Case in point: Malak Saqzai (left) was mistakenly detained by Australian soldiers for four days. Photo: Kate Geraghty
More than half of thousands of Afghans detained by Australian forces in Oruzgan are innocents who have been dobbed in by enemies seeking an advantage in tribal, business or personal disputes, according to Oruzgan's provincial chief of police, Matiullah Khan.
Asked about guesstimates by tribal elders that half or more of those detained by international forces were innocent, 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 the foreigners - 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 shooting fights.
By the reckoning of the elders at Chora, north of Tarin Kowt, the Australians trained an army of local spies who, according to the black-turbaned Malak Amir Jan, "make the right reports and the wrong reports, because of local disputes."
Haji Mohammad Qasim is chief among most loyal supporters of the Australian mission in Tarin Kowt, but even he issues a rebuke. "Of course there are people here who set up the Australians to target their enemies," he says. "And 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 an internet 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, is that the remaining 1615 - close to 90 per cent - were deemed not to be ''suspected insurgents'' and were released.
In responding to Fairfax Media's written questions, the ADF did not supply information on the charges laid against detainees or the outcome of any hearings on such charges.
Other questions which 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 being acted upon by the Australian military?
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 'til the Americans, especially, leave all their forward bases."
Wearing a fine, white embroidered shalwar-kameez, a former provincial police chief Juma Gul Heimat unloads anger that has been burning for more than a decade.
"A lot of innocent people were jailed as Talibs because of disputes between the tribes," he says. "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, a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 gunship, attacked a wedding celebration at Dihrawud, in the south-west of the province.
At the time, the Americans said they had been advised that insurgents were in the area and that they had come under fire - locals insisted there was 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 he wedding] when Malawi Mohammad Anwar's home was bombed and 25 people died. He was [Hamid] 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 hit man and the mistaken belief by foreign forces that talking to others locally corroborates the information as first received.
"But others of the same tribe are essentially the same source," says a non-Australian analyst. "In the world of the tribes there is no such thing as an individual - you have to know who people are related to and where they belong, because that explains the nature of any information they're offering. You only ever scratched the surface - it all depends on the source's ethnic background and who might be paying him [to talk to you]."
A human rights researcher said 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 makes the same point - "too often the Afghan translators tell them what they think the foreigners want to hear''.
"[The Australians] have always struggled to get control of what was happening on the ground - they think they are relying on multiple intelligence sources, but talking to a whole bunch of guys from the same tribe is a single source because they give the tribal line."