KABUL, Afghanistan — The question occurred to me as I stood inside the half-finished building used by a band of militants earlier this month to execute an attack on the U.S. Embassy here:
What goes through an insurgent’s mind as he waits to die?
From the upper floors of the 12-story tower, the seven men rained bullets, grenades and disorder on the streets below. The sustained assault, along with a trio of coordinated suicide bombings, killed 11 civilians and five Afghan police officers, and pierced the so-called “ring of steel” — the security zone in Kabul’s central district — as if it were tin.
The assailants began their barrage shortly after 1 p.m. on Sept. 13. By 9 a.m. the next day, Afghan security forces had killed the last of them.
Police officers on the ground guarding the building’s perimeter cheered when the gunfire quieted. Several raised their automatic rifles overhead; a few danced.
Not long after they let in the journalists.
* * * *
The 20-hour siege provided ample time for me to consider how Afghanistan differs from my native Minnesota. Armed militants shooting rocket-propelled grenades, military helicopters firing on a high-rise, streets and sidewalks choked with people fleeing gun blasts — these were only the most obvious contrasts.
A more subtle disparity was Afghan officers granting reporters access to the building so soon after the fighting ceased.
If this were Minnesota, or anywhere else in the United States, authorities would have barred entry for weeks, and possibly forever. Years ago, while covering a barn fire in New Ulm that killed dozens of pigs, I approached the charred building. A cop held up his hand. “No one goes in,” he said.
That was livestock. These were men. I entered the chain-link gate at the tower’s base.
* * * *
Two bodies lay in the back of an ambulance. Their shirts were pulled up. Blood had dyed their skin crimson, and rigor mortis had taken hold. One man’s left arm was frozen aloft as though he were hailing a cab.
I stepped inside the building and climbed the stairs. Bullets fired by Afghan soldiers had gouged the floors and walls. On the eighth floor, three corpses lay on shards of concrete, their skin as gray as the morning haze shrouding the city.
Like other reporters, I was drawn to the dead. We took pictures of the waxen faces, the lightless eyes, the broken skulls. The blood.
Most of us realized the photos wouldn’t be published. Editors and readers alike would blanch.
We kept shooting.
* * * *
I walked over to the side of the building that faces the embassy. Construction had stopped about a year ago when the tower had been deemed structurally flawed. It was tall, vacant and poorly guarded: the perfect insurgent roost.
The militants who ascended its stairs may have been true believers in their cause. Or they might have been brainwashed acolytes of one mullah or another. Or perhaps they were clear-eyed realists who simply followed orders.
It’s impossible to know. Yet they had to know they would die as surely as the suicide bombers who blew themselves up.
That doesn’t mean none of them had second thoughts.
The Taliban took to Twitter to claim responsibility for what it called a “martyr attack.” (U.S. officials later blamed the Haqqani network.) For at least one insurgent in the building, however, the prospect of martyrdom — or just plain, unglamorous death — was apparently less than intoxicating.
An Afghan official told The New York Times that older fighters prevented the group’s youngest member from surrendering. At what point or precisely how he tried to give up remains unclear.
But if the anecdote is true, then he, like the others, understood he would exhale for the last time inside the building. He, like the others, would have seen Afghan soldiers closing in, the world shrinking.
And so, presumably, he kept shooting.
* * * *
Death for each man — delivered by one bullet or more to the head, to judge from the corpses — likely arrived too fast for any of them to contemplate in the moment. But before the end, during the long, tense stretches when guns fell silent, the last few fighters had time to ponder their circumstance.
No doubt they thought of loved ones. They probably prayed.
Did they imagine eternal glory beckoned? Did they feel duped by the puppeteers of jihad?
Did they embrace their fate? Curse it?
Did they wish they were somewhere, anywhere else?
I turned away from the ledge and moved back toward the bodies. The youngest man, perhaps 18 years old, lay on his back. Dust glazed his wide-open eyes and his coal-black hair splayed outward in a kind of pompadour halo. A bullet had hollowed out the bridge of his nose.
In the end, it didn’t matter if he believed in the cause. It didn’t matter if he were Taliban or Haqqani. It didn’t matter if he tried to surrender.
He was dead. His thoughts were no more.
Martin Kuz, a Minnesota native, is covering the war in Afghanistan for Stars and Stripes. He can be followed on Twitter: @martinkuz.