Tribal leader Malak Saqzai from Mirabad was mistakenly arrested with his sons and 40 local men by Australian forces. Photo: Kate Geraghty
More than half the almost 1900 Afghans detained by Australian forces in Oruzgan may have been innocents falsely accused by local enemies , according to the province's chief of police, Matiullah Khan.
They were named so their enemies could gain advantages in tribal, business or personal disputes.
Asked about the numbers first put forward by tribal elders, Matiullah told Fairfax Media: ''That is right - I agree with that figure.''
At meetings in several district centres and in Tarin Kowt, elders, businessmen and other community figures complained about the gullibility of Australians and Americans in accepting concocted stories that often led to the detention of the wrong people and in some cases, unjustified bombing raids or firefights.
By the reckoning of elders at Chora, north of Tarin Kowt, the Australians trained an army of local spies who, according to one man, ''make the right reports and the wrong reports, because of local disputes''.
Haji Mohammad Qasim is chief among the most loyal supporters of the Australian mission, but even he issues a rebuke. ''Of course, there are people here who set up the Australians to target their enemies,'' he says. ''We have people who could tell them the truth before they act on bad information - all they needed to do was to check with the police and others.''
When Fairfax Media put detailed questions on detainees to the Australian Defence Force, its response was to provide a web link to a parliamentary paper from early last month in which Defence Minister Stephen Smith says that of 1867 ''suspected insurgents'' detained since August 2010, 154 had been transferred to Afghan authorities and 98 to US authorities.
Unstated, but implied, was that the remaining 1615 were deemed not to be ''suspected insurgents'' and were released.
In response to questions from Fairfax Media, the ADF did not supply information on the charges laid against detainees or the outcome of any hearings.
Other questions that went unanswered sought information on the reasons for detentions; whether on or off the battlefield; how many were based on tips by other Afghans; and how were such tips verified before the Australian military acted.
In a further statement, the ADF said only that suspects were detained ''for a number of reasons'', adding: ''An individual will be detained in order to remove suspected insurgents from the battlefield to protect ADF, International Security Assistance Force and Afghan security forces personnel and to promote security and stability.''
Without directly addressing the issue of bogus tips, it said that information from the community was assessed against other information sources - ''and may or may not result in detention''.
Matiullah Khan explains: ''We've had lots of discussions with the foreigners on the need to be careful with local disputes and people misusing them. The arrests are decreasing, but it'll not stop till the Americans, especially, leave all their forward bases.''
Former provincial police chief Juma Gul Heimat is less sanguine.
''A lot of innocent people were jailed as Talibs because of disputes between the tribes,'' he says with anger. ''People from one tribe go to the coalition and make unfounded accusations - then those people get jailed and their homes raided.''
He reaches back to 2002 and the death of almost 50 people when US aircraft attacked a wedding celebration at Dihrawud.
At the time, the Americans said they had been advised insurgents were in the area. Locals insisted there were no Taliban and that the Americans had misread harmless celebratory shooting at the wedding.
''What the people remember is wedding parties and other gatherings being bombed and people dying, being sent to jail or fleeing the area,'' Juma Gul says.
''I was there [at the wedding] when Malawi Mohammad Anwar's home was bombed and 25 people died. He was Karzai's No.1 supporter. We collected the body parts of his whole family, who were killed.''
Military analysts cite the Dihrawud wedding bombing as a classic in the tribes' use of foreign forces as hitmen in a tribal dispute, and the mistaken belief by foreign forces that talking to others locally corroborates the information.
A human rights researcher told Fairfax Media that Afghans who work for the Americans had told him ''they have to say something bad about all Afghans - or they lose credibility with their bosses''.
An observer of the Australian operation in Tarin Kowt made the same point - ''too often the Afghan translators tell them what they think the foreigners want to hear''.