The Road to Qala-i-Jangi: Circling back to America’s first casualty in Afghanistan

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MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — A thin, black ribbon of highway known as the Ring Road wound its way out of this bustling city through a lush, green patchwork of wheat and cotton fields.

We turned onto a dirt road where the mud-brick ramparts of an imposing 19th century fortress rose suddenly on the horizon.

The 12-foot thick walls and massive battlements of Qala-i Jangi dominate the skyline of Mazar-i Sharif. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

The Qala-i-Jangi fortress is protected by walls 60 feet high and 30 feet thick. Along the walls are gun turrets and lookouts used to guard against invading empires from the British to the Soviets to the Americans. It was here at this seemingly impenetrable fortress that the US suffered its first casualty in what would become the longest war in American history.

As part of The GroundTruth Project’s reporting journey along the Ring Road titled “Foreverstan: Afghanistan and the road to ending America’s longest war,” a reporting team including photographer Ben Brody, our driver, Asef, and our translator, Zabi, began in Mazar because it is a place that has defined a generation of war in Afghanistan. Traveling here in the early spring as the fields turned green, it was the start of what has become known here as “the fighting season.”

Qala-i-Jangi was the site of a legendary battle in November 2001, amid the very earliest days of the US-led war in Afghanistan. Mike Spann, a former Marine turned CIA agent, was killed while interrogating foreign Taliban fighters who staged an uprising inside the fortress. The Taliban had feigned surrender, then ambushed Spann and the Afghan Northern Alliance forces guarding the fort, leading to a three-day siege.

Bearded US Special Forces who had arrived on horseback into Mazar led a fierce gun battle. Though they arrived on horses, they carried the technical capability to paint lasers on targets, providing the coordinates for F-18 fighter jets to slam 500-pound, JDAM missiles down on the ragtag Taliban fighters.

The entrance to the basement where the only Taliban survivors of Qala-i Jangi hid in neck deep water for a day before surrendering. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

It was the Taliban’s last stand, the fighters overtaking the fortress and a large weapons depot inside it. The scene was a mix of the medieval and the modern: the first war of the 21st century.

Special Forces eventually regained control of the fortress, but even after 14 years of war in Afghanistan, the US military has still never fully succeeded in restoring security to the country nor defeating the Taliban.

At the time of Qala-i-Jangi, the US, still reeling from the attacks of September 11th, was presented with the complexity and contradictions of Afghanistan. The battle at the fortress offered hard lessons about Afghanistan’s history of resiliency and shifting allegiances, lessons that America still seems to have failed to learn.

Soviet BMPs, battle damaged and stripped for parts, slowly rust alongside the Ring Road near Mazar-i Sharif. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

The lessons date back for decades and centuries.

On Christmas 1979, invading Soviet troops first crossed over from neighboring Uzbekistan not far from Qala-i-Jangi, setting in motion a decade-long resistance by US-backed Afghan fighters. Then, after the Soviets pulled out, the Afghan warlords who defeated them fell into a vicious civil war that lasted another decade. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US led an invasion here by an international coalition of forces.

Ever since, the US military has been embroiled in Afghanistan, with no sign of the conflict ending anytime soon. Just last month, President Obama announced he would accept the newly elected Afghan government’s request to delay a planned drawdown of troops in 2015 from the roughly 10,000 now in place to 5,500.

Full troop withdrawal has been put off until 2016 at the earliest, and there is active discussion around increasing the US military presence here.

Over the next few months, military analysts expect the Taliban will step up its attacks on the US and Afghan forces, and during our reporting here that became glaringly apparent. On April 9, Taliban gunmen dressed in Afghan police uniforms stormed the attorney general’s office in a Mazar government courthouse in broad daylight. They killed 10 people, including the provincial police chief, and seriously wounded 50.

Last year marked the worst year on record for attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces, and this year is continuing a pace. As the rising Taliban attacks were not ominous enough, there are also indications that the self-described Islamic State has brandished its black flag and appears to be test-marketing its apocalyptic ideology here in recent months.

And in one of the more vexing developments, Washington has released the Taliban commander Mullah Mohammad Faisal, who led the foreign fighters that killed Mike Spann.

Mullah Faisal was released by the US government from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for armed combatants in May 2014 along with four other Taliban leaders as part of a negotiation for the freedom of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl had been held by the Taliban for five years after allegedly deserting his platoon in Paktika Province.

Spann’s family spoke out against the exchange and the release of Mullah Faisal, which is not surprising. But as we learned here in Mazar, the deal has also perplexed and infuriated many Afghans who said they fear the return of the Taliban. Mullah Faisal was released to Qatar with an assurance that he would not leave the country for a year. But that year will soon pass.

