HERAT, Afghanistan- Afghans who lost family members in a U.S. bombardment last week say Taliban militants fled hours before the U.S. attack -- an account that contrasts with Pentagon claims about an incident that has come to encapsulate an uphill battle for Afghan hearts and minds.
Haji Sayed Barakat, who lost two children and his wife of 35 years in the May 4 attack, said Taliban militants were present in the area but had moved on two hours before the U.S. air strikes.
In a voice more confused than angry, the Afghan farmer gestured toward his three remaining daughters, now recovering in the sterile quarters of Herat hospital's new burn ward.
"My girls, do they look like Taliban?" he asked.
Afghan officials say 140 people, including 95 children, died in the operation in the country's western Farah province. The figures, if confirmed, would amount to the largest number of civilians killed in a single incident since U.S. forces helped oust a Taliban government in 2001.
The deaths sent public anger reverberating through the Kabul government at an especially fragile moment in the war, with a summer showdown with the resurgent Taliban looming.
In Farah city, a stone-throwing mob shouted, "Death to America," before they were scattered by police gunfire this week. President Hamid Karzai and Afghan lawmakers have repeatedly called for an end to U.S. air strikes.
"How can you expect a people who keep losing their children to remain friendly?" Mr. Karzai said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He called civilian casualties the "biggest concern of Afghanistan and a damage to the effort against terrorists."
Two days later, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates replaced Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, with former Green Beret Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to bring "fresh thinking" to the counterinsurgency strategy.
According to U.N. figures, 2,118 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence last year, a jump of nearly 40 percent over 2007. Of that toll, pro-government forces were held responsible for 828 deaths, largely from errant air strikes and special operations raids.
Mr. Barakat said his wife and children had left their family home to visit his mother-in-law in Gerani, one of three villages that were bombed in Farah province's Bala Boluk district on the night of May 4. He insisted that no Taliban militants were present when the U.S. explosives struck.
A U.S. military spokesman disputed the claim, saying the air strikes were called in after an Afghan national army soldier was injured in an engagement with the militants.
"The entire operation was in response to the Taliban attack. It was never an offensive engagement. The fight was in reaction," said Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo.
U.S. military officials said the Taliban corralled residents into compounds on the front lines of a running battle with Afghan forces.
The officials conceded that a number of people were killed, but initially said the Taliban caused the deaths by exploding grenades among villagers and drawing an air strike to exploit anger in the aftermath. Later, U.S. officials said the Taliban forced villagers to pick up weapons and shoot first at police, then at arriving Afghan army reinforcements.
When the fighting continued, the governor of Farah province called in the U.S. military for support, said Lt. Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for Gen. McKiernan.
After press reports that white phosphorus may have been used in the clash, U.S. military spokesmen said the militants had used the highly flammable substance against the villagers.
In a follow-up report, the military added that it knew of 44 cases in which Afghan militants may have used the chemical, most recently in an attack May 7 on a NATO outpost in Logar province.
The Taliban has rejected the accusations.
Mohammad Aref Jalali, head doctor at the Herat hospital burn ward, said that recent statements attributed to him about the suspected use of the chemical had exaggerated the evidence.
"When asked if [white phosphorus] was used, I said it was possible, but that the burns also could have been from any number of flammable substances, like gas that caught fire," he said.
"Now that some time has passed," he added, "I don't believe this was the case because there is no smell. The smell would not be gone."
This sort of controversy is painfully familiar to Afghans. In August, Afghan and U.N. officials said that up to 90 civilians perished in a U.S. led operation in the town of Azizabad, in Herat province.
The U.S. military initially disputed the findings, saying the only fatalities were Taliban who were terrorizing the area. But after a high-level investigation, anti-U.S. protests and heavy pressure from Mr. Karzai, the military revised the civilian death toll upward to 33.
Gen. McKiernan subsequently issued a directive that commanders in the field err on the side of caution when fighting near populated areas. Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette said more stringent protocols are being enforced down the chain of command when determining whether an air strike is in order.
Nevertheless, he said, it's certain that insurgents will continue to use human shields and hide among the population. "We have to find ways of getting them without jeopardizing the security of the Afghan people - and this will mean taking more time," he said.
Analysts say that U.S. forces also need a better public relations strategy that highlights coalition successes while publicizing Taliban wrongdoing in a manner that's quick, effective and as close to the truth as possible.
A coalition press release Tuesday described a counterattack mounted by Afghan forces with U.S. support after a supply convoy was ambushed in Herat province. Air support was called, according the report, but "no bombs were dropped due to the large number of civilians being held by militants within the village."
On Wednesday, another detailed press release condemned a wave of Taliban suicide attacks in the eastern city of Khost that killed 13 civilians and injured 36.
"These attacks again demonstrate the insurgents' complete disregard for the people of Afghanistan whom they claim to represent. These senseless acts reflect how dishonorable the insurgents are; no one can honestly say they are fighting for the people, then purposefully attack innocents," Gen. Blanchette said.
Such messages are part of a tactical effort to regain public trust and challenge the Taliban narrative, said Nader Nadery, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). He cited a "huge improvement" in the speed and coherence of coalition media reports when compared with last year.
An independent team from the AIHRC is in Bala Boluk to assess last week's incident.
Mr. Nadery noted that his organization's investigation after the Azizabad air strike confirmed the original death toll given by the Afghan government and U.N. Initial inquiries into the Bala Boluk air strike indicated there was a two-hour delay between when fighting ceased at 6 p.m. and the bombing raids, which commenced around 8 p.m., he said. If confirmed, this would corroborate the account of Mr. Barakat and other locals.
While U.S. acknowledgment of civilian deaths is a promising step, Mr. Nadery said, the U.S. must back it up with adequate compensation to victims' families. In the case of the Azizabad attack, this amounted to $2,000 per fatality.
Hostile engagements increase during the summer, and the Taliban will have more opportunities to exploit civilian deaths.
For Sayed Malham, a part-time Farah resident who works as a truck driver in Iran, the Taliban "is the real problem." Bands of militants have grown bolder around his village in recent years, demanding money and making threats that compelled him to find work abroad.
Told that his two sons were killed in the attack, he traveled to Herat to be with his surviving daughter, Nozou, 9, as she suffered from third-degree burns.
"If they didn't bother us, there would be no bombs, no deaths," he said. "My daughter would still be outside."