"With the help of Allah," a handful of fanatic Afghanistan freedom fighters plan an all-out attack on the Soviet high command in the mountain city of Kabul. But the odds are staggering: The Russians have twenty thousand crack troops and the most sophisticated weaponry; the rebels are poorly organized, and still depend on knives for fighting and carrier pigeons for communication. Everyone, including the rebels, thinks that the attack will probably be a suicide mission. Even the Death Merchant has his doubts.
But the CIA needs Richard Camellion to get two key Western spies out of the Soviet-controlled Central Prison in Kabul, a hellhole of inhuman slaughter and torture. Only the Death Merchant could attempt such a daring rescue, but even he'll have to use more than just his great cunning and deadly firepower to pull this one off.
Richard Camellion is in Afghanistan ("the hillbilly haven of Asia", according to author Joseph Rosenberger), with a group of Shi'a Muslims led by Khair Bahauddin Ghazi. As noted on the back cover, the Death Merchant is trying to reach the Central Prison in Kabul and rescue two agents who were inadvertently swept up in a mass arrest.
Ghazi and his tribe are fighting the Russians, who have invaded Afghanistan (as they did for real in late 1979; this book was published in August 1983). The Death Merchant and three others - Rod Hooppole, Ghazi's son Ismail, and another Afghan - have been hiking for two weeks on their way to the prison when they spy a Russian mine-laying unit, complete with armoured cars and grenade launchers. Ghazi wants to attack the Russians and basically taunts Camellion into going along with his seemingly suicidal scheme. (Of course, all of the Russians are wiped out.)
Back at the complex of caves in the lower hills of the Karakorum mountain range, Ghazi reveals his big plan: to attack the city of Kabul in three weeks and drive the Soviet forces out. Ghazi has been amassing men and weapons on the outskirts of the city for awhile. Camellion thinks this idea is pure suicide; the Afghans' methods are so rustic, they rely on human runners and carrier pigeons for communication. (Yet, the CIA is supplying them with weapons.*) Ghazi agrees with Camellion to a point, admitting that while he expects to triumph, he'll likely lose 80% of his 7,000-mujahideen fighting force.
* The US is doing this covertly, of course. Rosenberger says that is because the US does not want to trigger WWIII. (But wouldn't the Russians already know (or deeply suspect) from whom the Afghans are getting their weapons?) Ghazi says that the US should care deeply about what happens in Afghanistan: "The Soviet Union's invasion of our country is a major international disaster which in the long run will adversely affect the United States." In this, Rosenberger was quite prescient.
As they are discussing the Kabul mission, they receive word that Soviet helicopters and tanks are approaching the base. First, the town of Bashawal is destroyed, reduced to smoking rubble. ("The Cosmic Lord of Death descended on Bashawal.") The Afghans fire some RPGs and destroy five of the copters. Close to 400 Russian troops begin to advance up a hill - and the Afghans hold their fire, waiting until the Russians advance far enough that a retreat is impossible. Camellion orders the Afghans to charge - the "brain-washed Russian goofs" have walked right into a trap! An epic firefight erupts, a battle that is big enough to be saved for the end of the book. Rosenberger describes the shooting and hand-to-hand combat in his usual overly descriptive way, informing us of the paths the many slugs take through human bodies.
After the fight, approximately 100 people begin the long march to Kabul (190 kilometers), most of it through the Hindu Kush mountains. At some point, Camellion feels that the mission "is no longer feasible", that the attack on Kabul will surely fail and the chances of rescuing the two men in the prison are next to nil; he wants to be helicoptered out when a supply drop is made. The CIA doubles his usual $100,000 fee and for that reason and some others that are not too clear, the Death Merchant agrees to continue. The march continues through the Nuristan region, and past a communication center in Failiya (which apparently is in Iran); they traverse a huge gorge known as Aknib Limok (fictional) and encounter an encampment of Kuchis. A week later, they are at the ruins of Shahri-i-Chulghula (also fictional (or misspelled)).
When they make it to the Zaranj plain, on the outskirts of Kabul, where the CIA will make the weapons/supplies drop, they are once again attacked by Soviet helicopters. This assault is over very quickly, though, as the mujahideen fire Stinger missiles and blow the pig farmers' "eggbeaters" out of the sky.
While drawing up the plans to attack the seemingly impregnable Central Prison from all four sides, Rosenberger goofs on military time yet again. It is daylight at 0400, someone asked if darkness will be a problem at 1500, and 1500 is also referred to as "three o'clock in the morning".
Afghanistan Crashout ends when Camellion et al. kill all of the prison guards and free the captives. We hear about the Afghans' subsequent attacks on the Soviet headquarters and airbase in a one-page Aftermath. They did not succeed and nearly 4,000 mujahideen were killed. But Camellion's mind is elsewhere, as the men hike out of Afghanistan to be picked by helicopter in India. (One of the two jailed agents that Camellion was trying to rescue died in his cell before the Death Merchant arrived; the second one dies in his sleep during the trek to India, two days after being rescued.) The Death Merchant will fly first to London and then on to Romania for his next mission.
