When his father was murdered, Wasil Ahmad vowed revenge. He was barely old enough to hoist a rifle, but still he trained to fight the Taliban. Finally, when the insurgents returned, Wasil found his chance. What he did next made him a legend. And then it made him a target.
All wars breed heroes, but some come in unexpected form. Wasil Ahmad was one of the unlikeliest. He was only 8 years old when the war in Afghanistan, already a family affair, set him on a path for vengeance.
One morning, about an hour’s walk from the family compound where Wasil slept, his father and three uncles stood guard at a newly built police checkpoint. For years, as the Taliban and the Afghan government had traded control of this stretch of southern Afghanistan, Wasil’s family seesawed between both sides. Now, with the Americans pulling out, the men in Wasil’s family glimpsed new opportunity—and new jobs—as leaders of a U.S.-backed police force. They pledged to fight the Taliban, to defend their valley from the insurgents.
They girded themselves for battle, which came that morning in the summer of 2012, as the Taliban swept down from the hills of the Uruzgan province and attacked the new checkpoint of the Afghan Local Police. Soon, the crack and pop of gunfire rattled through the valley of Nawa Sultan Mohammad, and the fighting spilled into the surrounding fields. The police, commanded by Wasil’s uncle Samad, fought the insurgents throughout the afternoon and into the evening, managing to kill ten Taliban fighters before the attackers were subdued. But three of their own had been gunned down, too—including Wasil’s father, Hamidullah.
That night, as darkness enveloped the family’s three-story mud-brick compound, Wasil’s uncles shuffled Hamidullah’s bloodied corpse inside. The boy drew close, his cheeks wet with tears. In the low light, he could see the blood that stained his father’s clothes. He was a child, yes, but he knew enough of his world to realize, without even asking, who had killed his father. And he knew what it meant for him.
In the weeks that followed, Wasil’s anger hardened into a grim and brutal ambition—one that would launch him toward fame and then toward tragedy. “Teach me how to shoot,” Wasil said to his uncle Samad when he had resolved himself to retribution. “I want to kill my father’s killer.”
At first, Wasil’s family managed to steer the boy away from his quest for revenge. “We convinced him to keep going to school,” Merwais Ahmad, one of Wasil’s other uncles, told me. But as he grew, Wasil refused to forget. Like very few things in Afghanistan, the boy’s hatred for the Taliban was simple. It was also unwavering—which was another rarity in a part of the country where the Taliban aren’t always the enemy.
His family’s own complicated relationship with the Taliban went back years, to the days before 9/11, when the group first came to power and Wasil’s uncle Samad became an eager climber in the local power structure. It wasn’t religious devotion that drove Samad but, rather, expediency. Like many, he wanted what the Taliban could offer. “At that time, I didn’t know what was good or what was bad,” Samad told me. “Everybody likes to have vehicles, a little power, to be on the government’s side. The Taliban provided us with fuel, with a better life.”
When the Americans arrived, three years before Wasil was born, Samad fought to repel them. He had battled invaders before—fighting the Soviets as a mujahideen warrior in the 1980s. Now, toiling for the Taliban, Samad buried IEDs in roads and under bridges and fashioned explosive vests for suicide attacks. Samad was a Taliban commander when Wasil was born—and as the boy grew, he became entranced with his uncle’s stories of courage and valor.
But by the time Wasil was 8, Samad was having doubts. In early 2012, as American and Afghan authorities were working hard to win the loyalties of fighters like him—offering them jobs and other incentives—Samad broke ranks with the Taliban. Along with 13 of his men, he pledged allegiance to the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Whether or not Wasil could grasp the complexities of shifting allegiances, his family’s fortunes were changing. Samad, now a sworn enemy of the Taliban, was promptly appointed to run a unit of the Afghan Local Police, the region’s lone security force. He hired Wasil’s father, Hamidullah, a farmer and taxi driver, and his two other brothers—along with 30 ex-Taliban fighters and 40 other locals. They set up five fortified checkpoints and began keeping watch.
