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."