Like the last few DM volumes, this book was a real slog in some places. Rosenberger's goofiness from the earliest books is long gone, and you really get the sense that he saw the series at this point as a job, and perhaps not a very pleasant one. While he still includes a ton of research (which is sometimes interesting, though it's hard to know if any of it is fictional) and will occasionally offer a poetic turn of phrase, often when describing the climate or specific terrain, Rosenberger's narrative is overly serious; there is a heaviness to the book. Rosenberger puts a lid on the usual discussions of politics in this book, though Camellion does muse that the internal collapse of the United States is "right around the corner":
"[U]nless something was done quickly by 1990 the American transportation system would collapse. Aliens from Asia, from Mexico and Latin America had already ruined many major cities. The demise of their economy and the free enterprise system was staring the American people in the face, while lawlessness was increasing, due to Kennedy-type liberalism.1There is also a serious increase in gun porn, with Rosenberger taking time out to describe exactly how some weapons work:
FN1: All this was foreseen by a recent symposium with both U.S. mayors and scientists in attendance.
The Death Merchant sighted down the updated M16, thinking about the RAW, the Rifleman's Assault Weapon that was designed to give all riflemen the instant capability of defeating such obstacles as concrete bunkers, walls, and armored vehicles. The system required very little training to use; it was as easy as fixing a bayonet. The man firing attaches the unit to his rifle, pulls out the safety pin and fires an ordinary cartridge at any target, using standard sights. Within a quarter of a second, the RAW is propelled from its launch frame—attached to the barrel of the rifle—and flies straight to the target in less than two seconds with zero trajectory.Nevertheless, I'm committed to reading the rest of the books in the series - or perhaps I should be committed for doing so. I'm already looking forward to going back in time and reading the other series Rosenberger wrote in the early-to-mid 70s (Murder Master and Kung Fu: Mace). I fully expect those books to have plenty of the humour and wackiness Rosenberger displayed in the earliest Death Merchant volumes.
The RAW's launcher frame holds a tube which is free to rotate on bearings and which contains rear vents, as well as two side vents consisting of two curved tubes that are at opposing right angles to the axis of the main tube. The projectile—it resembles a round metal ball—fits into the main tube and up against part of the main launcher support. It is this portion of the support that has a hole drilled through it which connects with the muzzle sleeve. The removal of the safety pin unblocks a firing pin at the lower end of the hole where it meets the body of the projectile. When the bullet leaves the muzzle of the rifle, some of the expanding gas flows down the launcher-tube hole and through the bracket. With the safety pin removed, the gas is free to strike the firing pin, driving it into a primer in the rear of the projectile and starting the rocket motor that drives the five inch diameter ball-projectile. As gas is expelled from the rocket, it is directed through the two right-angled tubes, causing the main tube and the "ball" to spin sixty revolutions per second. At launch, the gases are directed through the 'rear vents and diverted away from the man pulling the trigger.
The RAW warhead is armed through a conventional thrust/pin mechanism. Upon contact, the front part flattens, giving a "squash head" effect for the thirty-four ounces of TNT that explodes. The RAW is rifle munition with artillery power.
Opening line: "By the big black beard of Boob McNutt, this just isn't my day!"
"Camellion aimed with all the precision of a newly married virgin bride reading a marriage manual ..."
"The Afghans are nuttier over 'macho' than the refried bean boys south of the border."
"In contrast, Mului Imu was killed outright by the eighth grenade, the hundreds of pieces of shrapnel turning him into bloody Afghanburger ..."
When the battle begins: "The show was on the road! The curtain had just gone up. But it beats being an oboe player!"
"To the Death Merchant a Russian was about equal to a spirochete, the microorganisms that cause syphilis."
"Grojean can go fly a milk bottle!"
"The Death Merchant despised communists of any nationality, disarmament freaks, people who grabbed at him, cults, and green beans - and in that order."
"Damn pig farmers! They dropped out of first grade - when they were thirty!"
"What do you get when you cross a Mexican with an octopus?" "I don't know, but you should see it pick lettuce!"
Footnote, page 80: "Richard Camellion has written three books on bare-handed kills. Two are not available to the public. The third is: Assassination: Theory & Practice. Paladin Press, P.O. Box 1307, Boulder, Colorado 80306." I have a copy of this book, which was published in 1977. Paladin published another book "written" by Camellion, Behavior Modification: The Art Of Mind Murdering, the following year. I wonder why Rosenberger didn't mention that one; perhaps because it concerns mind-control and not "bare-handed kills"?