It was only a matter of time before the Taliban, eager to repay Samad and his men for their defection, roared down from the highland one morning and put a newly fatherless child on a mission for retribution.
In the months that followed, Wasil pleaded to join his uncle’s police unit. And by the time he turned 10, his nagging became too much. As Merwais told me, Samad finally relented. “He had to keep him happy. He was saying, ‘Okay, this is a pistol. Just shoot it like this.’ And he started teaching him.”
Thus began the training of a uniquely gifted child soldier.
When Wasil wasn’t at school, he and his uncle—sometimes accompanied by other policemen from the unit—would grab guns and hike into the hills. “We started with pistols, and then I gave him an AK-47,” Samad recalled. “He became very good at hitting targets a great distance.”
Samad’s men were impressed—the boy was a natural marksman, and as he graduated to more powerful weapons, he seemed surprisingly unaffected by the recoil of the guns. Before long, Wasil was firing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “That got him excited,” Samad said. “He was shouting, laughing, and having fun.” Then came mortars, shot from a three-legged stand. Wasil asked his mother to stitch him a police uniform, which he proudly wore nearly everywhere. “He was not on a salary, he was not a legal policeman, but he trained with us,” Samad said.
In some ways, Wasil wasn’t unusual. In Afghanistan, a stew of factors—the intractable poverty, the primacy of family honor, and the high desertion and casualty rates within fighting forces—conspire to press children into war in large numbers, especially as foreign forces have pulled out. Last year, half the police checkpoints surveyed in Uruzgan were staffed by officers under 18, according to researchers from the organization Child Soldiers International.
The Taliban, which have stormed back to power in recent years all over the country, have been using child soldiers in even larger numbers than the government. In the north, in the Kunduz province, where the Taliban briefly captured the capital last year, insurgents used the schools to train children to fight on the front lines—instructing them in making and planting IEDs and detonating suicide vests at checkpoints. “The Taliban’s apparent strategy to throw increasing numbers of children into battle is as cynical and cruel as it is unlawful,” said Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Between September 2010 and December 2014, suicide attacks were carried out by 20 boys under the age of 18, according to a report from the U.N. In one incident, an IED was attached to a bicycle that a boy was made to push toward an Afghan National Army vehicle. The blast killed eight civilians as well as the child.
Still, as he joined the growing army of kids being called to fight, Wasil was different. Deeply committed and poised beyond his years, he was eager to fight. And unlike the rest of the child soldiers of the war, Wasil would soon be asked to lead.
By early 2015, Samad had a new reason to let his young nephew inch his way toward the fight: He needed the men. Across Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban were a gathering threat. It hadn’t helped Samad that some of his own policemen—newly powerful and suddenly unruly—were making the prospect of a return to Taliban rule a bit more enticing to the locals in the valley. Several of his men had been implicated in assaults and robberies. And in a bid to amp up security, his cops increasingly resorted to harsh tactics: They rounded up elders and cut their beards to punish them for cooperating with the Taliban; they ordered the villagers to leave their doors open at night, in case the police wanted to search their homes.
Just 20 miles from the family compound, a force of roughly 2,000 newly emboldened insurgents had ventured from the mountains to besiege the Afghan Local Police’s district headquarters in Khas Uruzgan. From here, the Taliban set their sights on Samad’s unit and the valley from which he’d evicted them three years earlier.
Primed for what could come, Wasil was wearing the tiny gray police uniform his mother had stitched. He was 11 years old. He’d gotten pretty good with a rifle, but he had never fired a shot in battle, had never experienced the adrenaline rush and the terror of combat. But this was what he’d been training for.
As the police and the families made their way to the compound, Taliban snipers opened fire on them—killing two policemen and cutting down Samad, who took a pair of bullets, one in the leg.
From the roof of the compound, Wasil could see beyond the walls to where his uncle lay in the dirt, possibly dying; the Taliban were bearing down. Wasil’s uncle Merwais remembers vividly what happened next. He watched Wasil, crouching behind sandbags, take careful aim with a Russian-made machine gun. The boy squeezed the trigger and began working to pin the Taliban in place, buying enough time for the men inside the compound to reach the dead and injured and to haul them in.
A wounded Samad was hustled to a second-floor bedroom, where he named his nephew the surrogate commander. The police unit contained 26 men at that point—and putting a boy in charge as the battle began, Samad told me, made perfect sense. “He was intelligent, brave, and calm under fire, and well trained.”
“You guys are not men,” Wasil screamed over the radio. “Just give us time to take the children out.”
The child leapt to duty, now commanding a makeshift fortress of last resort. Outside, the Taliban soon had the place surrounded, hundreds of them firing from the mountains above and the valley below. Day and night—across what would eventually become a three-week siege—Wasil kept watch from the roof, pointing out Taliban positions to his fellow marksmen. “Wasil was telling the soldiers to go to this position, that position, and giving them ammunition, and shooting the heavy machine gun,” said Merwais. He may have been only a boy, but Wasil cut the figure of the military leader he had now become.
In early August, as Wasil worked from the rooftop, a Taliban gunner sent a rocket-propelled grenade into the thick mud-brick wall on the compound’s second floor. From a corner bedroom rose the smoke and flames of burning mattresses and wooden furniture, as two terrified children trapped inside cried out for help. Throughout the compound, there was confusion, but Wasil was calm. He grabbed a radio receiver and shouted to a Taliban officer on the other end.
“We want a cease-fire,” he screamed, his voice high-pitched and crackling over the radio. “There are two kids in that room, and we need to get them out.”
More shots rang out.
“You guys are not men,” Wasil screamed over the radio. “Just give us time to take the children out.” There was something about Wasil’s insistent tone, his confidence in the face of danger, that the Taliban commander admired. He gave the order that silenced the Taliban’s guns. Wasil had the children pulled from the burning room.
But the truce was short-lived. The hardships stacked up. Food ran low, and Wasil’s men were reduced to eating grass boiled into a kind of porridge. Throughout August, as the siege dragged on, Wasil and Samad pleaded with army commanders and government officials to get them out. But the Taliban held the roads.
Unbeknownst to those trapped in the compound, Taliban engineers had been digging a tunnel toward them. And on August 21, they used it to place about 3.3 tons of explosives beneath the rampart. A deafening explosion blew a hole in one of the mud walls, killing two of the policemen. Amid the confusion, Wasil got on the radio to the chief of police in Tirin Kot. “They’ve broken down the wall. They’re coming to get us. We need a helicopter rescue,” he begged.
Twenty-four hours later, four Russian Mi-17 helicopters filled with Afghan special forces flew out of Tirin Kot toward the compound. A U.S. gunship accompanied them, raining fire on the Taliban and sending them scurrying for cover. The four Mi-17’s touched down in front of the mud fortress, and Afghan soldiers raced inside. Samad, Merwais, 15 more fighters, Samad’s two wives, Wasil, his three brothers, three cousins, and his mother dashed out, ducking low beneath the swirling rotor blades and rising dust, and climbed aboard. A short time afterward, according to the district governor, the Taliban swarmed the compound and burned it to the ground.
“They’re coming to get us. We need a helicopter rescue,” Wasil begged.
The Taliban had taken the compound and the entirety of the valley, but stories were already spreading, tales that would captivate the country. Reports of how Wasil had fired 120 mortar rounds in a single day’s fighting; how he’d manned a Kalashnikov long enough and well enough to take out six Taliban fighters, how he’d coordinated food and ammo drops that saved his soldiers’ lives. Stories spread of how he had negotiated the rescue of those children—and of how, finally, he had arranged that daring evacuation by helicopter. “He fought with the courage of 100 men,” the district governor would say. He was hailed as a “lion”; even the Taliban would speak of him with a measure of respect. But it was too soon to know what that growing fame would eventually inspire.
Wasil stared out of the helicopter as it sailed over green valleys, barreling toward Tirin Kot. “We’re out of danger, we can relax now,” he told his 9-year-old brother, Rabbani. Then, having comforted the boy, he turned back to the disbelieving men who’d just rescued him, the troops from the Afghan special forces who wanted to know how this boy had defended the compound for three harrowing weeks.
Just beyond the gates of Tirin Kot, the chopper zipped over the blast walls of the heavily fortified Afghan National Army base and came to rest on the ground. Rahimullah Khan, then the deputy police chief of the Uruzgan province, was waiting for them at the airfield. The boy, his uniform covered in dust, a sidearm on his waist, shook Khan’s hand and then jumped into the front seat of a police car. “He was tired, and happy to be out of the war,” Khan told me.
Tirin Kot, a sprawl of mud-walled houses, was, then as now, a city under siege. The Afghan government’s control extended for just a few miles beyond the walls. Checkpoints and sandbagged posts ringed the city of 70,000, but Taliban infiltrators had still managed to slip into town and strike periodically, planting IEDs on the streets.
To help ease Wasil back toward normalcy, deputy police chief Khan put the family up in his guarded guesthouse, gave them a monthly stipend, and arranged for Wasil to attend a nearby school. Khan also removed the boy’s sidearm. “The pistol is our enemy,” he told me. “When you have a pistol, you are a target, you are in the fight.”
It wasn’t easy for Wasil to accept that his fight was over. Family members and others who had survived the siege treated him like a legendary warrior. Samad, in particular, was proud of his nephew’s celebrity and wanted to honor him as a hero. He resented anyone who downplayed the boy’s achievements. “We fought with the Taliban for many, many days, fighting 500 people,” he said. “They should have given us medals.”
This sort of hagiography worried Khan, who was stunned to see Wasil’s family play up his heroic exploits on social media. “They said, ‘Wasil did this.’ ‘Wasil did that,’ bragging about the kid, how he killed this person and that person,” he told me. The deputy police chief urged the family to lower the boy’s profile. He was afraid that Wasil’s growing status as a folk hero was likely to put him in the Taliban’s sights. He pleaded with Samad to protect his nephew. But Samad, always ambitious, brushed off the warnings. “The family didn’t accept my help,” Khan told me. “They went the wrong way.”
After a couple of months, Wasil’s family moved out of Khan’s guesthouse, saying that they needed more space. Samad was eager to keep stoking the mythology growing around his nephew and cultivated in the boy a sense that he wasn’t beholden to the same rules that governed other people: He allowed the 11-year-old to drive around town in a police-issue Ford Ranger pickup truck. Khan thought the truck was a bad idea: Giving a boy a police vehicle was hardly going to encourage him to behave like a kid. “I was trying to get Wasil into a school in Kabul to get him more educated,” Khan told me. “But his mind was being changed again.”
Wasil was being pulled in conflicting directions. “He played soccer and cricket, but he was not like a child,” a schoolmate told the press. “He was more like a grown man—always serious.”
Most mornings, after breakfast, Wasil, along with his brothers and cousins, worked for three hours with a tutor who taught English, Persian, and chemistry. And by all accounts, Wasil was making progress—despite a frequent preoccupation with his past life as a soldier. “He was an intelligent guy, with an open mind; he was grasping things quickly,” Wasil’s teacher, Mahmoud Khan, told me. “But he was thinking about guns, he was talking about guns. I told him, ‘You should leave these things behind. You should focus on learning.’ ”
In early February 2016, six months after the siege, Wasil and two of his cousins finished their midday prayers and strolled outside their compound, hoping to buy some fruit. Normally, the family discouraged them from venturing into the streets without police guards, but there was a fruit-and-vegetable stall just across the wide road, a 30-second walk away.
