Michael Ware


TIME: How the U.S. Killed the Wrong Soldiers


At first the U.S. military was quite proud of what it had done in this tiny hamlet tucked among orchards and snowcapped ridges north of Kandahar. In what appeared to be a perfect sneak attack, U.S. special-operations soldiers on Jan. 24 stormed Sharzam High School in Uruzgan. That same night, another unit conducted a similar commando raid at a military compound a mile away. In all, the soldiers killed 21 Afghans, who the U.S. claimed were Taliban, captured an additional 27 and destroyed troves of weapons and ammunition. All that, and only one U.S. soldier was hurt--and just barely. It was the most dramatic ground operation the U.S. has acknowledged since the opening weeks of the campaign in Afghanistan.

It may also prove to have been the U.S.'s most calamitous blunder. According to authorities in Uruzgan and the surrounding area, the Americans killed the wrong guys. The soldiers slaughtered at Sharzam, they say, were not enemy fighters but anti-Taliban troops loyal to U.S.-backed interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. They belonged to a military commission appointed by the new provincial government to oversee the collection of leftover Taliban weapons. "A terrible mistake has been made," said Abdul Ghani, an Uruzgan businessman.

The Americans aren't ready to admit as much. But after initially dismissing the possibility that the U.S. had committed a colossal error, American military officials now concede that they may have attacked some anti-Taliban fighters. But they insist that Taliban soldiers were in the district as well. Privately, the Americans are showing even greater signs of contrition. An Army officer told TIME that some of the 27 captives will probably be released soon and "might even get an apology." A senior Afghan official in Kandahar told TIME that U.S. military commanders admitted to him that "there had been a mistake." An official U.S. investigation is under way.

According to eyewitnesses, U.S. commandos moved on Uruzgan shortly before 2 a.m. on Jan. 24, accompanied by eight helicopters and at least two armored humvees. Local Afghans said that when the Americans burst into the school, they found Afghan fighters sleeping and began spraying the beds with gunfire. A guard named Hamdullah, who evaded the attack by hiding in a ditch, told TIME he heard men inside the school plead, "For the love of Allah, do not kill us. We surrender." According to villagers, the Americans shot most of their victims at close range. After two hours, the commandos choppered out; an AC-130 gunship hovering overhead then incinerated the school and several former Taliban vehicles with howitzer cannons and machine guns. "The cars were burning," recalls Abdul Salam, a soldier who crept into the school three hours later, "and all my friends were dead."

Uruzgan is certainly a place that could confound an army. The province was a Taliban hotbed that sent hundreds of young men to fight for the regime. Mohammed Younis, the warlord in charge of the military compound raided by the U.S., was friendly with senior Taliban leaders; his son had close ties to Taliban Health Minister Mohammed Abbas Akhund, one of the movement's founders. A Kandahar official told TIME that Akhund and a few other Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding in the mountains outside Uruzgan. While it is possible that U.S. troops simply went to the wrong place in search of those leaders, locals suspect that American commanders were duped by warlords--including, perhaps, Younis, who survived the U.S. attack--trying to eliminate rivals. "I blame Afghans," says Ahmed Wali Karzai, the interim leader's brother. "It was an Afghan mistake."

Others are less generous toward the U.S., in part because of the brutality of the attack at the Sharzam school. One witness of the aftermath said the Americans shot Afghans as they hid under beds and rushed out of doorways. The Pentagon maintains that the Afghans started shooting first, but villagers say they heard no gunfire from inside the school. Two dead Afghans were found with their wrists bound. One U.S. soldier left behind a note: "Have a nice day. From Damage Inc." Days after the attack, the classrooms at the school were still soaked in thick blood. Surveying the carnage, a Uruzgan elder said, "The U.S. must be punished for what they did in this room." Even mistakes aren't easily forgotten.

--With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington