Wasil Ahmad learned to fire a gun at age 9, after his father was killed by Taliban militants.
Before long, his uncle said, the boy had become a celebrated Taliban killer, credited with gunning down six insurgents during a battle last summer.
Wasil was waiting Monday at a fruit stand in Tirin Kot, the capital of southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, when he was shot dead by two gunmen. His uncle said he was 12 years old.
The boy's death — in a conflict that began before he was born — has made national headlines and served as a grave reminder that children continue to fight and die on all sides of the enduring hostilities in Afghanistan.
The United Nations documented 68 cases of children — including three girls — being recruited by either government forces or insurgents in 2014. Afghan news media often broadcast video confessions by reported child bombers recruited by the Taliban. The Afghan government signed a 2011 U.N. plan to prevent the recruitment and use of underage fighters, but the practice continues, particularly among anti-Taliban militias in remote areas that have government support but are not formally part of Afghan security forces.
Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said via text message Wednesday that the government "doesn't recruit children." Wasil's uncle, Abdul Samad, a local police commander in Uruzgan, said in a telephone interview that the boy was not a member of the Afghan Local Police, a U.S.-backed government militia, or any other formal fighting force.
Wasil was doing what anyone in his situation would do, Samad said.
"He had to take up arms," he said in a phone interview. "He was defending his home, his family."
In Samad's telling, Wasil picked up an AK-47 rifle after his father was killed three years ago in battle against the Taliban. He said he wanted revenge.
Teach me how to shoot this," his uncle said Wasil asked him.
The boy proved a quick study, learning to fire everything from shotguns and pistols to heavy weapons. He even got behind the wheel of a police pickup.
The real test of Wasil's ability came last summer, when the family home in Khas Uruzgan district came under a 71-day Taliban siege.
According to his uncle, Wasil single-handedly shot and killed six Taliban fighters in that two-month period. In his years fighting the Taliban, Samad said Wasil's father killed 13 Taliban members.
"You could circle the globe and you wouldn't find someone this brave and this courageous at such a young age," Samad said.
The circumstances of the boy's death remained murky. Samad said Wasil was carrying a pistol Monday but did not get off a shot. He was shot twice, in the head and the shoulder, he said. No group has claimed responsibility for the killing. The Taliban did not respond to questions from The Times.
Local officials in Uruzgan and others hailed Wasil as a hero, but some said his story offered yet another example of the price paid by Afghan youth in the more than 14-year conflict.
In the first six months of 2015, the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,270 casualties among children — 320 deaths and 950 injuries — a 13% increase over the prior year.
"Turning children into warlords is wrong in the first place," WazhmaFrogh Zulfiqar, a civil society activist in Kabul, said on Twitter.
Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview Wednesday that despite a law passed by President Ashraf Ghani's government last year outlawing people younger than 18 in the armed forces, "children continue to be used in this way by all sides."
The Taliban even seized on Wasil's death. A pro-Taliban Twitter account accused the government of hypocrisy and said the "use of child soldiers for fighting and other purposes [is] widespread" among government forces.
The Taliban have long been accused of employing child soldiers. Afghan media frequently broadcast stories of children allegedly recruited by the insurgent group to become suicide bombers. In December, two 12-year-olds in Sar-e Pol and Faryab provinces turned themselves into police, saying the Taliban trained them to carry out suicide bombings against local officials.
They were the same age as Wasil, whose family said he was about to start seventh grade.
"Some may call Wasil Ahmad a hero," Gossman said, "but in fact, it's a tragedy that a 12-year-old should die in this way."
Special correspondents Latifi reported from Kabul and Amiri from Kandahar, Afghanistan.