Wasil crossed the road while his two cousins peeled off and headed for another shop. As he inspected the oranges, bananas, and apples and chatted with the grocer, two men on a motorbike pulled up behind Wasil.
Then two pistol shots rang out, and Wasil staggered back. “After the first shot, he was just saying, ‘I’ve been hit.’ Then the second bullet hit him in the head, and he fell,” a witness recounted. “The apples he bought were covered in blood.” The assailants raced off on their bike and disappeared.
“If some kids are seeing this, what will they think? They will just leave the school and tell themselves, ‘I am going to become a hero.’”
At home, Samad had been napping but was roused suddenly by his shouting nephews. “Wasil’s been shot,” they cried. Wasil’s uncle ran outside and saw the boy lying in a pool of blood, unconscious. An ambulance rushed Wasil to the local hospital, and then he was airlifted to Kandahar. Wasil died en route.
The next day, Wasil’s family wrapped his body in a white cloth shroud and bore him in his Ford Ranger to the cemetery. Six hundred people attended his burial. The sight of the small boy’s body moved many to tears. “This was a small child,” the journalist Najeed Lattif, who attended the funeral, told me. Samad was also crying. “He was saying, ‘They killed my right-hand man,’” Lattif said.
Six weeks after Wasil’s assassination, I joined his younger brother Rabbani and his uncle Merwais on a visit to Wasil’s grave. (Samad had relocated to Khas Uruzgan to begin a three-month trial as the district police chief. “He is a good fighter,” Uruzgan’s new governor, Wazeer Khararoti, told me. “He knows how to fight the Taliban, but you have to rein him in like a horse and not let him go so far.”)
We crammed into an armored four-by-four and joined a convoy between a black Land Cruiser and a Humvee filled with a dozen policemen. We reached a barren hillside covered with grave markers—spindly branches strung with decorative flags. The police took up positions, and I followed the uncle and brother to Wasil’s grave, crudely marked with stones, chunks of cement, and two willow branches adorned with colored cloths. It was only temporary, Merwais told me. “We will take him home,” he said, “as soon as Nawa Sultan Mohammed is no longer in the Taliban’s hands.”
In the days just after Wasil was shot, as paeans to his bravery flooded social media, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination, according to The Independent. But when I reached the insurgents’ spokesman on the phone, he backed off, saying only that it “was possible” that the Taliban had killed him. He rebuked the Afghan police for encouraging the boy to fight and for then celebrating him as a hero.
That sentiment—that the breathless tales of Wasil’s exploits had contributed to his death—is shared by the region’s governor, Wazeer Khararoti. “He was a child, and we don’t have a right to make him a hero,” he told me. “If some kids are seeing this, what will they think? They will just leave the school and tell themselves, ‘I am going to become a hero.’”
But among the hard men who fight and die in Afghanistan’s violent backcountry, the governor’s perspective is not widely shared. There’s a grudging acceptance of the grim cycles that war perpetuates.
When I was in Kabul, I met with an old mujahideen fighter—a loyal friend of Samad’s—who now serves in parliament. His name is Haji Obaidullah Barakzai, and five years ago a Taliban fighter assassinated his 27-year-old son, as his son—Barakzai’s grandson—watched from a nearby car. The incident was eerily similar to the one that had put Wasil on his path for revenge, and it inspired in this boy the same response. He’s 8 now, and he’s been consumed by one thought. “I want to kill the Taliban who killed my father,” he told me shyly.
Barakzai hadn’t yet taken him to the firing range, but that day, he said, was not far off. “I’m buying plastic guns for the boy,” he told me, “so that he will be ready.”
Joshua Hammer wrote about the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the March 2016 issue of GQ.
This piece originally appeared in the January 2017 issue, with the title “The Improbable Life and Stunning Death of a Child Warrior.”