KABUL: He is called a superhero and feted with financial rewards from Afghan politicians, but the lionization of the soldier who single-handedly killed six attackers in parliament belies bubbling discontent over deteriorating security.
Essa Khan Laghmani, 28, was plucked from obscurity and catapulted to national fame this week after he shot dead the Taliban insurgents who on Monday launched a gun and grenade assault on the legislature, sending terrified lawmakers scurrying for cover.
“Taq Chapako!”—“Bang! and down” in Dari—meanwhile became an Internet meme after he used the phrase in television interviews to describe how he effortlessly knocked down his targets as though they were skittles in a bowling alley.
President Ashraf Ghani awarded him a three-bedroom apartment, former warlord General Dostum gifted him a pickup truck and some lawmakers pledged him a month of their salaries and other cash rewards to offer their gratitude.
That’s not all.
His posters are splashed around Kabul, a provincial governor has named a major thoroughfare after him and Afghanistan’s starstruck youth have posted poems on social media to extol his “heroism”.
“He killed six terrorists with six bullets. He saved the lives of MPs,” defense ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP. “His bravery deserves to be celebrated.”
But the celebration of Laghmani—or unnecessary glorification, depending on who you ask—glosses over growing public angst over a 13-year war that is inflicting a heavy toll on ordinary Afghans.
“By hyping Essa Khan, the Afghan government (is trying) to hide its inability to prevent attacks on such a high-profile target in the capital,” said one Afghan user on Facebook.
War-weary Afghans are in for the bloodiest fighting season in a decade, experts say, with the stubborn Taliban insurgency spreading inexorably northwards beyond its traditional southern and eastern strongholds.
Afghan security forces, stretched on multiple fronts and facing record casualties, are struggling to rein in the militants even as the government makes repeated efforts to jump-start peace negotiations.
“The Afghan government is desperate for something to cheer about—and perhaps something to distract people from how frightening the situation is,” said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.
‘Hungry for heroes’
Laghmani, a slender but well-built army sergeant wearing a slanted beret, recalled the moment he turned into a national sensation.
“I pointed my gun at the terrorists and said Bismillah (in the name of god), and then ‘Taq Chapako!’” he told AFP in the parliament complex.
“My friends say if the enemy ever catches me they will skin me alive, but I feel no fear. I am only concerned that these cowards might try to harm my family,” said the father-of-three.
Since the attack, “Taq Chapako” has even appeared on car bumper stickers and inspired online poetry.
One ode posted on Facebook reads: “Suicide bombers came oblivious and unaware;
But Essa Khan was there to greet them; Reaching for his M-16, he vanquished them instantly; Taq Chapako! Taq Chapako!”