This trip to Qala-i-Jangi was a return journey for me. I was here on November 25, 2001 reporting for The Boston Globe when the uprising took place by some 600 fighters — some of whom were remnants of the Taliban and some affiliated with Al Qaeda — who were being held prisoner inside the fortress.

America at that point was desperately seeking to assess its new enemy, to hunt down Osama bin Laden and crush the Taliban leadership that had allowed the al-Qaeda to set up base and plan the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

Circling back to this place along the Ring Road all these years later, I wanted to find the Afghans who were here when the battle unfolded and see what lessons they felt it offered now.

Maj. Muhebullah Muheb, commander of the Afghan Army detachment at Qala-i Jangi. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

When we arrived at the fortress, we were greeted at the gate by Afghan National Army officers who referred us to the command based just down the road at a compound built by the US military known as Camp Spann.

There we were eventually directed to Major Mohebullah Moheb, 45, the Afghan National Army commander of the company based at the fortress.

In the fall of 2001, Moheb was a field sergeant to the Northern Alliance, fighting against the Taliban alongside US forces. On November 25, 2001, he was at the fortress as Mike Spann and another CIA agent, Doug Olsen, interrogated the Taliban prisoners.

We walked through the fortress to the south courtyard where the battle largely took place. He recounted what happened the day of the uprising and three days of intense fighting that would follow.

“Mike was right here when he was interrogating the prisoners,” he said, pointing to a patch of weeds near what became known as the pink building, a one-story, concrete-slab structure with a long stairway that descended some 75 steps down to where the Taliban prisoners were being kept.

“Then these foreign Taliban, they attacked the Afghan guards and disarmed them and this uprising started. Mike was fighting until his final bullets. He was not surrendering, and he was just shot here. Right here,” he said, pointing to where there is now constructed a monument of black marble to Spann and where white doves have nested in the eves of a gazebo that protects the shrine.

During the battle of Qala-i Jangi, four American soldiers were seriously injured on this rampart when a pilot accidentally dropped a bomb on them. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

In the battle that ensued, five American soldiers were seriously wounded and awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Four British soldiers were also wounded. Three Afghan soldiers were killed and some 80 wounded. The “friendly fire” incident was the apex of chaos that day, a turning point when it felt like the US forces could be overrun by the Taliban. By the end of the fighting at Qala-i-Jangi, it is estimated that 300 Taliban were killed along with 50 Northern Alliance fighters.

Moheb and his men, several of whom also shared firsthand accounts of the battle, feel the fortress has become a haunting reminder of all the war and destruction the country has seen. The cappuccino-colored ramparts are pocked by machine gun fire, punched by mortar rounds and in a few places gutted by that errant US missile that struck the northeast parapet of the fortress where US soldiers were holed up along with Afghan soldiers during the fighting.

At the center of the fortress’ south courtyard, there is a Scotch pine tree that the Taliban used as a machine gun nest during the uprising. The tree is now dead, riddled with machine gun rounds and barren of all its leaves. Its gray, lifeless branches reached up like bony fingers to a stunningly beautiful blue sky on a gorgeous spring morning.

“These three decades of continuous war has brought nothing to Afghanistan. Peace is the only way for Afghanistan to move forward. The battle here meant nothing, but left us the ruins and destruction of war, which is all we have known for more than 30 years,” said Moheb.

I asked him about the release of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Faisal, and he replied coldly, “I cannot comment, it is the decision of the higher authorities.”

Jan Gere was a member of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 and among the many who chose to switch allegiances to Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s side as the US forces closed in at Qala-i-Jangi.

Gere is now 40 years old with a thick gray beard and strong, calloused hands from working in fields as a day laborer. He was dressed in a long, green overcoat worn by tribal Afghans. He looked fearful and defeated like a man on the wrong side of history.

We arranged through contacts to meet in the back of a kebab restaurant in Balkh. We approached each other uneasily, but we finally sat down in a private, back room to conduct the interview. Sitting cross-legged on floor cushions, we drank green tea and talked about the false ‘surrender’ which was negotiated by Mullah Faisal.

An Afghan soldier stationed at Qala-i Jangi stands in the window of the Pink House, where the heavily armed Taliban prisoners made their last stand against the Northern Alliance and American Special Forces in 2001. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

Gere said he was present when the 600 foreign Taliban fighters, a mix of Pakistani, Uzbek, Chechen and Arab fighters — and famously, an American named John Walker Lindh — were handed over to the Northern Alliance after Faisal brokered their surrender.

There are Americans and Afghans who were there during those fateful days in November who believe Faisal and these Taliban fighters had planned all along for an uprising inside the fortress with a goal of capturing the cache of weapons, including machine guns, ammunition boxes, RPG rounds, mortar launchers and mortar rounds as well as grenades, all stored there in Conex containers and in stables at one end of the fortress.

