Isa Khan Laghmani, 28, had little time to collect himself after a suicide car bomb near the Afghan parliament building caused the “loudest explosion” he had ever heard.
His ears ringing, it took the Afghan army staff sergeant several seconds to realize that the converted shipping container he and other soldiers were standing in was filled with dust and smoke. Knowing from experience that such a bombing in Afghanistan is often followed by militants on foot, the 10-year veteran grabbed his M-16 assault rifle and stepped outside, near the entrance to the parliament complex.
When he saw a group of young militants approaching, he hesitated for a second before opening fire.
“I said bismillah [in the name of God], and then: Bang! Bang! Bang!” he said in an interview Tuesday, a day after the bombing. “I shot all six.”
The soldier’s bravado made him a national sensation in Afghanistan in the wake of the latest Taliban assault on the parliament, in which two civilians were killed and 40 wounded. The morning after footage of him narrating his exploits to local media went viral Monday evening, young men hung posters with his picture around Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani gave him a three-bedroom house.
With Afghan security forces suffering heavy casualties in a struggle to contain a Taliban offensive and many criticizing Ghani’s attempt to open peace talks with the insurgents as violence increases, Laghmani’s story made him an instant hero for a country and a beleaguered government that desperately needed one.
The Afghan government got more good news Tuesday with reports that security forces had retaken control of a key district at the doorstep of the capital of the northern province of Kunduz. A Taliban advance over the weekend had brought the militants to within a few miles of the city, home to some 300,000 people.
Laghmani’s version of events could not be independently confirmed. On Tuesday two members of the security forces stationed at a roadblock near the parliament compound said that at least one other soldier also fatally shot some of the six militants but did not tell his story publicly out of fear of becoming a Taliban target.
The swaggering Laghmani had no such fear.
“I made myself a target for the Taliban 10 years ago” after he joined the army, he said. “Believe me, I’ve done much worse to them in that time.”
The father of three, whose family lives in the eastern city of Jalalabad, dreamed as a boy of joining the army and has served in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan. When he applied to be reassigned to Kabul six years ago, it was at the urging of his family, who worried about his safety, he said.
“I wanted to be where the action was and where I could really be of service to the nation,” he said.
After the suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the parliament in West Kabul Monday morning, while lawmakers were inside preparing to vote on Ghani’s nominee for defense minister, the six Taliban gunmen stepped out of a minivan parked several hundred feet away.
In the time it took the gunmen to reach the road leading to the parliament building, they fired off several rounds, at least one rocket and six or seven hand grenades, which were responsible for most of the casualties, witnesses said.
Inside the building, Abdul Rauf Ibrahim, the parliamentary speaker, tried to maintain order as lawmakers panicked at the sight of falling dust and debris.
Once the six gunmen were within shooting range, Laghmani said it took him 10 or 15 minutes to fire off the rounds that killed them.
“I only used one-and-a-half or two rounds of bullets, so the government doesn’t think Isa Khan used a lot of bullets,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, a 31-year-old man named Hairan was among a group of men hanging a poster with Laghmani’s face. Hairan, who has only one name and hails from Kunduz, said Laghmani’s bravery sent a message to the Taliban, whom he described as infidels.
“We are doing it because we want to show the Taliban that we are with the people of Afghanistan and those who protect us, not them,” Hairan said.
Ghani tweeted of Laghmani: “I’m so proud of his resolve and heroism.”
Laghmani said he had seen a few of the posters but that he was only glad to have the chance to serve his country.
“I thanked the president for the three-bedroom house, but I also told him, ‘I hope you don’t expect me to sit at home now,’” Laghmani said. “I am of this nation and I want to continue to defend it.”
Latifi is a special correspondent. Staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.