RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

American and Afghan officials will probably never agree on the exact details of what happened in a remote village in Afghanistan earlier this month. As many as 140 civilians were killed. Many Afghans blame those deaths on U.S. airstrikes. The U.S. says some were killed by the Taliban.

But one thing there's almost no question about: what would've happened if U.S. warplanes had not joined the daylong battle with Taliban fighters. Without the jets, the nearby capital of Farah province might now be in the hands of the Taliban. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to that remote and violent province to investigate what could prove to be the largest incident of U.S.-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: At this dusty checkpoint in the village of Bagh-e-pol, a handful of Afghan policemen with old Kalashnikovs are all that stands between Taliban territory and nearby Farah city.

Mr. ABDUL AZIZ (Sentry, Farah city): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: One of the sentries is Abdul Aziz. He says Taliban gunmen in SUVs often drive by here late at night and shoot at the policemen. They, in turn, fire back from their mud hut.

Such firefights are a constant reminder of the Taliban threat to Farah, the remote capital of a sprawling province by the same name. Usually, the skirmishes between Taliban fighters and the police don't amount to much — that is until 15 days ago when, a short drive north of the city, local police officers backed by Afghan soldiers, U.S. military trainers and Special Forces came under heavy attack. They were outnumbered by militants, who fired mortars and other heavy weapons from rooftops in two villages.

U.S. Navy Commander Benjamin Nicholson heads the American base in Farah city.

Commander BENJAMIN NICHOLSON (U.S. Navy): The insurgents were employing very accurate and effective machine-gun fire, talking to the personnel that were there. It wasn't like, you know, sporadic shooting. It was pinning them down.

NELSON: The fierce battle ended that night with airstrikes on a village called Garani. The Afghans here say the bombs collapsed a dozen homes inside mud-walled compounds, and damaged the local mosque.

Most of the Taliban fighters got away, but Afghan officials say at least two dozen were killed. So were three Afghan police officers. Several more were wounded, as were two members of the U.S. Special Forces.

The villagers in Garani fared much worse. The Afghan government concluded 140 were killed, most of them children. It says more than two dozen were injured. The U.S. military, which is still investigating the incident, insists the number of casualties is less than half that.

What caused the casualties is also under debate. Survivors and many Afghan officials say it was the airstrikes carried out by American F-18s, and a B-1 bomber called in from outside Afghanistan. But the U.S. military says Taliban fighters lobbing grenades killed and wounded villagers.

What everyone seems to agree on is that hundreds of Taliban fighters had massed around Garani in the week leading up to the deadly clash. Part of the influx is linked to the growing presence of American troops elsewhere in Afghanistan. Again, Navy Commander Nicholson.

Commander NICHOLSON: What's happened over time, however, is, as you know, fighting in the east continues to push insurgents to the south, and now we have more forces in the south. And that's continuing to push insurgents to the west, and so now we're having more and more difficulties out here.

NELSON: The problems are especially noticeable around Garani, which is located in a major poppy-growing district. There are so many militants and criminals in the district, that straddles the road linking Farah city to the country's main highway, that residents are effectively cut off from the rest of Afghanistan. Few dare to travel by bus or car anymore, with those who can afford it taking twice-weekly commercial flights on aging, Soviet-era planes. And except for the International Red Cross, no independent investigators have been able to get to Garani to see what happened.

Abdul Ghafar Watandar is the provincial police chief.

Mr. ABDUL GHAFAR WATANDAR (Provincial police chief): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says foreign militants and Afghan Taliban are flowing into districts surrounding Farah city from their hideouts across the southern border with Pakistan. Their commanders — including a cleric who was the governor of neighboring Nimrooz province when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan — recently formed a shadow government here in Farah.

Watandar says these new Taliban officials are handing out money and weapons to the impoverished and illiterate majority, with the aim of further destabilizing the province.

Unlike previous Taliban cells, this new army of militants seems eager to take on not only the local police, but also the far better trained and equipped Afghan and NATO troops. And Watandar says there aren't enough of those in Farah province, making air support a crucial part of major fights.

Mr. WATANDAR: (Through Translator) If the American air strikes hadn't happened that day, there might've been a lot more deaths. The Taliban had secured themselves good positions on the rooftops and streets of the village, and they wouldn't have left.

NELSON: Governor Roohul Amin says the threat the militants around Garani posed to the provincial capital cannot be ignored.

Governor ROOHUL AMIN (Farah Province): Actually, they had planned to control first the highway, and then attack on the city. And it was really important to defeat them and to stop them, to not come further to the city.

NELSON: But some Afghan officials, and most survivors interviewed say the fighting had slowed, if not stopped, at least a half-hour before the Americans dropped the bombs on the night of May 4th.

(Soundbite of children in burn center)

NELSON: In a burn center in the western city of Herat, five female villagers are recovering from serious burns to their faces and limbs they and their families say were caused by those bombs.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: All but one of the patients are children, including Fereshte, who is 5 years old.

She struggles to get comfortable inside her thick bandages while French nurse Marie-Jose Brunel tries to comfort her.

The girl's 13-year-old brother, Naeem, watches nearby. He and Fereshte lost their mother. Their other two sisters, ages 7 and 12, were also badly burned.

The teen says he and other villagers heard a drone fly overhead. He says everyone scattered. Naeem says 15 minutes later, another plane came and dropped the bomb that destroyed the compound his mother and sisters were hiding in.

Mr. NAEEM (13-year-old survivor of bombings): (Through Translator) The Taliban had already left. They just passed through and went to the river behind our village.

NELSON: Back in Farah Province a few days later, members of a senior Afghan delegation from Kabul count out money they are giving to family members of the 140 victims. Each gets the equivalent of $2,000, a small fortune by Afghan standards. But payment does little to ease the anger survivors are feeling toward the Americans - like Mohedin, a 55-year-old farmer who, like most Afghans, has no last name.

Mr. MOHEDIN (Farmer, Bombing Survivor): (Through Translator) The Americans can see something as small as a cell phone from far away. So how can they, with their sophisticated equipment, not distinguish between women and children and Taliban fighters?

NELSON: Provincial council member Belqis Roshan says incidents like Garani only benefit the Taliban by driving a wedge between Afghans and their government, and its Western allies.

Ms. BELGIS ROSHAN (Provincial Council Member): (Through Translator) I can tell you for sure that most of the people in Farah are against the Taliban, even the head mullah here.

NELSON: But Roshan says these days, it doesn't matter to people whether militants, or the government and foreign forces, are winning anymore. She says all Farah residents see is their lives being destroyed.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Farah Province, Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: And this morning we're getting reports that President Hamid Karzai is en route to the province to get a first-hand look at Garani village, bombed in those air strikes last week. We have a photo gallery of some of the people affected by the fighting in Farah. You can get to see the pictures by going to our Web site at npr.org.

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