Amid growing calls for US Special Operations Forces to take the lead in Afghanistan after the successful strike against Osama bin Laden, a new report has warned that systemic failures in gathering military intelligence are leading to civilian casualties during raids.
The study focuses on an air strike called in last September by US Special Forces which local villagers, the Afghan government and Western researchers believe killed 10 civilians, including the agent of a parliamentary candidate. But Nato says it hit a Taliban commander in the attack.
"Afghans, including senior government officials, have been incredulous that anyone might have thought Zabet Amanullah [the parliamentary candidate's agent] and the others were anything but civilians, while [Nato] and the US Special Forces unit that conducted the operation [are] adamant they hit the correct target," the report, called The Takhar Attack, says.
The crucial failure, according to author Kate Clark, was the military's inability to cross-reference its signals intelligence with human intelligence – which, in this case, could have been gleaned by nothing more complicated than watching election coverage on national television or talking to locals.
Instead, the Special Forces believed a mobile phone their Taliban target had once called was now in his possession and that he was using the alias "Zabet Amanullah". Ms Clark said: "Yet Zabet Amanullah was not an alias; it was the name of an actual person. When the two men's identities were mixed up, it was Zabet Amanullah who appeared in the crosshairs of the US military."
Having met Mr Amanullah, who was known as the "ant" because he was so short, in 2008, Ms Clark said it was "implausible" a man living openly in Kabul, where he studied English and computing and had a stake in a pharmacy, had a double life as a battlefield commander. At the time intelligence gatherers believed their man was running operations in northern Afghanistan, passport stamps put Mr Amanullah in India, where he was receiving medical treatment.
When the Special Forces unit continued to insist in the face of mounting evidence that it had bombed the right man, Ms Clark tracked down the Taliban commander they claimed to have hit. "He is alive and well and has been interviewed in Pakistan," she wrote.
The case study points to the worrying lack of scepticism Nato brings to investigations of civilian casualties and its frequent detachment from its immediate surroundings. Previous intelligence chiefs have slammed the organisation's intelligence-gathering operations and US General David Petraeus has spoken about the lack of "granular understanding of local circumstances".
In March, The Independent revealed that a US-sponsored warlord is accused of raping, torturing and killing villagers who were not part of his interest group. Despite being notified over a year ago by UN officials of the numerous complaints pouring in about Commander Azizullah, Nato has yet to investigate the claims.
In a separate investigation by this newspaper, the former commander of a secret CIA-backed strike force said his men might have killed civilians based on faulty tips. "If the jungle catches fire, even the green trees burn," Atal Afghanzai, of the Kandahar Strike Force, said. "It may have been that we killed civilians but that was not our fault. It was the source who got it wrong." In 2009, he was convicted of murder.
Ms Clark worries that after the successful raid on Bin Laden, US Special Forces and the CIA will have far more licence to carry out targeted killings.
Wave of violence expected in Afghanistan
Nato and the Afghan government say they are bracing for a wave of al-Qa'ida-inspired attacks, in what analysts and diplomats say is an attempt to deflect criticism for security failings as the annual fighting season begins.
Following a 30-hour gun battle at the weekend in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, President Hamid Karzai tried to shift blame away from his government and security forces by blaming al-Qa'ida, even though the Taliban was responsible. "They're trying to be clever to pin this Kandahar thing on al-Qa'ida because otherwise it's really embarrassing," one Western diplomat said.
"It shows the Afghan National Security Forces can't handle it."