“The Shadow Patrol” takes readers where Alex Berenson has taken them before — to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also familiar to Berenson readers is the protagonist. It’s John Wells, a resourceful individual with a variety of skills who can’t quite retire from the CIA.
This time, however, he isn’t after terrorists or Taliban warlords. His mission generally is to determine the level of morale and specifically to find out whether al Qaeda has infiltrated the CIA station in Kabul.
This is a plausible response to the incident in 2009 in which a double agent promising important information about al-Qaeda leaders blew himself and a handful of the station’s most capable agents up in a meeting that never should occurred under the circumstances it did.
A couple of years later, 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Stryker Brigade, operating out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jackson in Kabul Province, sets out on a “routine” patrol to a local village. Most of the danger in such patrols is in the drive there and back — from Ides or ambushes — but the unit arrives and returns without incident. Well, except for the meeting Lt. Tyler Weston, Sgt. First Class Nick Rodriguez and Sgt. Kevin Roman have with some villagers during which 16 kilos of heroin go from the Afghans’ possession to the Americans‚ and the unusual death of an American soldier.
While drug deal was being made, an awkward private named Ricky Fowler got a little too curious for his own good. He happened to see what was going on and told a soldier he looked up to, Sgt. Coleman Young, what he had seen. Young, who’s counting the days until he returns home and isn’t looking for trouble, told Fowler to shut his mouth and to forget what he saw. The older soldier’s warning mattered little. Not long afterward, Fowler was shot during what seemed like an ambush by Afghans except that after Fowler was shot, incoming fire stopped and no Afghans could be seen.
The heroin transaction wasn’t a one-time deal. Such arrangements took place about once a month, with the heroin ending up in the hands of a U.S. sniper team that regularly went “beyond the wire” on missions and that made it a personal mission to get the heroin aboard U.S. planes headed for home from Kandahar Air Field. Daniel Francesca is the sniper and William Alders is his spotter. They’re the shadow patrol.And they’re corrupt.
Wells isn’t well received by most of the soldiers he visits with, even those with nothing to hide. They regard him as someone who could make trouble for them and their units. He makes little real progress until he addresses soldiers at FOB Jackson and invites anyone who wants to talk to drop by his quarters. Sgt. Young, who’s haunted by Fowler’s death and worried that he might be, next, does just that.
Word that Wells is snooping around gets to the sniper team. Francesca, who’s had enough targets in his crosshairs to devalue human life, decides that he and Wells are headed for a showdown. Francesco, unlike the others he is in league with, knows what Wells wants to know — the identity of the individual Francesca and the others answer to.
Francesca is right about the showdown. It comes while he’s waiting on a rocky hill to shoot Sgt. Young, who was being led into Francesca’s scope by Lt. Weston and Sgt. Rodriguez.
Berenson, a bestselling author whose works include “The Ghost War” and “The Secret Soldier,” has written another good story.
While seeming to lead readers to random places in “The Shadow Patrol,” he ties the ends of his complicated tale together well.
His accounts of FOB Jackson and the soldiers stationed there are captivating. Whether he accurately depicts the lives of soldiers — alternately boring and tripwire tense — on the front of a war too few Americans pay attention to is best left for veterans to decide.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor of The Mercury.