The First Battle of the 21st Century

Returning to the site of America’s earliest casualty in Afghanistan

An Afghan soldier at Qala-i-Jangi, where Taliban fighters fought the Northern Alliance and U.S. special forces in 2001. (Ben Brody)

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.

Even after 14 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has not fully succeeded in restoring security to the country or defeating the Taliban. Now, at the request of the new Afghan government, the United States has delayed the completion of its troop withdrawal from the country until 2016 at the earliest. In retrospect, that battle at Qala-i-Jangi offered Americans an early glimpse of the complexity, contradictions, and shifting allegiances of Afghanistan.

* * *

Last year was the worst on record for Afghanistan in terms of civilian and military deaths, and the killing is continuing apace this year. (During my time in the country, Taliban gunmen dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces stormed a Mazar courthouse in broad daylight, killing 10 people, including the provincial police chief.)

In May 2014, in another vexing development, the United States released from Guantanamo Bay the Taliban commander Mullah Mohammad Fazl, who was present for the negotiated surrender that led to the battle in which Mike Spann was killed. Fazl was freed along with four other Taliban leaders in exchange for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban for five years after allegedly deserting his platoon in Afghanistan. Fazl was released to Qatar with an assurance that he would not leave the country for a year. That year is almost over.

As for me, the trip to Qala-i-Jangi was a return journey. I had been there on November 25, 2001, reporting for The Boston Globe, during the uprising by some 600 fighters—some of them remnants of the Taliban and some affiliated with al-Qaeda—who were being held prisoner inside the fortress. At that point, America was desperately seeking to assess its new enemy, hunt down Osama bin Laden, and crush the Taliban leadership that had allowed al-Qaeda to set up bases and plan the September 11 attack. Coming back all these years later, I wanted to find Afghans who were present when the battle unfolded and to see what lessons they felt the fight offered now.

Mohebullah Moheb, an Afghan commander at
Qala-i-Jangi. (Ben Brody)

At Camp Spann, a compound built by the U.S. military just down the road from Qala-i-Jangi, I met Major Mohebullah Moheb, the 45-year-old Afghan National Army commander of the company based at the fortress. In the fall of 2001, Moheb had been a field sergeant with the Northern Alliance, fighting against the Taliban alongside U.S. forces. On November 25, 2001, he was at the fortress as Mike Spann interrogated the Taliban prisoners.

We walked through the fortress to the courtyard where much of the battle had taken place. “Mike was right here when he was interrogating the prisoners,” Moheb said, motioning toward a patch of weeds near the one-story, concrete-slab structure where the prisoners had been kept at the bottom of a flight of some 75 stairs.

“Then these foreign Taliban, they attacked the Afghan guards and disarmed them and this uprising started,” Moheb said. “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 a black-marble monument to Spann. White doves had nested in the eaves of a gazebo protecting the monument.

Moheb and his men said that the fortress had become a haunting reminder of the devastation their country has seen. The cappuccino-colored ramparts are pocked by machine-gun fire, punched by mortar rounds, and, in a few places, gutted by an errant U.S. missile that struck the northeast parapet where U.S. soldiers were holed up with Afghan soldiers during the fighting.

“These three decades of continuous war have brought nothing to Afghanistan,” said Moheb. “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” since the Soviet invasion in 1979, the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and the decade-plus American military engagement.

I asked him about Fazl’s release. “I cannot comment,” he replied coldly. “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 as U.S. forces closed in on Qala-i-Jangi.

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

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

We had arranged through contacts to meet in the back of a kebab restaurant in Balkh, about 10 miles west of the fortress. We approached each other uneasily, but finally sat down cross-legged on floor cushions in a private room to drink green tea and discuss the false “surrender.”

Gere said he had been present when the Taliban fighters—including Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs, and, famously, an American named John Walker Lindh—were handed over to the Northern Alliance after Fazl brokered their surrender.

Some Americans and Afghans who were at Qala-i-Jangi during those fateful days in November believe Fazl and these fighters planned all along to stage an uprising inside the fortress, with the goal of capturing the cache of weapons—including machine guns, ammunition boxes, rocket-propelled-grenade rounds, mortar rounds and launchers, and hand grenades—stored in shipping containers and stables at one end of the compound.

According to Gere, Fazl had deceived the Taliban fighters, particularly the foreigners, by promising that they would be released to their home countries if they surrendered. And these Taliban fighters, in turn, deceived Northern Alliance soldiers into thinking that they themselves would actually surrender. As Gere and several former Northern Alliance officers tell it, the Taliban intended to make a last stand at Qala-i-Jangi as part of a larger effort to reclaim Mazar-i-Sharif. They came dangerously close to succeeding.

Gere said that he had lived under the Taliban’s tyranny from 1996 to 2001 and was drafted into the movement, as were many men his age. He had seen the Taliban’s brutality, and confessed that he had participated in some of it. It was this knowledge, he told me, that left him puzzled about America’s decision to release Fazl and the other Taliban leaders.

“These are people who betrayed their own country, so why would America trust them?” he asked. Still, he conceded, “It’s a done deal. They did it.”

* * *

Rais Hakim, an ethnic Uzbek and former soldier under General Dostum in 2001, remembers the initial chaos and excitement of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. When U.S. special forces rode into Mazar-i-Sharif alongside Dostum, there were celebrations and a sense of liberation. There was also a desire for vengeance—a chance for the legendarily brutal Dostum to punish the Taliban for its years of harsh and puritanical rule. Dostum’s soldiers, backed by U.S. military might, allegedly carried out revenge attacks on the Taliban, including stuffing hundreds of prisoners in shipping containers and leaving them to suffocate and die in the heat. Dostum is now one of Afghanistan’s two vice presidents.

Hakim, 42, now works as a security guard in Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban is “going to come back” into power, he said. “And we are in trouble if they come. They will kill us, especially those of us who fought against them.” He fears for his children’s future.

A glimpse of what that future may hold came on April 9 with the Taliban’s attack on the courthouse in Mazar-i-Sharif. As a shootout and siege played out in the center of the city, a conference on the role of civil society in Afghanistan was taking place in my hotel. As the attendees broke for lunch, many watched in horror as news of the assault blared on a nearby television.

Among those standing by the TV was Naghma Karimi, 27, who works for the New Line Social Organization, an Afghan non-governmental group that focuses on the legal rights of women and children.

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

Then she turned back to me and answered more directly when I asked whether she feared for the future. “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.”

“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 onto largely empty streets. From the roof of the hotel, a plume of black smoke was visible over the government buildings downtown—a dark reminder of an attack still unfolding.

This story is part of the series “Foreverstan: Afghanistan and the Road to Ending America’s Longest War,” produced by the GroundTruth Project with support from the Ford Foundation.