obvious the Indians think it’s him. Why else would he drop this into your hands?”
POTUS eyes narrowed. “How do we find out?” He growled.
The DCI scratched his chin. “Confirmation can only come from eyes on the ground. And we have no direct assets in that part of the world. The nearest Agency operatives are in Karachi. We would have to move them in delicately and get them to zero in on possible sources in Gangabad. It won’t happen overnight, Mr. President.”
POTUS gave him a steely look. “I’m sure you’ve seen my popularity ratings, Director? Then you know that I sorely need something good to show the American people. When Obama went in and grabbed bin Ladin, his ratings went sky-high. The bloody public forgot all about his short-comings in a snap of a moment.’ His eyes blazed. “If Azaffar Khan is hiding there, then we’re going to go in and bag him…”
The Indian PM liked his tea piping hot. Not so the gruff-looking gent sitting on the wooden chair next to him. His name was Das and he was the head of India’s intelligence apparatus.
It was Das who was talking. “If it had not been for Ali, I doubt any of us would ever have heard of Gangabad. Ali is a native of the town. He’s a labour contractor: anything that has to do with buildings in the town, he’s automatically summoned. He briefed our people about the safe-house years ago.
“Gangabad basically is a two-bit shanty. Even the Paks think it’s the ass-end of the world. Why they even sited a safe house there is beyond me. It’s miles away from the nearest city, and even further from any military installation.”
“So why do you have Ali posted there if it’s so quiet?”
“Ali isn’t an asset. He’s a layman. His son got life-saving surgery performed in India in 2012. His own people refused to take up his case, and our doctors managed to play saviour. Ali had to go back to the business he had set-up, but he suddenly became angry at his native country. He began sending us data, whatever he thought was significant. We didn’t find anything of interest – until a couple of months ago.
“The safe-house had to undergo some renovation and Ali was called in to supply electricians and painters. When he saw the new plans he realized the upgrade was meant for someone of major importance to their government. And in that dump, off the radar, it had to be someone they wanted to hide. All he had to do was find out.” He watched the PM finish his tea. “The rest you know.”
“And now so do the Americans. Will they act on it?”
“Intelligence-gathering is a slow process. The Americans are world beaters when it comes to high-tech gadgets but when it’s boots on the ground, in that part of the world, they have major limitations.” He crossed his legs. “I told Ali to watch out for any strangers suddenly showing up in town. A native turned up a day back, scouting about. Ali homed in on him, asking him if he wanted work. Ali’s hired him as an electrician.”
Forty eight hours later, POTUS received the news at the daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
The DCI cleared his throat. “We managed to get an asset in the field 4 days back. He secured employment with a local firm. Last night, their time, his boss received an urgent call from the villa. The power was down, and though they have back-up generators, the usual protocol is to call summon this firm to come in and fix the problem. Our man was part of the team that went in.
“Apparently, it was a major problem, and a lot of people were called in, and the generators conked out. People milling about, darkness and flashlights. The place was probably hot as hell, and the fugitive maybe couldn’t bear to be confined to his room, or wherever he was hiding. Somewhere in the midst of all the chaos, our man caught sight of the secret inhabitant, being hurried out of the building by security guards.” His gaze didn’t waver. “Cent percent visual confirmation: it was Azaffar Khan…”
The President’s jaw had hardened. “Those bloody Pakistanis…” he swore.
“Wait a minute – how do we know he’s still there? After the power cut, I mean.” asked the Armed Forces Chief of Staff.
“The problem got fixed soon after. Our man didn’t get a second glimpse, but the guards were in place and all the vehicles in the garage. No reason for Khan to have skipped.”
“So we know where he is…” said the Admiral. “It’s our move now, sir.”
The DCI nodded. “We can have Predator drones from Afghanistan armed and up in the air within four hours.”
POTUS looked shocked. “You can’t blow him up! I need proof! I need a body to show the world! We need to go in and get him.” He looked at the JCS head.
The admiral leaned forward. “Snatch and grab. You’re talking Special Forces, Madam President. Delta’s at Kandahar. Our units are conditioned, battle-hardened and they have the equipment they need at their base. We’re talking four choppers coming in low over the border. There’s no border posts in that area, no military units nearby, and the terrain is rocky, virtually uninhabited: there will be no one to hear us coming. Kill everything that gets in the way, get our man and get the hell out. I took the liberty of forwarding everything we had to the Delta commander at Kandahar on an eyes-only basis. Contingency plans are already in place. So are the men and the tools.” He looked at his boss. “All we need is an executive order.”
