LALAZHA, Afghanistan — The man they knew in this hardscrabble village as Tall Man Khan never had much in his life but his height, and even that was only about 5-feet-11.
Then, early this month, he was killed in an American attack on what the Pentagon described as a group of people suspected of being leaders of Al Qaeda.
American government officials said one of the people in the group was tall and was being treated with deference by those around him. That gave rise to speculation that the attack might have been directed at Osama bin Laden, who is 6-feet-4.
Since the attack on Feb. 4, Pentagon officials have said they are conducting a review to determine whether Mr. Khan, and two men killed with him, were in fact members of Al Qaeda.
But in this village on a stony plain near the southeastern city of Khost, the idea is dismissed with bitter mockery by the dead men's family, neighbors and local militiamen, who say the victims were poor villagers with no history or interest in militant Islamic politics.
The American attack took the form of a Hellfire missile fired from a pilotless Predator drone operated by the C.I.A. It left bereaved wives and children, in an incident that may turn out to be a parable of what can happen when human error creeps into the use of remotely fired weaponry.
It is also a warning, many Afghans say, that errant bombing and missile strikes by the United States may squander the overwhelming appreciation that America earned among 20 million Afghans when it forced the Taliban and its ally, Al Qaeda, from power.
In Washington, government officials have moved from an early confidence that the victims were members of Al Qaeda to a more cautious position emphasizing that there is no certainty about who they were.
"Someone has said that these people were not what the people managing the Predator believed them to be," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week. "We'll just have to find out. There's not much more anyone could add, except there's one version and there's the other version."
But a visit this week to the site of the missile strike, and to nearby villages, established that the men killed were Daraz Khan, the tall man, about 31, from the village of Lalazha, and two others, Jehangir Khan, about 28, and Mir Ahmed, about 30, from the village of Patalan.
They had walked 10 miles up into the snowy mountains one week earlier to collect scrap metal. The day promised only modest reward, not much more than 40 or 50 cents each for a camel's load of twisted steel, but enough to make a difference for three families living on the edge of subsistence.
At about 3 p.m., as the three men were standing on a bluff above the Zhawara caves, the site of an old Muslim guerrilla camp at an altitude of 10,000 feet that was intensively bombed by American aircraft last month, the missile struck without warning from a clear sky.
A Pentagon official said at the time that the team monitoring the images relayed back by the drone, one of the C.I.A.'s latest high-technology weapons, spotted a tall man and thought he might be a top leader of Al Qaeda.
On Feb. 11, a week after the attack, the Pentagon's top military spokesman, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, said at a news conference that the drone had picked up "a meeting on a hillside," and that "the initial indications afterwards would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming."
Victoria Clarke, a civilian spokesman for the Pentagon, added, "We're convinced that it was an appropriate target," although "we do not know yet exactly who it was."
Admiral Stufflebeem said an American military "exploitation team" of about 50 men had spent several days at the site collecting evidence through last weekend, including tissue and bone fragments for DNA testing to identify the victims, apparently by comparing the samples with DNA taken from relatives of Mr. bin Laden, and possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. bin Laden's deputy.
But on a trip into the mountains, just about every Afghan encountered along the way — goatherders, brushwood collectors, militiamen and farmers — readily identified the three victims, and their villages. From the graves of the three men, beside the dusty track that runs between their villages, there is a clear view on a sunny day across the plain to the American military base at Khost, 10 miles away. There, units of the Special Forces and the 101st Airborne Division are posted in support of the hunt for Mr. bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Relatives of the victims said they had not been visited by the Americans, or by any Afghan officials working with the Americans, and expressed astonishment when they were told the strike had been launched because of a suspicion that one of the three was an Al Qaeda leader, possibly Mr. bin Laden or Mr. Zawahiri.
Shawol Khan, Daraz Khan's older brother, emerged from the mud- walled compound where the two brothers lived, along with Daraz Khan's two wives, and said, "Surely, it was a big mistake of the Americans. They should know that there are no Al Qaeda here. We are very poor people, and we know nothing of politics."
From within the compound, a shrieking, wailing sound arose as the women and teenage girls in the family, living in the seclusion that is common for the women in tribal Afghanistan, learned that Americans were outside.
A niece of Daraz Khan, aged about 16, shouted through a gap in the metal gate: "Why did you do this? Why did you Americans kill Daraz? We have nothing, nothing, and you have taken from us our Daraz. Tell the Americans to come here and help us. We are poor people. We did nothing to deserve this."
The sequence that led to the attack began in December, when American military commanders shifted the focus of the search for Al Qaeda leaders to the mountains around Khost from the caves in the Tora Bora region near Jalalabad. The Tora Bora bombing ended without any evidence that any senior Al Qaeda leaders had been killed.
With the mountain passes leading from Tora Bora into Pakistan blocked by snow and by Pakistani mountain troops, the Pentagon concluded that one option for Al Qaeda members who had survived Tora Bora — and for Mr. bin Laden, if he was still alive — would be to move 70 miles down the mountain chain into the heartland of the Taliban's most powerful military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company