How the U.S. Killed the Wrong Afghans

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THORNE ANDERSON/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

A villager surveys the scene of the Uruzgan massacre

Uruzgan nestles in a pristine valley ringed by snow-capped peaks that form a natural fortress in the mountains north of Kandahar. Its orchards climb peacefully to the snowline, a spectacle of pastoral tranquility that belies the village's emergence as the site of the largest U.S. ground operation of the Afghan conflict — and the most tragic.

Once a Taliban stronghold, the area today is tentatively controlled by forces loyal to the new government in Kabul. On Jan. 23, a military commission sent by the governor had been gathering Taliban weapons at the village's meager Sharzam High School, anticipating the imminent surrender of three senior Taliban commanders holding out in the mountains. But it was not the Taliban that came, in the early hours of the following morning.

Hamdullah, an anti-Taliban militiaman was woken at 2am for his shift on guard duty that day. Around him all was still, the compound asleep. Helicopters buzzed overhead, but that didn't much perturb the sentry — their sound had filled Uruzgan's night sky for the past two weeks. Then came an explosion, "not like any that I have heard before, not a rocket or a grenade", he says. He could make out only a strange vehicle, and a dot of red light that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. He rushed back to alert the others, before diving into a ditch, where he cowered for ten minutes, listening as his friends were shot. "I could hear them crying, 'Allah help me,' " he says, "They were saying, 'For the love of Allah do not kill us.' " According to one translation of Hamdullah's account, he claims to have heard the men plead, "We surrender."

Hamdullah was the only survivor left behind in the school grounds that night. Villagers say two wounded were taken to hospital in distant Tarin Kowt. Among the dead were two men with their hands tied behind their backs. The narrow plastic zip ties bore the markings: "US Pat. No. 5651376. Other Pat. Pending".

U.S. special forces had a busy night on Jan. 24. A mile away, they attacked a second Uruzgan compound, which had been seized by rogue warlord Mohammed Yousif — a challenger for the title of district chief. At 2am helicopters landed nearby and soldiers stormed his perimeter. "A great noise woke me up," says the steely Yousif, "and when I got out of my room I could see Americans." He claims he ordered his men not to open fire, but "when I knew they were going to kill us and bombard, I escaped." Yousif and a small coterie of aides evaded the Americans. But two of his men were killed, and 27 others were taken prisoner. On the windshield of one of Yousif's bullet-riddled pickups, the Americans left a calling card: a leaflet bearing the Stars and Stripes and the words "God Bless America." In a corner, someone had scrawled: "Have a nice day. From, Damage Inc."

"A terrible mistake has been made," says Uruzgan businessman Abdul Ghani. All the dead, including the twin leaders of the military commission Haji Sanagul and Qadous Khan Jahadwal, had been appointed by the provincial government. "They were not Taliban, they were a military commission working with (Interim Prime Minister) Hamid Karzai," says schoolteacher and Uruzgan elder Farou Khan. The men slaughtered in Sharzam High School had been loyal to Hamid Karzai's interim government. Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, says he knew six or seven of them personally. Qadous Khan Jahadwal, he says, "had been with us for 23 years."

Provincial governor Jan Mohammed Khan asked the U.S. officers why the school had been attacked, only to be told, "We don't know who bombed them". A senior member of the Kandahar shura (governing council) loyal to the new government in Kabul says he met with U.S. military officials at their airbase last week. "They acknowledged there had been a mistake," he says.

It's not hard to see how the largest ground operation by U.S. forces in Afghanistan may may have turned into a friendly-fire tragedy. All of Uruzgan province had been strong Taliban country. And Uruzgan village was a Taliban nursery — hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban soldiers volunteered from this district (though villagers claim all were forcibly conscripted). Even now, unrepentant Taliban commanders and their troops have returned to seek refuge in its remote mountain passes.

And, like in many other regions in today's post-Taliban Afghanistan, the local political infighting often intersects with charges and counter-charges of Talib connections. Take warlord Mohammed Younis, for example. "He was saying he was chief of this district, he was saying this district is mine. He wanted to take it by force," says Uruzgan shura chairman Haji Sofi Mohammed Halim. Days before the U.S. attack, Younis had lost out in acrimonious local power struggle. But it may have been his possible links to very senior Taliban leaders that help explain the events at Uruzgan.

A mujahedin commander against the Soviets, Younis had not been forced to flee, or fight, during the Taliban regime. "During the Taliban, he was at home, he was friends with the Talibs," says elder Farou Khan. Younis even give large numbers of fighters to the fanatical Islamic government. But, as Abdul Rauf's son tries to explain, "this was compulsory of every landlord". However this warlord did more than lend his soldiers; he allowed his son Mullah Ahmadullah to join the Taliban.

Ahmadullah was close to Taliban Health Minister Mohammed Abbas Akhund, a founding member of the movement who hailed from Uruzgan province. A former mayor of Kandahar and later Attorney General, Abbas commanded the Taliban's Baghlan force. Now, says the secretary to Kandahar's new pro-American governor, Abbas is hiding with his military force about 5 miles from Uruzgan village. And at least three other top Taliban are reputed to be sheltering in mountains near the site of the U.S. attacks.

The raid on Uruzgan appears, ironically, to have helped Younis. A rogue warlord with strong links to the Taliban and opponent of the new government in Kabul, he saw his local opposition wiped out by U.S. forces — and appears to have inherited the most formidable arsenal in the district, to boot. Says Bari Gul, brother of one of the pro-government commanders slain in the raid, "All the weapons (collected at the school) have been taken by the commander who was ruling by force".

A Pentagon investigation into the incident continues, although Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on Monday conceded that the U.S. may well have killed our wounded friendly fighters in the Uruzgan raid. Part of the problem may be the conflicting signals emanating from the complex power struggles between rival factions on the ground. "I blame Afghans for that myself," says Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the acting president. "It was an Afghan mistake. It shouldn't happen in the future." Karzai adds he has been "assured" there will not be a repeat, but delicately refuses to say who gave him this comfort.

The clinical ruthlessness of the attack on Uruzgan has left a bitter taste among the locals. "None of our friends fired on the Americans because they were all asleep," says Bari Gul. One Uruzgan elder told TIME, "The U.S. must be punished for what they did in this room, what they did in this place". The bloody events at Uruzgan village may prove to be a tragic mistake, but they may also reverberate more widely in southern Afghanistan. Even guards and translators accompanying TIME's reporter in the village walked away muttering anti-American sentiments.