LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — In a stuffy office covered with white-and-black Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flags and full of Taliban foot soldiers sipping cold tea, Akif Muhajer sits poised and composed, every bit the administrator he now is as the newly appointed director of information and culture in the Taliban-controlled Logar province.
But from behind his desk, he speaks casually about his many years waging war in the mountains, his weapons, and the battles he saw.
He says one of those battles — or at least moments of combat — was the 2011 shootdown of Extortion 17, the deadliest single moment of the 20-year war for the American military.
“It was a good and bad memory of my life,” he says. “Losing friends was a bad memory, but [it was] good because our friends shot down American helicopter.”
Muhajer never flinches as he tells his story, but he also never looks my way, as I am a woman. He says he wasn’t the one who fired the rocket-propelled grenade; it was a “friend of his” hiding out with him.
It’s a remarkable boast. Extortion 17 was among the Taliban’s greatest single moments of battlefield triumph in the 20-year war with US forces, and one with which a young Taliban official might be tempted to associate himself. With one RPG, the Taliban shot an Army CH-47D Chinook from the sky, killing all 38 on board. Those 38 casualties included 30 American troops and eight Afghans, plus a military working dog. The US dead included 17 Navy SEALs, most from the elite SEAL Team 6, the same unit (though not the same men) that had killed Usama Bin Laden just three months before. Also on board were three Air Force special operators from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, several specially trained Navy sailors attached to the SEAL team, an Army flight crew of two pilots, and three crew members.
The helicopter was rushing to the nearby scene of a raid executed earlier by Army Rangers seeking a so-called high-value target, a Taliban leader named Qari Tahir in the country’s Wardak province, just southwest of Kabul and adjacent to Logar. Tahir had escaped the raid, and the SEAL assault force immediately flew to the target area to aid in the hunt for “squirters” — the term US forces used for enemy fighters who escaped an initial strike.
To try to find the truth and to understand how the landscape has changed, I arranged to visit the Tangi Valley and the small village where Extortion 17 went down.
To reach the crash site, one must wind slowly through the ancient, narrow streets of the Tangi Valley in Wardak. Just two months ago, its streets were deemed too dangerous for an American to journey through. Children play in the strips of green and wander barefoot through the endless graveyards, each of the dead commemorated with a blank slab of rock as a headstone and sometimes a withered Taliban flag.
Finally, the lush greenery emerges between the primitive huts. It’s a parcel locals refer to as the ultimate Taliban base throughout much of the 20-year occupation. Disabled men huddle in a group on the dirt; they’re another visceral reminder of the war waged here.
Memorials for the Taliban fighters Americans killed in retaliation for the Extortion 17 shootdown languish.
Locals lead me on foot down the dusty track to the clay walls where the Taliban had been hiding out in 2011. Angered by an earlier drone strike in the area, the Taliban saw the helicopter and took spontaneous action, Mohammad Khan, a 69-year-old villager nearby, told me.
As for Muhajer, the villagers never hesitated to back up his claim: He was one of them, and he had been with the fighters that night.
“We were in hideout at Kamal Khil village and shot it when they were landing,” Muhajer remembers.
They aimed so precisely, he recalls, as they had done a significant amount of training using RPGs, practicing with stones (they still continue such training). Another source from the area says some in the hideout had years of experience from fighting against the Russian invasion in the 1980s and could calculate distances and target points with great expertise.
Muhajer has told me, and the farmers confirmed, that four Talibs were left unscathed.
Yet Muhajer says he is now the only one who was there who is still alive. The other three died in battle over the ensuing years.
To verify or debunk Muhajer’s claim, Coffee or Die Magazine spoke to two sources who extensively investigated the Extortion 17 shootdown, both in and out of the military, and asked US Central Command and US Special Operations Command for background information on Muhajer.
SOCOM did not respond to emailed questions, and a CENTCOM spokesperson sent a statement saying, “The information you seek is approximately 10 years old, which is something we would not have on hand.” Investigation files available in the CENTCOM Freedom of Information library do not address the identities or eventual fates of those who attacked the helicopter.
The two expert sources doubt Muhajer’s story but say they could not rule it out. Both experts also confirm what was widely reported in the US in 2011: Within days of the crash and then for weeks afterward, American special operations forces hunted down and killed most of the fighters involved with both the Ranger raid and the shootdown — which investigators determined were mostly unrelated acts — including the high-value target and several of his foot soldiers.
And Muhajer agrees, telling me that, in the aftermath of the event, nine Taliban fighters who were with him in Logar that night were killed, five were wounded, and just four — including him — had escaped unscathed.
Other parts of Muhajer’s story also line up with American investigations of the shootdown: Muhajer says that the helicopter was brought down by a single RPG among two or three that were fired; that the destruction of the helicopter was, essentially, a “lucky shot” rather than a sophisticated ambush or intelligence coup; and that the shooters were unassociated with or at least not engaged with the nearby Ranger raid.
He emphasizes that the attack was not planned. A number of conspiracy theories circulated after the crash, including the idea that the shootdown was related to the then-recent death of Bin Laden, who had been killed by SEAL Team 6. Some suspected that the Taliban had intentionally leaked misleading intelligence of a high-value target in a bid to lure American forces over the rugged strip.
One of the Americans who has investigated the shootdown says that theory could not be true, pointing out that the SEALs were the quick reaction force that night, not the primary raiding force. No one on either side could have known they would be in the fight — including the SEALs themselves — until minutes before the helicopter launched.
Almost all the details Muhajer offers have been reported in articles and books on the shootdown, but whether I believe him does not seem to trouble him. Instead, he wants me to know how he came to be a fighter in the first place.
Muhajer says he joined the insurgency in 2004 when he was 16 and had just grown a beard. The training entailed around 10 days of learning to fire a gun at a specific target followed by a “second phase” of learning to launch a rocket-propelled grenade.
“You need to understand how it operates, what to do if [it] is stuck, and how to take care of the RPG,” he says, stressing that around 2010, they had a deluge of recruits and training was upped to between two and six months of mountain warfare.
Today, Logar is brimming with Taliban foot soldiers who wield their US-made rifles through the overflowing markets and inside the bombed-out bases that belonged to the Afghan special forces just weeks ago. The group is no longer considered an insurgency but rather a government that yearns to be recognized by the international community.
The Taliban’s top brass constantly reiterate that they have awarded a “general amnesty” to all Afghans, including those who fought against them. Yet many Afghans have fled in fear or remain hidden inside dank basements in a panic over retaliation in the weeks after the volatile US withdrawal.
It is strange and scalding to see the Taliban “soldiers” strolling around the battered bases in a mixture of US-funded Afghan army uniforms and the traditional tribal dress. Unlike most other places in Afghanistan that I have visited in recent months — in which the newly triumphant rank-and-file boast shiny new American weapons — the Logar forces, for the most part, still carry their dust-cloaked AK-47s.
“We beat the biggest world power with it,” one Talib says breezily, never looking me in the face.
Technically, Logar — the strategic province poised just 90 miles south of Kabul on a bumpy and largely wrecked billion-dollar “highway” — was captured by the Taliban in just a couple of days before the fall of the capital. Yet the multiethnic parcel has long been a bastion of support for the former insurgency. It has been considered a “contested” area for much of the past two years, ripe with Taliban sympathies and anti-government sentiment.
Reports in recent years have indicated that the group was operating its own shadow government and judicial system, which beleaguered locals often viewed as more just and faster than the laborious Kabul centralized system, which brimmed with corruption. In addition, many Afghan army soldiers were suspected of having Taliban ties, staying with the former only to receive the government-issued salary.
Despite the persistently tense security situation there, the US continued to pour money into the province, much of which was gobbled up by corrupt contracting companies and nefarious officials.
Logar also played a pivotal part in the eventual capture of the country’s capital on Aug. 15, serving as a strategic province from which to surround the prized Kabul snuggled inside the mountains. Similarly, it functioned to drive out the Soviets during the 1980s war, becoming a key supply route for US-backed mujahedeen fighters moving in and out of Pakistan and quickly becoming known as the Bab al-Jihad or the “Gates of Jihad.”
Russian fighting relics still dot the sparse plains, steadily decomposing alongside American HMMWVs and forts blown to bits before surrender.
Moreover, Muhajer says he was born and raised in Logar province but studied in madrassas in several provinces, including Khost, Kabul, and Logar. He was motivated to fight for the Taliban, he says, after Americans “hit the Shariat Ghag [Voice of Sharia] radio” that the Taliban listened to day in and day out.
“We didn’t have it anymore,” Muhajer continues. “Then, when the planes were flying over us, we didn’t know if that was humanitarian aid coming through and people trying to help.
“So since day one, we recognized them [aircraft] as our attackers, as people who will raid our places and kill us — kill the common people.”
He says that the Taliban rallied the Afghan people and that those very commoners bolstered their ability to fight.
“The nation was with us,” Muhajer says. “If [the Americans] were bombarding us or a raid was happening, people would tell us to come to our place and give us shelter.
“That is why we were strong here [in Logar].”
While most of the Taliban fighters and officials I meet all have the same shell of a story — they went to regular school until around ninth grade before going to only an Islamic madrassa and graduating into the Taliban — Muhajer contends that the path is not always so linear.
“Not all people from the madrassa become Talib,” he says. “At the madrassa, we do our primary studies, and jihad is one of the main functions of Islam — it means to stand up against the wrongdoings.
“Most of the mujahedeen come through madrassas, but it is not the only way Talibs come in.”
He tells me that devotees sometimes go to the relevant Taliban commander in their villages, but they have to work through serious trust issues.
“Currently, the recruitment process hasn’t started but will start very soon,” Muhajer cautions. “A country can’t survive without military, police, and commandos.
“But when we start, we will not recruit addicts who are using opium or heroin, or cheated the country, or were involved in some type of corruption. Instead, we will be recruiting sound people.”
We trudge through eerily quiet villages, where small children’s hair and lashes are gray with dust, and curious, leathery faces peer out from the many madrassas. Some still go daily to pray in mortar-fissured rooms that once served as Taliban hideouts, barely noticing the pockmarks and rocket cracks.
There is nothing left at the Extortion 17 site but a wincing memory of the American and Afghan lives fighting for some semblance of freedom that could not last.
A flash flood gushed through the area shortly after the shootdown on Aug. 6, and US forces quickly disassembled the wreck and flew its pieces to Bagram for investigation.
What is left is the Taliban in control of the country, armed to the teeth with the very weapons once used against them.
“The Afghan Taliban has $85 billion worth of equipment, and when you have that much of equipment, then you are a strong nation and army, and we will try to work harder for a stronger military existence,” Muhajer adds hauntingly. “In the region, whatever trainings are required [by other countries], we will be providing harder trainings, to stand stronger and not to lose ground.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that the local villagers supported Akif Muhajer’s claim of being part of the team that shot down Extortion 17.