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Afghanistan's Instant Hero: Soldier 'Single-Handedly' Stops Attack On Parliament

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani awarded Essa Khan with a new home for killing militants who tried to storm parliament on June 22.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani awarded Essa Khan with a new home for killing militants who tried to storm parliament on June 22.

Afghanistan has a new hero.

Twenty-eight-year-old Afghan National Army Sergeant Essa Khan catapulted to fame following an attack on the Afghan parliament building that killed six civilians and left all seven presumed Taliban attackers dead.

In video broadcast by Afghan national television of the immediate aftermath of the assault, Essa Khan claims he has single-handedly killed six militants shortly after another attacker blew himself up to pave the way for others to enter the compound.

"I have killed them all," Essa Khan says, pointing to the bodies of several dead militants lying amid dirt and debris outside parliament.

"I stood at the gate and shot at these...mercenaries when they tried to enter the compound after one of them blew himself up to destroy the gate," Essa Khan told reporters following Afghan soldiers as they searched the area around the building, collecting rockets, grenades, and other weapons left by the militants.

Essa Khan's account was disputed by some, who said he had shot and killed three of the militants but that three other attackers had been killed by other servicemen.

But that hasn't prevented the sergeant from Afghanistan's eastern Laghman Province from becoming an instant national hero.

In a statement, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry confirmed Essa Khan's claim and hailed him as "the pride of Afghanistan's defense and security forces."

Photos and videos showing Essa Khan clad in the National Army uniform became a sensation on Afghan social media.

Facebook and Twitter users proudly shared selfies with the new hero.

The hashtags #essakhan and #EsaKhan appeared within hours of the attack. By the evening of June 22, posters in honor of Essa Khan were appearing in Kabul.

The soldier's renown grew when President Ashraf Ghani invited the "hero" to the presidential palace on June 23 and tweeted that he had "awarded him a new home."

A statement from the president's office later confirmed that Essa Khan was being given an apartment "as a token of appreciation" for his role in repelling "what could have been a painful tragedy."

"Sergeant Essa Khan acted quick [sic] and eliminated all the six terrorists before they attempted to make it to the [parliament] building," the statement said, echoing the description of him as "a brave son of this land."

As parliament reconvened on June 23, the same lawyers whose lives Essa Khan was defending promised him a cash award and called for his promotion.

The social-media craze around Essa Khan could serve to raise the profile of an army that has assumed a dramatically more significant role in fighting insurgency since the withdrawal last year of most international combat troops.

The Defense Ministry, whose forces for years were criticized over defections by freshly trained soldiers, noted that Essa Khan had returned to Afghan National Army service several years after having completed his compulsory military service.

The Taliban has intensified attacks beyond its traditional stronghold in the country's south since April, capturing a district in northern Kunduz Province the same day as the attack on the Afghan National Assembly, for which it claimed responsibility.

Amid the social-media frenzy surrounding the newly minted hero, one Afghan Twitter user expressed concern about the safety of Essa Khan's family:

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.