When the word first got out that he claimed to have single-handedly shot down six Taliban gunmen, Isa Khan Lagmani became an instant hero in Afghanistan.
On June 21, there was seemingly little to distinguish the staff sergeant from hundreds of thousands of others among the ranks of the Afghan National Army. A day later, his marksmanship, charisma and bravado made him an icon for millions, both inside and outside Afghanistan. His lively description of how he shot down the gunmen trying to enter the parliament building, “taq chapako, bang, bang,” became an immediate catch phrase among the legions of admirers his swagger had earned him.
But, like so many others who experience a swift and sudden ascent into stratospheric fame, the 28-year-old’s story quickly took a turn for the worst. In a few short days, Afghanistan’s newest “national hero” had become a tragic hero, who like so many before him, was brought down by what Aristotle called an “error of judgment”.
On Wednesday evening, while racing down Darulaman Road in the pickup truck Abul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president, had gifted him, Laghmani, struck and killed a motorcyclist.
In a single, sweeping moment, the man who shot to fame for having saved potentially hundreds of lives, had fallen into the depths of infamy by allegedly taking a life. Adding irony to the tragedy was the fact that both Laghmani and the man he is said to have killed were traveling on Darulaman Road at the time, the same street the parliament building is located on.
Only with time will we know the full details of that evening, or whether Laghmani has learned anything from the moment that took him from famous to infamous. But the question currently at hand is whether this negates what led to his hero status to begin with.
Two days after the killing, talk of Laghmani’s downfall has not overtaken Kabul, the way his meteoric rise did. His pictures still hang on the roundabouts and fence posts they were placed upon by young supporters only a day after he claimed to have shot the gunmen.
In truth, Laghmani’s hero status always involved some level of disavowal. When I went to interview him a day after the attempted Taliban attack on the parliament, two guards at a check post leading to the parliament building said plainly that Laghmani was not alone in his heroism. Another soldier, they said, had shot two or three of the gunmen but kept quiet due to fear of Taliban reprisal.
Taken by his charisma, we overlooked that and allowed Laghmani his possibly tall tale.
“This man was on every channel telling it how it is, and about Pakistan’s involvement,” Qais Essar, an Afghan-American musician tweeted.
— Qais Essar (@Q_Essar) July 4, 2015
Laghmani’s frankness was a much-needed change from the recent political wrangling over a memorandum of understanding the Afghan government is said to have signed with the Pakistani intelligence agency, whom many in Afghanistan blame accuse of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in the nation. To those angry that Kabul was signing an intelligence sharing pact with the nation they feel are fuelling the Afghan conflict, a soldier describing the Taliban gunmen he shot dead as “the slaves of Pakistan and the Americans,” was a much-needed dose of brazen honesty.
Even though his characterization of the attackers as pawns of two nations the government is currently trying to inch closer to — despite deep-seeded Afghan suspicions of both — seemed to go against Kabul’s recent efforts to increase ties with Islamabad and Washington, the political establishment wholeheartedly embraced Laghmani. We all knew why the government was showering him with gifts — along with the pickup truck from Dostum, he was given a three-bedroom apartment by President Ashraf Ghani — and admiration.
Simply put, they wanted to shift attention from the many security-related questions the foiled attack presented, to a member of the ANA we could all be proud of. For once, we let go of our cynicism in exchange for a new hero at a time when a lack of security and jobs has left the majority of Afghans feeling anything but proud or hopeful.
The truth is we all used Laghmani as much as he used us.
As his eagerness to show the media what he had done showed, what he wanted was the glory that came with fame. He said as much to me. “The name Isa Khan Laghmani will be known all over the world for killing the Taliban.”
We, the public, wanted the comfort that comes with a sense of restored pride. For one short week, Isa Khan Laghmani provided an Afghan public faced with the stifling reality of increasing insecurity and a stagnated economy, a much-needed new hero.
As a soldier, Laghmani also broke from the standard divisive figures — warlords and kings — that have for so long been made into “heroes” throughout contemporary Afghan history. He came from seemingly humble beginnings. More importantly, Laghmani talked like us. He thought like us.
Ultimately, like any myth, Laghmani’s tale has served to us all, including Laghmani himself, a lesson. For Laghmani, his time in prison will hopefully bring him some humility.
For us, the lessons are fairly straightforward. As one Twitter user put it: “Heroes fall from grace all the time. military heroes, especially ones heavily manipulated by powers.”
— roya (@reporterroya) July 3, 2015
As such, we will all hopefully learn to look for heroes around us, not just on the television and in the headlines.