Private security firm, ShieldGroup, employ two ex-SAS soldier to train Afghans so that eventually Afghans can take responsibility for their own security and foreign forces can withdraw. An agency are supposed to vet trainees to ensure no terrorist links, but two slip through the net. Trainers John Patterson and Malcolm Miller, known as Dusty, indentify them and are forced to act in self-defence. Their report of the incident is watered down and altered and the pair realise they are being hung out to dry. Their Afghan translator suggests appeared before a jirga (a court of village elders) to clear their names. John Patterson accepts and Dusty goes along with him despite suspecting the translator has an ulterior motive. Travelling to Dogram is more attractive than being shipped home in disgrace, so the two soldiers and translator split up to travel separately. Before they leave, the two soldiers give a copy of the original report to a journalist who is caught up in his own conflict between what he sees and reports and the stories his editor wants.
Bob Shepherd’s strength lies in capturing the sense of nothing being what it seems, of there being no goodies and baddies, merely people trying to survive whether it’s the explosives expert trying to find IEDs, Dusty Miller applying his medical skills to keep his friend and allies alive or the villagers trying to eke out a living despite being surrounded by war and the cultural conflicts that are inevitable when foreign soldiers are trying to do their best for Afghans without taking the trouble to try and understand what the Afghans actually want. Atmospherically, the book is hard to fault.
The writing though is perfunctory. It doesn’t change tone or pace with the action. Here a journalist is waiting at the house of an Afghan General for an interview. He sees two vehicles with blacked out windows (not an uncommon sight) turn into the driveway. A boy, around ten years of age, wearing a Manchester United football club shirt pushes a wheelbarrow alongside the two vehicles, “Suddenly the windows of the waiting room imploded. Rudy’s chair flipped backwards, slamming him into the wall. Chunks of plaster rained down from the ceiling. They cracked into a million pieces on the hard marble, filling the room with white dust. Disorientated, Rudy pulled himself onto his hands and knees. He looked at his forearms. They were cut and bloodied. He sat back on his feet and checked his thighs. It was a miracle he hadn’t been shredded to pieces by flying glass. He noticed the brocade curtains in tatters. They had caught the brunt of it.” Dazed, Rudy stumbles outside to survey the damage. “Rudy skidded on the pavement. He regained his balance and lifted his foot. His sock was stained red and a piece of meat was clinging to it. It looked like a strip of gristle cut from a rare steak. Rudy looked around him. Bits of raw flesh were everywhere: in the fountain, on the ground, hanging from the razor wire. He wondered where it had all come from… Rudy looked at a charred lump lying beside him. It was covered in a strip of red polyester. He gagged. The piece of meat stuck to his foot was the suicide bomber.”
This makes it hard to care about any of the human characters in the book and the character you end up caring about is Afghanistan itself. Although you suspect Afghanistan will survive the drugs trade, war and ravages of natural disasters far better than any of the humans. As the body count rises, Dusty Miller learns he was right to be suspicious and the final twist leaves readers wondering how reliable the narrators actually are. But it doesn’t matter because by then you’ve long ditched the plot and focused on the place and the atmospherics.