Less than thirty hours later, the White House Situation Room had ten occupants, all members of the US National Security Council. They were glued to twin monitors, watching events unfold in real-time in a building thousands of miles away. The video-feed coming in was courtesy of cameras mounted to the helmets of the Delta troopers lead elements. The men and women in the air-conditioned room held their breath as the soldiers effected entry, shooting their way past the guards, rushing up the steps and then gunning down a sentry outside a large wooden door.
The special ops men burst into the bedroom. The man on the bed was rising, groggy, dazed, unable to resist as they took him down.
“We have eyes on target. It’s not Fox Alpha. Repeat, it is not Fox Alpha.”
POTUS swore the loudest and he rose out of his chair, the tension inside suddenly peaking. “What the hell! He must be in one of the other rooms!”
Five minutes later, the premises had been secured and the Delta leader was shaking their sole prisoner by the shoulder, demanding to know where Azaffar Khan was.
“Who the hell is the guy?” hissed the chief of Homeland Security. “A decoy? Is it a trap?”
The National Security Advisor held up a hand. “Wait! The face is familiar… he’s – his name is Asser.” He tapped at his terminal, pulling up Asser’s file. “Here it is. Mohammed Asser. The man’s a terrorist alright. In fact he’s currently listed as numero uno on India’s Most Wanted. They’ve been after him for a decade. From our files, it looks like he’s been a guest of the various governments of Pakistan over the last several years.”
The POTUS was still standing. “What’s he doing at the villa? What about Khan?”
The DCI’s phone buzzed. As he listened, he held up his hand for silence. “Wait, I’m getting a call from a CIA operative outside the villa. The Delta soldiers stationed around the perimeter of the villa have been approached by a man waving a white flag.” He put the call on speaker-phone. “The man has IDed himself as only Ali. He says he knows we are American soldiers, and that we have committed an act of war by crossing national borders and killing Pakistani soldiers.” The silence in the Situation Room was total. “He says he only wants one thing – what? I didn’t get you – what did you say?” The CIA agent’s voice was confused. “Sir, he says he wants – Mohammed Asser.”
The DCI turned slowly to look at his Commander-in-Chief. POTUS was looking ashen.
“Sir, the man – this Ali, he says if we don’t hand over Asser in three minutes, he’s going to start waking up some important people in Karachi.”
POTUS looked down at his hands, and wondered why they weren’t shaking.
The Indian Prime Minister woke at the third ring of his bedside phone.
It was Das. “Prime Minister, we got Asser.”
He let out his breath very slowly. “Is he on Indian soil yet?”
“On his way to my HQ. Along with Ali, who’s been burned. We’ve offered him sanctuary.”
“Spare no expense. He’s managed to do what none of my predecessors could in the last ten years.” He waited, but for some instants no word was forthcoming. He chuckled. “Das, I think it’s time you told me how you did the impossible by fooling the CIA into believing a man we were after was the man they were after.”
Das explained, his voice calm as ever. “Without Ali, it was mission impossible. He engineered the power cut, severing cables outside the villa then rushed in electricians to make it look grim. Asser was of course, safely in his private quarters. There was no chance that the CIA man would actually see him. What he needed to see, what he needed to convince his American handlers he had seen, was Azaffar Khan. And there we obliged.
“Ali kept the CIA man with him at all times. During the height of the panic, they went down to the garage. A van was parked nearby. At the pre-determined time, two of Ali’s men came out, dressed like the villa’s security. They had a man with them, wearing a prosthesis we designed. The CIA man had been sent photos of Azaffar Khan by his handlers. A glimpse of the imposter was all that was needed.
“He was virtually bursting with excitement when he made eye contact. Ali had to caution him to tell no one whom he had seen.” Das coughed. “The American President knows now that he’s been hoodwinked.”
“Poor man. If he had allowed the CIA to do the job properly, they’d have realized he wasn’t their man; the operation would never have taken place.”
“You knew he would jump for it.” Das sounded admiring. “He was after glory, and in his haste he cut corners. You played an American President and got away with it.”
“No. I will allow the man his moment in the sun. We will share the glory together. We will announce to the world that it was a joint Indo-US commando operation. The Americans will be pacified and the Pakistanis will not dare to lift a finger.”
“Still, I would hate to be in the American President’s shoes now.” A pause. “On the other hand, to be in your shoes… Congratulations, Prime Minister: you got your man.”