The attack on Qalaye Niazi was as sudden and devastating as the Pentagon intended. American special forces on the ground confirmed the target and three bombers, a B-52 and two B-1Bs, did the rest, zapping Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in their sleep as well as an ammunition dump.
The war on terrorism came no cleaner and Commander Matthew Klee, a spokesman at the US central command in Tampa, Florida, had reassuring news: "Follow-on reporting indicates that there was no collateral damage."
Residents in Qalaye Niazi, 84 miles south of Kabul, clean up debris December 31, 2001 after an air raid by U.S. warplanes on December 29. (Reuters TV)
Some of the things his follow-on reporters missed: bloodied children's shoes and skirts, bloodied school books, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, butter toffees in red wrappers, wedding decorations.
The charred meat sticking to rubble in black lumps could have been Osama bin Laden's henchmen but survivors said it was the remains of farmers, their wives and children, and wedding guests.
They said more than 100 civilians died at this village in eastern Afghanistan.
Survivors lacked the bewilderment common to those who have been bombed, because they had an explanation: a tribal rival had manipulated the Americans into attacking Qalaye Niazi to further his political ambitions in Paktia province.
The Pentagon said it had indications that senior Taliban and al-Qaida officials were at the site and that two surface-to-air missiles were fired at the aircraft during the December 29 raid. The bombs set off secondary explosions consistent with stockpiled ammunition.
The Pentagon has produced no evidence that missiles were fired at the planes but there was a stockpile. From the ruins of two houses yesterday spilled boxes of Russian, Chinese and Iranian rockets.
Diehard Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are said to still rove Paktia and its neighboring provinces of Paktika and Khost, where a US soldier was killed at the weekend. Qalaye Niazi's role seemed clear to Commander Klee: "You have a known al-Qaida-Taliban leadership compound."
But survivors say they stored the ammunition six weeks ago on the orders of retreating Taliban troops. When the regime fell they notified authorities but no one came to collect the ammunition. "We left it. What else were we supposed to do with it?" said Taj Mohammad, the village elder.
It was stored in two unfinished houses in a five-house complex six miles north of the collection of mud-brick compounds which passes for Qalaye Niazi's center. The complex housed 10 families who grew wheat, apples and grapes, said Mr Mohammad.
About two dozen guests had crammed into the three occupied houses for a wedding, raising the number of occupants to more than 100, said the elder. The bombers came early in the morning.
Precision-guided bombs vaporized all five buildings and a second wave an hour later hit people digging in the rubble and, judging from hair and flesh on the edge of three 40ft holes some distance from the complex, those trying to flee.
Two days later villagers with shovels and tractors extracted the remains. A hand, an ankle, a bit of skull, sometimes an entire torso, and buried some in 11 graves, each said to contain several people, and relatives from Khost took some for burial in the mountains.
Yesterday there were just human scraps and the carcasses of sheep, dogs and a cow, circled overhead by two crows.
One villager said 32 died. The United Nations said 52, including 10 women and 25 children. Mr Mohammad said at least 80. Other villagers said 92. Staff at the hospital in Gardez said 107.
Innumeracy, rapid burial, damage to bodies, propaganda, remoteness, they all conspire to shred certainty in this and other bombings. It is no one's job to count the dead.
The UN said its envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, will discuss Qalaye Niazi with US diplomats. The Pentagon has shifted slightly from its initial certitude and promised to investigate a raid which Donald Anderson, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, denounced as a massive failure of intelligence.
That civilians were present there can be little doubt. Taliban and al-Qaida too? Survivors swear not. Yet there is little venom for the US. "They were given bad information by bad Afghans," said Hinzer Gul, echoing neighbors.
Haji Saifullah, head of Paktia's shura, or tribal council, said: "Our local enemies are delivering this information to the Americans that Taliban or al-Qaida people are here and Americans just bomb without any search."
The finger was collectively pointed at Aghi Badshah Khan Zadran, 58, an anti-Taliban commander who controls Khost province and is lobbying the interim government to add Paktia and Paktika provinces to his fief.
Some tribal elders said he threatened to call in US planes against them if they did not back him and that Qalaye Niazi was a warning. Mr Zadran, also known as Pacha Khan Zadran, was also accused of wiping out rivals by triggering the US blitz of a convoy of elders on December 20, which killed up to 65 people.
Mr Zadran's officials were spotted with US special forces who relied on him because of his impeccable anti-Taliban credentials, said aides of his rival, Mr Saifullah.
By his own account Mr Zadran is the most powerful commander in south-east Afghanistan. He hails the bombing as accurate and necessary to purge terrorists but says he has no idea where the Americans get their intelligence. He hotly rejects the accusations of manipulating air strikes.
The allegations have rattled the prime minister, Hamid Karzai, who last week summoned Mr Zardan to Kabul to discuss Qalaye Niazi. But supporters were confident Mr Zadran would return home this week with his fief expanded to include Paktia and Paktika.
"These allegations against him are nonsense. He is a democrat and pro-west. The government will confirm his appointment by Tuesday or Wednesday," said Amanullah Zadran, the minister for frontier and tribal affairs, and Mr Zadran's younger brother.
Tribal politics tend to confuse even Afghans and one US official in Kabul admitted it was impenetrable to outsiders, no matter how well briefed. "So sure, mistakes happen."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002