Hill author's powerful new war tale, 'The Mercenary'

by Len Lear
Posted 4/20/23

There’s an old Middle Eastern saying: Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, you cannot get it out. And once Jeffrey Stern gets on a case, you cannot get him off it.

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Hill author's powerful new war tale, 'The Mercenary'


There’s an old Middle Eastern saying: Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, you cannot get it out. And once Jeffrey Stern gets on a case, you cannot get him off it. That is why he went back to Afghanistan numerous times after first going as a freelance war correspondent in 2008, despite the life-threatening danger that was omnipresent.

Stern, who grew up in Mt. Airy and then Chestnut Hill and graduated from Germantown Friends School, has been named both a Pulitzer Center Fellow for Crisis Reporting and a Graduate Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation. Stern's reporting has appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Slate, Time and The New Republic. He has also been featured on PBS News Hour, NPR Morning Edition and Morning Joe, among others.

His new book, “The Mercenary: A Story of Brotherhood & Terror” (Public Affairs, publisher), just released last month, is an even more dramatic and compelling true-life page-turner than his previous three books, all of which earned critical raves. According to Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst, “'The Mercenary' is … at once heart-pounding and complex, personal and expansive, full of guns and dust and fast cars but also something key to great war reporting: heart.”

After graduating from Duke University in 2007, Stern tried to get assignments from several newspapers and magazines with no success. Finally, a magazine editor suggested that Stern go to Afghanistan and send back some anecdotes or stories about the war. At the very least, he was told, a New York magazine would very likely put his pieces on their website, and that could lead to bigger things.

And that is exactly what happened. It helped that Stern's writing is a gumbo of efficiency, completely lacking in pretension. “I got a room in Kabul in a place called the Mustafa Hotel, whose owner had just been murdered a few weeks before,” Stern said. “I asked if they had a gym, and they said yes. The ‘gym’ turned out to be one stationary bicycle on the roof. There were more employees than guests.”

Stern learned about a company that had English-speaking taxi drivers who would just charge a flat $7 fee to go anywhere in the city, and he came to rely on these drivers. “One, in particular, became like a brother to me,” said Stern. “A bomb would go off, and he’d call me. He would drive me to the bomb site; I would interview people in the area, and the driver would translate for me. 

“I’d take photos and put together a story and send it to editors in the U.S. Some would put it right on their website. It was impossible to make a living that way, and there was an epidemic of freelance journalists getting kidnapped and killed, but this got my foot in the door.”

Stern's newest book tells the unforgettable story of the close friendship that developed between Stern and the taxi driver, Aimal, who turned out to also be an arms dealer. 

“He was my first friend in Afghanistan,” said Stern, who is back living in Chestnut Hill, at least for now. “Our friendship was something I was always grateful for and intrigued by, so I'd write some pages about it and then some more ... When Afghanistan came back in the news (with the withdrawal of U.S. forces in late August 2021), I thought this was an opportunistic way to bring attention back to the issue.”

Stern's first book was “The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War” (Macmillan, 2015). His writing in the book is a potent elixir of savvy, charm and humanity. He does not dip his pen in fresh blood, as do some who write about war zones.

“The Last Thousand” is about The Marefat School, an extraordinary institution in the western slums of Kabul, built by one of the country’s most vulnerable minorities, the Hazara. Marefat educated both girls and boys; it taught students to embrace the arts, criticize their leaders, etc. But when the U.S. began to withdraw from Afghanistan, the students were left behind, unprotected.

“We were able to get the headmaster, Aziz Royesh, out of the country,” said Stern. “We got 250 girls out into Pakistan for a short time, and they are now living in Saskatchewan. Some are really thriving, and some are really struggling, being away from their families. A lot of money was raised to help get another 250 girls out, but they had to spend a year hiding in Pakistan in limbo. It was very, very traumatic.”

Stern' s second book, “The 15:17 to Paris,” was published in 2016 about three American military men who stopped a terrorist from blowing up a train headed to Paris with hundreds of passengers. It was later made into a movie by Clint Eastwood.

Stern is currently working on a book about the first “smart bomb” – who invented it, who used it, who had it dropped on them. “It's been a slog,” said Stern. “I've read it 150 times and changed every single word.”

For more information about Stern's books and magazine articles, visit jeffreyestern.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.