The daring assault that killed Osama bin Laden last week has been seen by many as a vindication of the tactic of "targeted killing," which Gen. David Petraeus has utilized at an unprecedented level in Afghanistan.
U.S. military sources say the tactic has turned back the Taliban's momentum. But critics say it can be counterproductive — especially when mistakes are made.
American officials say they carry out dozens of operations against insurgent targets in Afghanistan every night, most often arresting their target with no shots fired. But Afghan politicians regularly complain that these night raids enrage the population, and sometimes get the wrong man.
The raids are almost always in remote, unsafe areas, making facts hard to pin down. But Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, recently researched one case, which she says raises serious questions.
"They'd had a tip-off about a man who was the shadow deputy governor of Takhar — the deputy governor for the Taliban for that province," she says. "And by following his phone calls, they discovered a number in Kabul."
And that's where Clark's research and the American version of the story diverge. Both agree that months later, on Sept. 2 of last year, U.S. missiles destroyed a car in a long convoy, killing 10 people. But U.S. officials say they killed the Taliban deputy governor, Muhammad Amin, who was using an alias, Zabet Amanullah. Clark says that they are two different men and that the Americans killed the wrong one.
"This man was living a completely open life and yet the American special forces really do believe he is an insurgent commander," Clark says.
The governor of Takhar told NPR that Zabet Amanullah was not an insurgent. He was a well-known fighter 25 years ago against the Soviet occupation. He had been active during the Taliban government and kept in contact with some current Taliban fighters. But when he was killed last fall, Zabet Amanullah was working on his nephew's campaign for parliament.
"When Zabet Amanullah went up to the north to campaign in the parliament elections last year, they thought it was the Taliban shadow governor. So they mixed up these two men's identities, and they killed the wrong man," Clark says.
Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a NATO spokesman, says that's not true.
"On Sept. 2, coalition forces did kill the targeted individual, Muhammad Amin, also known as Zabet Amanullah," Dorrian says. "In this operation, multiple forces of intelligence confirm that coalition forces targeted the correct person. This individual was tracked for nearly six months."
But Clark says the military was tracking the wrong man for six months. As for the Taliban commander, Muhammad Amin — he's still alive, according to Michael Semple, a leading Western authority on the Taliban and currently a fellow at Harvard University. Semple says he contacted and interviewed the Taliban commander, alive and well in Pakistan, two months ago.
"He basically matches all the personal details that the Americans had on him — he carries ID in the name of Muhammad Amin," Semple says. "He is a known person."
Dorrian says that's impossible, because after the killing, intelligence confirmed the Taliban commander's death.
"There have been mistakes on some occasions in the past, and when we make mistakes, we admit them," Dorrian says. "But this was not one of those instances."
But it's common knowledge that Muhammad Amin and Zabet Amanullah are two very different men, according to Clark, and any local official in Takhar could have confirmed it.
"If your understanding of Afghanistan — it's a complex place — is just made up of signals intelligence, and you don't even have the most basic human intelligence, there is absolutely the opportunity for things to go catastrophically wrong," Clark says.
The U.S. military says it has iron-clad proof it did get the right man, but it cannot be made public without jeopardizing sensitive intelligence methods. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.