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Accidental Killing of 12-Year-Old Afghan Girl Highlights Major Challenge for U.S. Military

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PAKISTAN BIN LADEN

This post has been updated.

Twelve-year-old Nelofar was shot dead early Thursday morning outside her family's home in Eastern Afghanistan because NATO troops mistakenly believed that her uncle was a Taliban leader. She was running, apparently in fear of the military troops that had just invaded her father's house in the middle of a sweltering summer night.

NATO quickly apologized for its mistake. But it's just one of many such errors by U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan that have led to the deaths of civilians. As documented in a report released earlier this week, similar mistakes are also leading to the imprisonment of many innocent Afghans.

The tragedy on Thursday happened because NATO forces mistakenly believed that the young girl's uncle, a 25-year-old police officer with a wife and two daughters, was a Taliban leader. It's not clear on what they based their information.

It's exactly the sort of mistake I heard about over and over when I was in Afghanistan a few months ago, interviewing people who'd been imprisoned there by the U.S. military. As I describe in a report released by Human Rights First earlier this week, Afghans are sometimes imprisoned by the U.S. military for years based on false information provided to U.S. and NATO troops by secret informants. Often, those informants have a grudge against another villager or rival tribe member that has nothing to do with the Taliban or other insurgents. Yet the victim of the false tip never learns where it came from, so he doesn't have a fair chance to respond to it.

A recent report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network raised similar concerns that bad intelligence is leading U.S. forces to target the wrong people.

As that report notes, General David Petraeus has acknowledged the intelligence problem:
"We have never had the granular understanding of local circumstances in Afghanistan that we achieved over time in Iraq," he told reporters last September. "One of the key elements in our ability to be fairly agile in our activities in Iraq during the surge was a pretty good understanding of who the power brokers were in local areas, how the systems were supposed to work, how they really worked, which tribe was which."

The U.S. apparently does not have that in Afghanistan. Army Major General Michael Flynn, the senior military intelligence officer in Afghanistan said in a report last year: "our intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade." As a result, he and his co-authors wrote: "many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain 'ground truth.'"

Obviously, bad intelligence has major consequences for all aspects of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. But it's the civilians, like Nelofar and her uncle -- the same people Flynn notes that "we are trying to protect and persuade" -- who often pay the highest price.

Those who aren't killed as a result may lose years of their lives in U.S. custody. Major General Douglas Stone, who overhauled detention operations in Iraq, after an investigation in 2009 declared that most of the Bagram prisoners should be released. Since then, the number of prisoners has almost tripled, reaching 1,700 in March.

Those released within the last year that I spoke with often described a harrowing ordeal of being arrested based on secret evidence they were never allowed to see, then ignored as they begged their captors for months to tell them why they were being imprisoned by the U.S. military. M.T., for example, a 51-year-old Afghan engineer I spoke with, was working with the Afghan government when he was arrested in June 2009.

"They accused me that I have links with the Taliban," he said. He said he explained to U.S. forces at the time that he suspected false information had been given to them by someone with whom he had a land dispute in his village. Nevertheless, M.T. was imprisoned at the U.S.-run Bagram Air Base for the next year. It wasn't until family members were finally allowed to attend a hearing he was given at the detention center that they explained the land dispute and provided related documentation, and he was released.

"In all the interrogations I was telling them one thing," M.T. told me. "They never had proof against me. When they finally asked my family, my family confirmed the things I was saying."

The problem for Afghans imprisoned by the U.S. military is compounded by the fact that even though they're given hearings every six months at the U.S. prison, they're not allowed to see much of the evidence against them and they have no legal representation. The most they can usually do is proclaim their innocence, and see if eventually a family member or village elder will allowed to testify on their behalf. Because of the logistical difficulties of having Afghans visit the U.S. military base, however, that usually doesn't happen until many months or even years after a prisoner's arrest.

Of course, for civilians like the young girl killed and her uncle accidentally killed outside their home near Jalalabad yesterday, by the time the error is identified, it's too late. "They killed my 12-year-old innocent daughter and my brother-in-law and then told me, 'We are sorry,' " the girl's father told a New York Times reporter. "What does it mean? What pain can be cured by this word 'sorry'?"

M.T., the former detainee I spoke to, was also frustrated. "People say Americans are very clever people, they can go to space. But why are they being deceived by these stupid intelligence reports?"

Update: Over the weekend, another night raid in eastern Afghanistan by NATO forces led to the accidental shooting of a fourth-grade boy, the son of an Afghan National Army officer. The shooting set off violent protests in the boy's village. Local police shot at the crowd, killing another boy, this one 14 years old.

NATO once again apologized for the mistake.