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 patchwork of lush 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 Qala-i-Jangi fortress is protected by walls 60 feet high and 30 feet thick. Along the walls are gun turrets and lookouts that have been used to guard against invaders from the British to the Soviets to the Americans. It was here that the United States suffered its first casualty in what would become the longest war in American history. I had come with a reporting team in the early spring as the fields turned green, at the start of what has become known in Afghanistan as “the fighting season.”
Qala-i-Jangi was the site of a legendary and bloody battle in November 2001, during the earliest days of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Mike Spann, a former Marine turned CIA agent, was killed while interrogating Taliban fighters, including many foreigners allied with the movement, who then staged an uprising inside the fortress. The leaders of the Taliban forces had previously feigned surrender and then ambushed Spann and Afghan forces who belonged to the U.S.-supported network of anti-Taliban militias known as the Northern Alliance. A three-day siege followed. U.S. special forces arrived on horseback and pointed lasers on targets, providing the coordinates for F-18 fighter jets to slam 500-pound guided missiles down on the ragtag Taliban fighters. The scene was a mix of the medieval and the modern: the first battle of the 21st century.