KABUL (Reuters) - On Monday morning, Essa Khan was an just another Afghan soldier earning about $200 a month to guard national institutions in Kabul from militant attack.
By Monday afternoon, the army sergeant was a national hero, lionized by the media for shooting dead several Taliban gunmen who tried to storm the country’s parliament which was in full session at the time.
Khan’s overnight fame underlines Afghans’ yearning for good news in a year when violence has risen, Taliban insurgents appear to be gaining ground and a government formed after last year’s messy election is still mired in disputes.
Recalling the dramatic events, Khan told Reuters on Tuesday that as soon as a car bomb exploded outside the parliamentary compound, he prepared for more insurgents to attack.
“I started shooting them one by one. I counted six of them lying there. The last one (seventh) was killed by someone else.”
Social media quickly picked up on Khan’s heroics, and a day later his square-jawed face appeared on posters and billboards in Kabul.
The 28-year-old even met President Ashraf Ghani, who called him a “brave son of this nation” and handed him the keys to a new apartment as a reward.
“Victorious Essa Khan!” and “Long live the Afghan security forces!” read two billboards in the Afghan capital, in an rare spontaneous show of support.
The Afghan army has long been popular in a country where the majority of people oppose the Taliban and its violent methods.
The Islamist militant movement ruled the country with an iron first until it was toppled in a U.S.-led war in 2001, and since then it has vowed to force its way back into power at the expense of a government it considers a lackey to the West.
Still, Khan’s television interviews have provided a boost for security forces, which may also be celebrating Tuesday’s recapture of a district in the northern province of Kunduz two days after it had fallen to the Taliban.
It has been some time since the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), up to 350,000 strong and trained by NATO at a cost of some $60 billion, have had much to smile about.
The Taliban has made territorial gains and launched a series of deadly attacks across the country since announcing a summer offensive, leaving Afghan forces facing their biggest test since NATO combat troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2014.
For now, the Afghan public seems happy to celebrate Khan’s courage, rather than focus on lapses that allowed the Taliban to get a car bomb and six armed gunmen through the capital’s security perimeter and close to the gates of parliament.
One woman and a child were killed and 30 others wounded in the attack, though the assailants did not manage to enter the parliamentary compound itself, in part thanks to Khan’s quick thinking.
For all the euphoria over his actions, Afghans still found cause to worry. Hamid Haidary, writing on Facebook, urged people to be careful about publishing photographs of Khan or his home, for fear insurgents may target him.
“God forbid our love will harm Essa Khan or his family,” he said.
Khan himself said he was not afraid.
“A male sheep is for sacrifice. I have sworn to God I will keep my head high and fight. I will sacrifice my life for this country.”
Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White