A new report Wednesday by a Kabul-based think tank accuses international forces of misleading the public by calling military operations "Afghan-led" even in cases where NATO or U.S. forces are the only troops on the ground.
The charge cuts to the heart of a public perception battle being waged in Afghanistan, where international troops are eager to showcase successes by Afghan forces and to downplay the role played by international soldiers as NATO draws down forces and hands over security to Afghan control.
The United States and other nations that make up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have already started pulling out troops with the goal of putting Afghans in charge of countrywide security by the end of 2014. The alliance wants to show that Afghans are up to the task so that the country does not descend into civil strife after 10 years of a NATO-led war against Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
"ISAF's desire to present accounts of events as favorably as possible is to be expected, but sometimes this slips into propaganda, half-truths and, occasionally, cover up," said British analyst Kate Clark, the author of the report by the Kabul-based think tank Afghan Analysts Network.
As the drawdown of foreign forces progresses, the international troops are expected to transition more and more into the role of supporting Afghan forces, rather than leading them.
A draft strategic partnership pact agreed by the U.S. and Afghanistan earlier this week said after 2014, U.S. forces will only fight in Afghanistan with the government's approval.
In the transition, one phrase -- "Afghan-led" -- has become increasingly prevalent in NATO and U.S. news releases describing operations.
The report charges alleges that the term has been so loosely applied that it has, in at least once instance, been used for an assault conducted entirely by U.S. troops.
The report entitled "Death of an Uruzgan Journalist" focuses on the case of Afghan reporter Omaid Khpulwak, who was caught in a TV and radio broadcasting station known as the RTA building in July 2011 when it was attacked by insurgent suicide bombers as part of a larger attack on the southern city of Tarin Kot.
Khpulwak survived the initial blast but was shot by an American soldier who mistook him for an insurgent, according to a U.S. military investigation report made public by Australia's "The Age" newspaper in January after a Freedom of Information Act request. The investigation also concluded that U.S. troops were the only ones to enter the building and that Afghan forces on the ground did not issue commands to those forces.
But a NATO news release a day after the attack said: "Afghan commandos and a combined team of Afghan national security forces responded unilaterally to insurgent attacks in Tarin Kot."
Clark argues in her report that the messaging put out by the Afghan government and NATO and U.S. forces following the attacks in Uruzgan obfuscated the role of U.S. troops, leading Khpulwak's family and others in Tarin Kot to suspect an intentional cover-up.
A spokesman for U.S. forces said it was still appropriate to call the Uruzgan response "Afghan-led" because Afghan forces were overseeing the entire response that day, which included defending against attackers at the governor's compound and elsewhere in the city.
"The personnel that were at the RTA building were part of an Afghan-led response to the entire attack in Tarin Kot," said Col. Gary Kolb. He said that any operation for which the command element is Afghan would be considered Afghan-led.
"Afghan-led is Afghan-led if we're only providing a level of minimal support and they're the ones making the decisions to do a particular response," Kolb said.
But confusion appears to result from what qualifies as "minimal support." In the case of Tarin Kot, U.S. forces made the decisions on the ground at the RTA building, entered the building and oversaw the operation to find the bombers hiding inside, according to the U.S. military investigation.
It's a linguistic detail that will become increasingly important over the next few years as officials in the U.S. and other NATO countries will have to decide how quickly to remove troops from areas that have been handed over to Afghan control and how many to pull out.
The phrasing created confusion as recently as this month's coordinated attacks on Kabul and three other eastern cities. Kabul city was one of the first areas to transition to Afghan control and NATO commander Gen. John Allen praised Afghan forces for fighting off the insurgents without having to call on international troops.
Of course, that was not the entire picture. The Afghan Crisis Response Unit -- the quick reaction police force that led much of the response in the capital -- has Norwegian and British special forces soldiers embedded in units. When a Greek and Turkish base came under fire, the NATO forces stationed there fired back, rather than waiting for Afghan forces to mount a defense, according to an AP reporter at the site at the time. And NATO air power was called in to finish off a standoff at two buildings and end the attack, Kolb said.
NATO and Afghan officials say Afghan forces have made great progress toward acting on their own and the response in the Kabul attacks shows that improvement.
"The Afghans did the majority of the operations," Kolb said. "They were the ones doing the lead in the clearing operations, the ones scaling the building."
And Afghan forces are taking charge of many more operations than they were a year ago.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said that including conventional operations, about 60 percent are now Afghan-led. Gen. Dawlat Waziri said that this means Afghans are deciding when and where to strike, but that coalition forces help with air power or ground forces if needed.
"In all the provinces that we have transitioned to Afghan control, we are in the lead," Waziri said. "We have the commanders, we have the units, we are making the plans."
Afghan special operations forces conduct about 5 percent of their operations completely unilaterally, meaning that Afghans conduct them without international intelligence, advice, airpower or other support, said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, another U.S. forces spokesman. And he noted that joint Afghan-U.S. special operations have been overseen by the Afghan government for months.
"Since December, all U.S. counterterrorism and special forces missions have been Afghan-led," said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, another U.S. forces spokesman. He did not provide details on exactly what made them so.