Faisal had deceived the foreign Taliban fighters, promising that they would be released to their home countries if they surrendered.

And the Taliban fighters, in turn, deceived Northern Alliance soldiers into thinking that they would actually surrender.

We now know the Taliban intended to make a last stand here and try to reclaim Mazar-i-Sharif. They came dangerously close to succeeding.

Memories of the Taliban’s reign of terror, and first-hand knowledge of its resiliency and commitment, is something the retired fighter Gere knows firsthand.

Jan Gere, a former Taliban security chief who had ties to both sides during the battle of Qala-i Jangi. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

He said he lived under the Taliban’s tyranny from 1996 to 2001 and was drafted into their movement as were many men his age. He saw the Taliban’s brutality, and confesses that he participated in some of it. It’s this firsthand knowledge, he says, that leaves him so puzzled as to why the US would release Faisal and the other four Taliban leaders.

Gere said, “They have destroyed our country, those five men including Mullah Faisal. How can the US exchange the key person behind all of these attacks, for just one person?”

He continued, “These are people who betrayed their own country, so why would America trust them?” he asked referring to the Taliban leaders.

However, he added, “It’s a done deal. They did it. But American should know that the people of Afghanistan are not happy with what they have done.”

Rais Hakim, an ethnic Uzbek, is one of those Afghans.

He was a soldier under the legendary General Dostum in 2001, and he remembers the chaos and excitement of the initial wave of US involvement in Afghanistan.

When the US Special Forces rode in on horseback to Mazar-i-Sharif alongside General Dostum there were celebrations and a sense of liberation. There was also a sense of revenge, a chance for the legendarily brutal Dostum to punish the Taliban for its years of harsh and puritanical rule.

Now backed by the might of the US military, his soldiers would carry out barbaric revenge attacks on the Taliban, documented by human rights organizations, which included rounding up hundreds of Taliban prisoners in containers and leaving them to suffocate and die in the heat. Dostum is now the vice president of Afghanistan.

Hakim, 42, who now works as a security guard at a residential area in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, said “We are the ones who know what the Taliban did. We know how terrible they were, and how they ruled over us with fear.”

He added, “They’re going to come back. And we are in trouble if they come. They will kill us, especially those of us who fought against them.

Used car salesmen Haji Sayed Parvez (left) and Haji Mohammed, complain of the economic downturn at their once-thriving dealership on the Ring Road in Mazar-i Sharif. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

Hakim, who has five children ages 5 to 14, said he fears for their future and that the Taliban is increasingly showing its power and trying to regain its footing. He said the return of the Taliban feels inevitable.

“Even a child knows this. It is obvious what the future holds for Afghanistan, and it is not a good future,” he continued.

A glimpse of what many here fear the future holds came on April 9 with the attacks on the courthouse. As the drama was unfolding in the center of the city, there was a conference on the role of civil society taking place in our hotel. We stopped in and watched some of the PowerPoint presentations and the general good will of it all which stood in dramatic contrast to the reports of a bloody shootout and siege just up the road, which we were trying to cover from a safe distance.

As the conference broke for lunch in the hotel dining room, the news of the attack on the courthouse was blaring on a large screen TV. The conference attendees watched and reacted in horror to the footage of the attacks, and the dramatic police response.

Among a cluster of young women watching the television news was Naghma Karimi, 27, who works for the New Line Social Organization, an Afghan non-governmental organization that focuses on the legal rights of women and children.

Speaking with us, she carried a mixture of traditional deference in line with Afghan culture and a spirit of confidence as a young professional woman in an evolving society.

I asked her about the attacks and she answered looking over my shoulder and simultaneously following the news. “There is no possibility of the Taliban returning” Karimi said. “Our government is strong.”

Then she turned her gaze and answered more directly in response to a question about whether she fears what the future holds.

“These terrorists are not the problem,” Karimi said. “The key problem is the discrimination against women. I think education will be the key. Discrimination comes from ignorance and so education has to be the way forward.”

Used tires for sale at Puncture Man, a tire repair shop on the Ring Road in Mazar-i Sharif. (Photo by Ben Brody/GroundTruth)

“We have to focus on the challenges right in front of us,” she continued, “and not be distracted by our fears of the past.”

The conference concluded early and the attendees headed out on to largely empty streets. Even the usually chaotic Ring Road was relatively quiet as people stayed indoors. From the roof of the hotel, a plume of black smoke was visible over the downtown government buildings where the Taliban attack on the courts was still unfolding in the late afternoon.

It was a beautiful spring day, but the dark smudge against an otherwise clear blue sky hung like an ominous storm cloud over Mazar-i-Sharif.

A version of this story appeared as “The First Battle of the 21st Century” on The Atlantic on May 15, 2015